The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 557-559
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O Tamaiti (The children)
O Tamaiti (The children), 15 minutes, 35 mm, black and white, 1996. Writer and director, Sima Urale; producer, Kara Paewai; distributor, New Zealand Film Commission, PO Box 11546, Wellington, New Zealand. Fax: (644) 384-9719.
Velvet Dreams, 46 minutes, VHS (NTSC and PAL), color, 1997. Director, Sima Urale; producers, Vincent Burke, Clifton May; distributor, Top Shelf Productions, PO Box 9101, Wellington, New Zealand. Fax (644) 801-6920, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. PAL, NZ$39.95, and NTSC, NZ$65.
Exciting new writer and director Sima Urale's debut film O Tamaiti (The children), winner of the Best Short Film award at both the Venice Film Festival and the New Zealand Film Awards in 1996, is a visually and aurally packed 15-minute slice-of-life film about a migrant Samoan family living in New Zealand from the perspective of its children. The film focuses on the burden of responsibility shouldered by the eldest of the five children, eleven-year-old Tino, who becomes a surrogate parent in the absence of his working parents. The arrival of yet another new baby brings Tino's childish bearing of adult responsibilities into sharper focus.
From the opening shot it becomes clear that Urale's skills lie in conveying each scene of the story experientially, a skill often demanded by the condensed genre of the short film. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. Only the adults are heard briefly speaking, reinforcing (and in the process critiquing) the axiom that children should be seen and not heard. Ironically, the film's overall silence gives voice to an often-silent majority in society--children. It is their story that Urale is most interested in exploring. The dominance of the lowered camera positions and angles, the extreme close-ups (rendering common objects as interesting and alienating as they must be for a child or a migrant family newly encountering the seductions of the west), and the visual decapitation of speaking adults prioritize the worldview of the children and serve to reinforce viewer identification with them. At the same time such filming techniques create an atmosphere of disorientation and claustrophobia. Additionally, extreme high-angled shots used when children confront adults reinforce the children's powerlessness and their subservience in a Samoan world that is characteristically authoritarian. This is an example of how Urale's filmic technique reinforces certain givens in the Samoan culture. As in many Pacific Island cultures, eye-to-eye contact with one's elders can often be construed as a sign of rebellion. But there is no rebellion here. Tino is, as his name implies, a "good" child, unquestioning and obedient to his parents and a model Samoan child. Indeed, Urale leaves little doubt that this is a Samoan world, for Samoan is the only language spoken (accompanied by English subtitles) and Palagi (Europeans) only exist in the camera's peripheral vision. However, this is by no means a culture-specific [End Page 557] situation. When it premiered at a Hawaiian Film Festival in 1996, the issue of acceptable child-rearing practices was an emotive and controversial topic, even without the additional question of cultural practices. Conversations I had with audience members revealed that Samoans were just one of many cultures identifying with O Tamaiti. This film is a must-see, not only for its excellent ability to tell a dramatic and inevitably tragic story (interspersed with child humor) in a snapshot, or for its social worth, but for its creative, often surreal, filmic execution.
Much as Urale's decision to film O Tamaiti in black and white served to challenge stereotypes of colorful and humorous Pacific Islanders, her direction in another film, Velvet Dreams, does the opposite. In contrast to the carefully controlled color, image, and dialogue in O Tamaiti, Velvet Dreams is unabashed in its splashes of eclectic color and sound. Having premiered at the 1998 Auckland International Film Festival, Velvet Dreams is a cleverly ironic docudrama. Its faceless narrator (reminiscent of a Bogart-like detective...