Disney dramas in the Pacific

Published on Thu, 10/11/16 | Film in the Pacific

One of the first people to see the upcoming Disney movie Moana will probably be me.   Featuring a Pacific female lead, Moana, tells the story of a sea voyage by a young girl in search of a fabled island.

I am one of those uncool people that watches animated feature films regularly and without shame. I tell my highbrow friends that after a day researching not-so-cheery topics like natural disasters, violent conflict and child abuse, these films help me relax my brain. But actually this excuse is probably just a cover, these films actually are great stories, more sophisticated and difficult to realise than most people appreciate. The layers of story in an animated feature film is in fact exercising my brain on many levels.

Disney films have long been criticised for their monocultural approach, or their misappropriation of other cultures, through films such as Aladdin and Pocahontas. Moana, even prior to its release, has attracted criticisms about cultural sensitivity – over its cast, depictions of people (such as body shape), representation of spirits and myths, and most notoriously its products (a costume with skin tattoos was withdrawn after protest).

These debates reflect the fact that Polynesian writers, academics and artists are very vocal around identity and misrepresentation – one of the most strident criticisms of academic research comes from the region, Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s book “Decolonising Methodologies” and the work of one of the region’s renknowned fiction writers, Albert Wendt from Samoa, has strong themes of resistance to neo-colonialism and many forms of exploitation.

I can understand the criticisms of Moana but then there are also elements of this movie that are signs of greater respect and participation of Iocal people than has previously been the case. The cast includes islanders in the lead roles (albeit with easy to digest Americianised accents), islanders have been involved in the music (through the contributions of Igelese Ete and Opetaia Foa’i) and in the writing (Maori writer Taika David Waititi wrote the original script, probably the first Pacific Islander to work on a major animated film script). All of this should be celebrated as signs of progress from the days where non-Western stories were merely viewed as quaint “folktales” that could be taken by multinationals such as Disney and interpreted purely through their own American lenses.

However, as film is a visual medium, it makes me sad that Pacific artists and film-makers seem to have been left out of other areas of the artistic process. For instance, the kakamora[1], small extremely strong hairy human-like beings said to have lived in Makira, Solomon Islands, is depicted in the Moana movie trailer as a sort of cross between voodoo dolls made with coconuts and anime creatures. It would have been far more interesting for Pacific artists, such as those from Makira, to visually depict the kakamora and then have these animated, to share local perceptions of this wonderful creature with the world.

Much will be made of Moana being a role model for young women, as a strong female lead and it is indeed good to see a “Disney princess” in such an active and adventurous role. However, it is a shame that Hollywood’s obsession with lead characters and stories driven by individuals has been transplanted into a Pacific context through Moana. Pacific Islander societies are typically marked by a high degree of communal activity and a web of relationships through family, extended families and village settings. The great Polynesian voyages which the film draws on as a reference, were typically communal endeavours, not individuals setting out alone as in the case of Moana.

So, by making the voyage a journey of an individual rather than a group, the film misses an opportunity to represent the source of much drama in the Pacific – the web of loyalties, interpersonal politics, unspoken jealousies and conspiracies, affection and obligation in relations between people on small islands. Want drama? Don’t put one Islander on a boat, put 10 and watch the next political drama/soap opera unfold – intrigue, politics and humour is guaranteed!

However, a film about 10 Islanders on a boat could never be made in Hollywood and its not the creatives’ fault. It’s the way the film industry works and that leads me to perhaps the biggest flaw in Moana and its makers: it is not the small things like the characters or music, or even the script itself. It is this: there is no right of reply.

What I mean is that while Moana draws on Pacific culture for inspiration, Pacific Islanders are extremely unlikely to be able to make an animated feature film released on the world stage about their culture and stories. Actually the Polynesians may manage it. They at least have access to film schools in New Zealand and the United States- many Polynesian countries are still dependent on New Zealand, while other such as Tonga have carved out strong links with the US and have large Islander communities which have settled in Auckland and Honolulu. Islanders can access film funding through these old colonial links and residence in developed countries. But the Melanesians (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands) are regularly exploited for their stories and regularly excluded from film-making opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from Solomon Islands, where the province of Makira is home to the fantastical kakamora. As a mingling point between the three subregions of the Pacific with communities of Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian peoples, Solomon Islands enjoys incredible cultural diversity, including a diversity of languages, stories, artistic traditions and music.

Foreign documentary film crews regularly visit to film all this, and regularly leave without having hired any Islanders to be involved in the story or film-making process. I know this first hand as I work as a film producer, specialising in Islander-directed stories, and I can’t tell you the number of times when I’ve been on the phone to a television network to argue for local people to be involved in the production process as assistant script writers, second cameramen or to provide music on international productions for example. The person on the other line will inevitably be falsely sympathetic and then tell me they “just need a stringer for now”. The marginalisation of Islanders from storytelling about their own cultures through film is maddening. At least if Moana is anything to go by, Disney is more open to collaboration with locals than the average international television network.

Which brings me back to Moana and the genre of animated feature films. The land of the kakamora, and the Solomon Islands in general, is blessed with self-taught and talented writers, film-makers, artists and musicians. But their chances of making an animated feature film are abysmal – there is no film or creative writing course available locally, no scholarships for film schools in other countries available to Solomon Islanders, and the few short training and festival opportunities that do exist are regularly taken up by civil servants and their mates rather than the real talents, because so many regional organisations insist on funnelling information and invitations through government. Other international organisations simply overlook the Pacific – despite development levels in many Pacific countries being on par to African countries, there is no regional film funding available to Pacific Islanders, unlike many laudable opportunities for creative African talent.

Even though I know Solomon films will compete with films from other countries which enjoy government funding, its unlikely the playing field will be level in my lifetime. Solomon Islands is highly aid dependent, a least developed country and reportedly in the bottom third of most corrupt countries in the world. Many locals comment that corruption is getting worse rather than better and the challenges to living and working in the arts sector are not likely to ease any time soon.

But Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks and Illumination MacGuff I actually have hope in making a positive contribution to supporting Islander story making. Ok, right now they are making steps to including local talent in their film productions about other cultures. It seems logical other steps can be taken to even the balance between the animation companies and local storytellers.

What about for the next film, having a scriptwriting competition for a short film from a developing country that would be released with the feature? What about bringing local artists and painters into the film production process to give more opportunity for visual representation of different cultures in animated feature films? What about a portion of profits from the mega-hits like Frozen going into a film fund for Indigenous peoples to make their own animated films and television shows? What about sponsoring collaborations between indigenous tribes to make films that would connect to indigenous youth from different parts of the world? What about scholarships and start-up funds for indigenous people to learn the technicalities of animation so more local people could start their own productions?

And yes, just in case you were wondering, the Pacific does consume animated feature films, particularly of course children and families. Having a backpack with “Frozen” characters on it is the fashion du jour for female school students in towns in Solomon Islands and “Ben 10” and “Spiderman” are popular for boys. It will be interesting to see if Moana becomes the new must-have schoolbag in 2017.

As for me, I will enjoy Moana as a chance to see some representations of the Pacific in my beloved genre of animated feature film. And I will be delighted one day if the film industry recognises what Islander film-makers are up against and provides the kind of opportunities and funding they need to set their stories to sail around the globe.

[1] For more about the kakamora see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9655.12442/full

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