“Vai amplifies Pacifika filmmaking with its slate of 9 directors, all of them indigenous women.”
Title: Vai (2019)
Producers: Kerry Warkia 👩🏽🇵🇬🇳🇿 and Kiel McNaughton 👨🏽🇳🇿
Directors: Becs Arahanga 👩🏽🇳🇿, Amberley Jo Aumua 👩🏽🇳🇿, Matasila Freshwater 👩🏽🇳🇿, Dianna Fuemana 👩🏽🇳🇿, Miria George 👩🏽🇳🇿, Ofa Guttenbeil 👩🏽🇹🇴, Marina Alofagia McCartney 👩🏽🇳🇿, Nicole Whippy 👩🏽🇫🇯🇳🇿, and Sharon Whippy 👩🏽🇫🇯🇳🇿
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I dove right into Vai, sans primer, and promptly wished I’d done some background reading first. The high-concept project, which opened Berlinale’s NATIVe section last Friday, strings together eight beautifully shot vignettes directed by a total of nine different Pacific Island women. This comes as the sequel to Waru (2017), an earlier work from New Zealanders Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton which followed a similar medley structure.
I didn’t know any of this going into the film, however. With fresh eyes and an embarrassing dearth of prior knowledge about the South Pacific, I found myself wasting energy on trying to understand what I was seeing. Each of the shorts follow a woman whose name sounds like an offshoot of “Vai”, which means “water” in Maori, but I was tripped up by its slight variations. Sevai, Vai Mo'ui, and Vaelusa—were these same woman? Or were we watching different storylines from people who had similar names? If she’s the same woman, why does she live on so many different islands?
Hopefully, you're cleverer than I and have done your homework before watching. So you’ll know that Vai is, in spirit, the same woman across all vignettes. Her character serves as a canvas upon which directors project what it means to be an indigenous South Pacific woman. Eight personal takes on Vai allow audiences see the inextricable links within this community across the South Pacific, whether Tongan, Fiji, Samoan, and so forth.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Vai champions women in nearly every way possible. For starters, producer Warkia, who was born in Papua New Guinea, has been lauded by press as a rising New Zealand talent with a passion for telling womens’ stories. For example, in producing Waru with her husband McNaughton, the couple also hired nine indigenous women to direct its short films.
This female-centricity translates onscreen through the symbolic character of Vai. Not only does she (and her eight actors) command the camera for nearly all of its 85-minute running time, her world contains a dazzling array of female relationships. Mothers, grandmothers, friends, or fellow villagers help expand her character, through mini-plots such as an antagonistic teacher who doesn’t understand Vai’s responsibility to her village back in Samoa, or the chance encounter of a caring mentor who promises to teach young Vai to sing.
Men exist as fathers, brothers, and friends but overall, heritage in Vai passes down matrilineally, sometimes literally through wearable tokens bestowed by nanas to their granddaughters. The traditions and teachings hand off in cyclical fashion, from Vai, to Vai, to Vai.
This film amplifies Pacifika filmmaking by limiting its search to applicants with indigenous ties to South Pacific countries. As a result, its writers and directors hail from Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Aotearoa, Samoa, Cook Islands, and Niue. Through their collaboration, these women have made something truly special that belongs to them in full. Becs Arahanga, who directed the Aotearoa thread, calls Vai "a platform for a lot of our Pacific Island sisters to tell their stories."
It works completely. Authenticity beams from every tactile frame of Vai, and while the technical storytelling can feel porous at times, its cultural pride reads loud and clear.
Bonus for Age: +0.75
Vai takes place across a lifetime, and that includes past the age of 30 when women start to drop off Hollywood screens (in contrast to men who peak at 46, according to a study from 2015). Three of the eight shorts follow Vai past age 40, providing a welcome depiction of older protagonists who see full complexity, vulnerability, and strength of character.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.83/5
Vai reads like a love sonnet to Pacifika culture. Its emotional highs and lows can at times feel undercut by vague motivations, whether from my own lack of understanding, or through a lapse in exposition by the filmmakers. At times I wasn’t sure why Vai was crying, or scared, or why her mother would leave her behind, and this confusion left a residue of disconnect.
That said, given a second viewing I’d let go of linearity altogether and submerge myself in the moving lullaby Warkia and McNaughton have composed from diverse yet harmonious voices. Nothing is so beautiful as what artists will distill from their own life experiences, and it’s a privilege to witness the fruits of their labor.