SXSW Review: Vai


Vai is a portmanteau film telling the stories of eight different women named Vai. Residing in seven different Pacific countries, their name means ‘water’, and they all have an innate connection to the sea, which accounts for their free spirits. There is a German word, Sonder, for the way in which you realize that someone passing you by in the street has the same rich, complex, diverse life that you do — I got the impression watching Vai that the filmmakers set out to achieve this extraordinary effect through their snapshot narratives, no longer than 10 minutes each.

Directors: Becs Arahanga, Amberley Jo Aumua, Matasila Freshwater, Dianna Fuemana, Miria George, Ofa Guttenbeil, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy.

Release date: Friday 8 March 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
Rating: G

I found Vai to be an insightful look at the different Polynesian islands through the women that inhabit them. They were each unique, and the fascinating thing about this collection was that it was curated by no less than nine different female filmmakers: Nicole Whippy and Sharon Whippy (Fiji), Ofa Ki Levuka Guttenbeil Likiliki (Tonga), Matasila Freshwater (Solomon Islands), Amberley Jo Aumua (New Zealand/Samoa), MÄ«ria George (Kuki Airani/Cook Islands), Marina Alofagia McCartney (Samoa), Dianna Fuemana (Niue), and Becs Arahanga (Aotearoa). The process behind making the films went a little something like this: each of the women were given a period of time to create a film of their own choosing, with certain criteria: each indigenous female character had to be named Vai; Vai has a shared history throughout stories, there had to be a theme of female empowerment through culture, and water had to be used as a visual metaphor.

While I enjoyed the spread of narratives, I found it somewhat difficult to review. The sense of unity was loosely present, but I think the risk that any tableau collection of films runs is that it can lose a central focus. Of course, there were important ideals of female empowerment and the characters that were presented were put forward in such a way that they became universal — however, I would have liked to have seen them each have a more in-depth section devoted to their stories because each underrepresented voice is worth being vocalised.

The first short narrative opens with young Vai preparing to leave for a new school. The purpose of this segment is to paint a beautiful, touching portrait of family life. The grandma is afraid that Vai, who does not want to move away to school, will forget her. ‘My child, my namesake,’ says the grandmother every time she sees Vai. Their roots go deep, and it’s important for young Vai to understand where she comes from — for as the grandmother wisely says, ‘she will know herself’. There is a combination of languages: the multi-linguism creates a sense of fragmented identity, hoping to create a sense of the roots that are so important to her development. This was one segment that evoked the most innocence and freedom of childhood. 

Part two tells the story of a different, 13-year-old Vai, living on another Polynesian island. Her job is to collect water and transport it back to her family, doing a round trip of the local village to cater for her family and occasionally, begging neighbours. However, Vai has dreams of going to New Zealand and singing on TV – although she plays it down when her brother admits it to an English-speaking neighbour, the neighbour is kindly and generous enough to encourage her to sing her favourite song in Tongan. I initially found the transition between this section and the first difficult to comprehend, because the change happened so quickly, but by the third or fourth transition, things become clearer.

The third Vai is Vaelusa, 16 years old, from the Solomon Islands; fourth Vai is 21 years old, attending college in New Zealand but balancing her family commitments back in Samoa with her work and studies. As we progress through each narrative, each Vai becomes older. So it goes as we come to the fifth Vai, a 30-year-old woman living in Kuki Airani, we seem to go on a journey through time, too. From the start, the regional language immerses us in her world, as she is all but fully submerged in water and surrounded in her mind by words, conversations. This was my favourite, the most intriguing, the most original, and the most gripping of the narratives. Vai, a free spirit like the water, is dressed resplendently: against the wishes of her family, her neighbours, she valiantly rides her motorcycle out of their village, dressed as a warrior princess with a wreath as a crown. We’re kept guessing about what she’s so determined to do until she arrives upon a group of protestors, natives like her. Across the road are white settlers, determined to continue with purse seining — that is, fishing unsustainably. In the full force of her anger, already seen seething beneath the surface, she confronts the leader — and her fate is to be imagined.

It’s impossible to go into a lot of detail about each film given that each was unique and they often moved by so fast that it was hard to take in all at once. However, leaving this film to stew over a few days and coming back to thinking about each character, I find that there are distinct characteristics that stand out for each one, which means that they’ve been memorable. 64-year-old Vai from Niue, in particular, has sat with me. Her story showed a culture steeped in tradition, and I recognised traits of my own family in the characters. Vai is the grandmother of Moana, a young woman about to set off for New Zealand. The parting is bittersweet, and there is a deep connection between her and her grandmother — it’s clear to see that Vai has raised her and will always spiritually be with her.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Vai, but felt a little shortchanged when narratives were so short. In order to truly get a sense of each culture, a whole film would have to be dedicated to each one. Yet I commend the filmmakers for their work under the time constraints and with beautiful costume design, a naturalistic setting and themes of family, belonging and tradition that resonated with me personally.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.