- Sinalela dir. by Dan Taulapapa McMullin
Sinalela, created by the Samoan visual artist, filmmaker, and poet Dan Taulapapa McMullin, is a fa‘afafine retelling of Cinderella. It won the Best Short Film award at the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival in 2002. Fa‘afafine (in the manner of a woman) is an identity defined relationally in Samoa. Comparable to the māhū of Hawai‘i, fa‘afafine are often erroneously glossed as transgender or gay.
There is a long tradition of palagis writing Islanders into their stories on print, stage, and screen, a long history of palagis making spectacle of Pacific bodies, gender, and sexuality. This is especially true for Samoa, with which the name Mead has become synonymous for non-Islanders and Islanders alike. Much of McMullin’s work plays with and resists representations of Samoan culture, gender, and sexuality, including fa‘afafine identity, in missionary, [End Page 144] colonial, and anthropological texts and in popular culture. As a case in point, a year before Sinalela was made, Heather Croall’s documentary Paradise Bent: Boys Will Be Girls in Samoa was released; it reached large audiences and influenced professional and lay audiences’ (including Islanders ourselves) views and understanding of fa‘afafine, gender, and sexuality in Samoa.
“My name is Sinalela and this is my movie.” Sinalela begins, crucially then, with this declaration of self-naming and narrative authorship. A film about fa‘afafine by a fa‘afafine, Sinalela speaks back to (throws shade on) the writers, scholars, and filmmakers who have presumed to tell t/his story. In his vision for a decolonial Oceania, Albert Wendt decries the ability of “mundane fact” and “detached/objective analysis” by the “uncommitted” to describe Oceania; indeed, “only the imagination in free flight can hope—if not to contain her—to grasp some of her shape, plumage, and pain” (“Toward a New Oceania,” 1976). Sinalela reveals narratives like Paradise Bent as not just uncommitted but dangerous in the absence of stories of fa‘afafine by themselves. Sinalela asserts fa‘afafine identity, complexity, and survival against narratives that mis-translate, misrepresent, and erase Indigenous sexuality and gender.
Although the fa‘afafine voices in Paradise Bent are many and diverse, Croall’s voice-over and authoritative theorizing about fa‘afafine by anthropologists Jeanette Mageo and Tom Pollard frame the narrative. Further, Mageo problematically elides the differences between fa‘afafine and transgender and casts doubt on fa‘afafine existence before European contact. In addition, the documentary genre lends Croall’s film the air of truth. McMullin’s choice of the imaginary, the fairy-tale fagogo (Samoan folk storytelling), allows his film to represent one narrative among many with multiple genealogies and possibilities for interpretation.
McMullin’s Sinalela grounds fa‘afafine identity in Samoan Indigeneity. The film’s narrative voice-over recalls Samoa’s fagogo tradition in its inclusion of Indigenous folktales, the supernatural, and chant and dance. Sinalela participates in a tradition of indigenizing European narratives, which McMullin also queers, and refers to multiple texts besides the European folktale: Sina and the eel, genealogical stories of Sina/Hina, and several iterations and variations of a narrative poem of this name/story by McMullin. The film refers playfully to itself, subverting linear time (in one scene a film still of Sina’s triumphant ending sits on the office desk of her stepsister Graham).
This is a film homemade in Samoa, featuring the filmmaker’s community and friends and the Samoan landscape. Sinalela is filmed with a hand-held camera and begins following the bracts of a stem of heliconia on a backdrop of fala (mat). The heliconia is a flower pollinated by bats in Samoa, an atua (god) that features prominently in McMullin’s work, and the fala refers to women’s creative work. Cinematographically, McMullin’s choices feature a Samoa [End Page 145] familiar to Samoans, disavowing the touristic. “Sinalela” stretches across the entirety of the opening frame, making yet another claim to filmic authorship and autobiography alongside its oral declaration; further, while Sina is a character in the film, the autobiographical voice-over suggests that Sina is both in front of and...