“The sea is what binds us”
‘Vai’ means ‘water’ in many of the languages spoken in the Pacific Islands. Just as water connects these islands, it also connects the 8 vignettes that form Vai, a feature-length series of short films directed by 9 female Pacific Islanders.
Although filmed individually, the shorts form a cohesive whole that tells the story of one woman, Vai, at various stages of her life. She is re-imagined in each vignette and portrayed by a different actress each time. At age 13, she is a Tongan girl named Vai Mo’ui; at age 42, she is a Samoan woman named Sevai, and so on. Each film explores a different culture and landscape, but what unites them all is Vai’s relationship with water, which changes through time as she becomes older and more enlightened. As 7-year-old Sevaia, she revels in rainfall, dancing joyfully around her garden despite her mother’s protestations. As 30-year-old Vai, she talks about the sanctity of the sea before attending a protest against a form of fishing known as purse seining. The themes vary from one vignette to another, but the common thread that joins them is an attachment to family and origins.
The fluid camerawork binds the stories together like the ocean binds the islands. They flow into one another, unified by their shared cinematography while still maintaining their individuality. The most natural and authentic of the vignettes are those with little plot. The story of Vaelusa, for example, takes place entirely on the water as she fishes for hermit crabs. The camera bobs around next to her, unobtrusively capturing the emotional conversation she has with her estranged mother. The story of Vaisea, on the other hand, appears a lot more staged in comparison. A university student living in New Zealand, she dashes from class to lunch with friends, and then to a meeting with her lecturer which escalates quickly when she confronts Vaisea about her poor attendance and performance. It’s a relatively chaotic segment and the acting is forced and unconvincing, which makes it stick out like a sore thumb among the more naturalistic shorts. Nevertheless, it sheds light on an important issue, as Vaisea expresses how difficult it is trying to make a life for herself while also supporting her family back in Samoa.
Vai is both a deeply personal love letter to the Pacific Islands and a call to preserve them. At SXSW this year, director Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki highlighted the film’s focus on love, activism, and cultural empowerment in terms of caring for the islands’ natural beauty and keeping their traditions alive. The affection that all 9 filmmakers have for their roots is palpable, which makes Vai utterly empowering and uplifting to watch.
by Holly Weaver
Holly Weaver is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. She is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.