Testament of the Flying Fox
I've just watched The New Oceania, Shirley Horrocks' documentary about the career and influence of the Samoan novelist and poet Albert Wendt. Like her earlier movie about Allen Curnow, Horrocks' protrait of Wendt is low-key and warm, a testament to her ability to win her subject's affection. The New Oceania follows Wendt from his childhood in an Edenic Samoa to an unhappy adolesence in a provinical New Zealand boarding school, through a career that has seen him writing and teaching in Apia, Suva, Auckland, and most recently Hawaii.
If I have a criticism of the film it concerns Horrocks' apparent failure to press Wendt on some tricky subjects - we learn only a little about the man's atheism, which must have been hugely controversial in such a religious society as Samoa, and we learn nothing about the details of the disaffection with postcolonial politics that apparently led him to leave first Samoa and then - after Sitiveni Rabuka's 1987 coup - Fiji. It is strange that a man who has been so important to the establishment of a postcolonial Pacific literature should appear so reticent about the course of postcolonial Pacific politics.
No one could accuse Wendt of being reticent about the colonial occupation that Samoa had to suffer for forty-seven years at the hands of New Zealand. His large oeuvre includes many withering passages which point up the incompetence and ignorance of that occupation, and the racist way that Samoans who have ventured to God's own country itself have been treated. Some of the most powerful parts of The New Oceania come when Wendt recounts the treatment he received as a lonely young man in cold and unfriendly Taranaki. 'There was one teacher who called me Black Sambo, but he didn't really mean it in an offensive way' he says with massive restraint. A powerful clip from the half-forgotten film adaption of Wendt's first novel, Sons for the Return Home, reminds us of the dawn raids that the Muldoon government subjected Samoan immigrants to in the 1970s.
Horrocks' film also includes several clips from Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, a 1990 adaption of Wendt's novel about the son of a Samoan noble who rebels against both his own traditional society and the capitalism and Christianity that colonists have brought to Samoa. Wendt's anti-hero forms a gang, burns down a church, and turns his hand to poetry, making himself into a sort of Samoan Rimbaud.
In the last issue of brief I published a long interview that Martin Rumsby did with Martyn Sanderson, the man who directed Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, and with Sanderson's partner Wanjiku Kiarie. Since brief is an offline journal I thought I'd reproduce Martyn's and Kiarie's recollections of the film here.
MR: I noticed a mention of FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE in John O'Shea's memoir. Was it a difficult project to get off the ground?
Sanderson: Yes. I had suggested it to John (O'Shea) who replied that it was time Samoans started making their own films. About 1978, for the first time, I consciously thought, I wanted to find a story to make a feature film of and started deliberately reading around, rather than hoping for some intuitive flash of personal inspiration. The story that struck me enormously was FLYING FOX. One element that really struck was the last will and testament of Tangata, the Flying Fox. It seemed an extraordinary piece of gallows humour. It had the qualities that I identified with in the Theatre of the Absurd, a Zen Buddhist meeting of humour and tragedy and Existentialism.
MR: Unusual contexts for a New Zealand film.
Sanderson: Absolutely extraordinary. And the dialogue, a Samoan patois in English as a vivid use of English in new ways. It was also highly condensed. A novella, about thirty pages long. Unlike an expansive novel, converting it into a movie didn't involve trimming out all the literary decoration. It was bare bones and very visual ... I started working on a proposal to film it which I put to the New Zealand Film Commission pretty early on. My timing was awful because it was just when Paul Maunder was filming SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME (1979) and the Commission had no idea whether that film was going to work or not so they were not going to commit themselves to another Samoan story by Albert Wendt. But I kept working on it, doing a radio adaptation which was broadcast. Then Aileen O'Sullivan and Lani Tupu did a drama workshop in Samoa (around 1981). I gave them the radio adaptation of FLYING FOX as a text to work with. It was translated into Samoan and used as part of that workshop ... Several years later, around 1987 or 1988, I finally wrote a complete feature script which I submitted to the Film Commission. They turned it down. Then I got in touch with (the film producer) Graham McLean, who had worked in Samoa, and he concocted a budget then twisted the arm of the Film Commission. It took eleven years.
MR: It is a universal theme, a young man's search for self, set in late Twentieth Century Polynesia.
Sanderson: It was quite consciously Existentialist on Albert Wendt's part. At the time he wrote FLYING FOX he was quite influenced by Camus. It is very much about the clash between progress and traditional Samoan values. It is complex because this upstart rebel who is saying, "I am my God" is also attempting to uphold ancient Samoan values against his father whose God has become the God of money. The other element that appealed to me, and that I felt licensed me to do it, in a sense, was the influence of cinema on Samoan culture.
MR: The film FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE was awarded Best Screenplay at the Tokyo International Film Festival. What was involved in adapting Albert Wendt's novel into a screenplay?
Sanderson: I think that the unique thing about this particular story was that there was a mythological depth to it which I was able to fill in because Albert had incorporated the FLYING FOX novella into a longer book called LEAVES OF THE BANYAN TREE. So there was a background and sequel to the characters which I was able to weave in. Apart from that the adaptation is pretty much all the technical business of storytelling ... the high points and shaping scenes for climaxes and so on.
MR: You try to finish each scene off on a high point?
Sanderson: You try to keep driving it ahead ... Because the literary model was so condensed it was a lot easier to adapt than most novels would be.
MR: It is unusual, in a medium that we normally see in terms of Hollywood action spectacles to see an entirely different cultural reality represented on film. Was it difficult to bridge the cultural divide between Palangi (European) New Zealand and Samoa?
Sanderson: I think Albert said that living in Samoa is a bit like Shakespearian times. There is a feeling that life and death are fairly close. They are not shrouded in all kinds of disguises. We had a diplomatic interaction with the locals. It was a matter of being aware of your own ignorance and the depth of feeling that could be aroused (by misunderstandings) and finding local people who understood where we were coming from and were sympathetic to Albert and the process.
MR: Was there a lot of pride that the film was made there?
Sanderson: Quite ambiguous. There had been unhappiness about SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME (1979). Because of the sex scenes. Albert has great mana but he is the only Samoan in history who doesn't go to church. They weren't sure whether to be proud of it ... We shot some scenes in the High School and it looks pretty obvious that it needs a bit of paint. They were a bit offended that we should show that. They want to show their best face to the world. They weren't quite sure what the film was going to say about Samoa.
MR: Clint Eastwood once said that actors directing themselves in their own movies tend to under utilize themselves. Given your electrifying performance as Commissioner Towers in FLYING FOX, could a case have been made to expand his role in the film, making him a more prominent character?
Sanderson: No. If we had a bigger budget I would have probably brought over another actor from New Zealand ... I have played one or two racists. People who don't have a strong political sense will try to soften the racist. I have a pretty clear image, not based on real life, or any particular person, of the kind of petty colonial mind that this man would have had. It is a small part.
MR: You have often appeared in films as a distinctive character actor, a rather mean spirited New Zealander. I think of you as Len Demler in BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT, the cinema manager in William Keddell's THE MAINTENANCE OF SILENCE (1985) and Commissioner Towers in FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE. How do such characters come about?
Sanderson: It is a sort of composite of people I've resented.
MR: How does an actor create a character?
Sanderson: There is a classic answer which I heard from a Chinese teacher at a workshop in London. The teacher said, "You western actors think that you get into character. No. No. No. Empty yourself and let the character get into you." There are times when I think some actors feel that they are possessed. I don't have any worries about that. I am not suggesting that happens ... There is a trend in individual, psychology based training now which ignores one of the sources of creating a character which is drawing on all the examples you have seen, on stage or screen. Not to say, "Now I am going to do a Lawrence Olivier or a Tony Hopkins." You have seen a representation of certain kinds of characters and what you will create will owe as much to those representations as to real life experience.
MR: What does an actor expect from a director?
Sanderson: I assumed, before I ever worked on screen, that the role of the director would be to have an overview so that he knew how each scene fitted and what the pace would be and how big or small to make your performance.
MR: What does a director expect from an actor?
Sanderson: Understanding of the part. Obviously all the technical things like maintaining your eye line. Someone who will listen and make adjustments.
MR: Some years later you acted in a play TUSITALA staged in Wellington and Christchurch.
Sanderson: Justine Simei-Barton started a Pacific Theatre. She had been intrigued by a Samoan tradition known as FALE AITU, House of Spirits. It is like stand up comedy and it is a living tradition in Samoa. The House of Spirits is an excuse, "It wasn't me that said that satirical thing about the President. It was the spirits."
MR: It is like a jester?
Sanderson: It is exactly the role of a jester. Anyway, TUSITALA is a play based on Robert Louis Stevenson's involvement in Samoan politics. The heart of the story is this, Stevenson is involved in political turmoil, supporting certain chiefs against other chiefs. Some of the people he has supported are imprisoned by the joint German and British Government. Whilst in jail they put on a performance of their version of DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. But as they do this FALE AITU performance one of the characters becomes possessed with the spirit of MR HYDE. The Samoans around Stevenson say,
"Stop him! Stop him!"
But Stevenson says,
"I can't stop him. What are you talking about?"
"Well, you created him."
"No. No. He is just a performer."
"No he's not. He is the spirit you created. Now do something about it."
They push Stevenson forward until he challenges Mr Hyde and produces the potion that will turn him back to Dr Jeykll.
It raised for me really strange questions about fiction and metaphor and drama. Stevenson himself wrote that what he called Brownies would come to him in his sleep and give him stories. He just had to wake up and write them down. What Justine was asking, in effect, is this, were they spirits or weren't they? Stevenson wrote about them exactly in the way a Samoan would talk about spirit possession or conversation with the spirits. But whereas Samoans, to this day, are very conscious of the dangers of immediate spiritual possession and various other phenomena which express themselves in quite extreme physical phenomena but which are known to be of spiritual derivation. To them, reading Stevenson talking about his Brownies was exactly in that territory. So what is he talking about in saying it is fiction? What is fiction?
MR: Something like the Australian aboriginal notion of Dreamtime that the waking and dreaming worlds feed into each other and are of equal value.
Kiarie: Westerners refuse to accept that dreamtimes or spiritual appearances do happen in other cultures. Westerners believe that they don't have any of it.
MR: If you film a continuous piece of Maori oratory and then cut it, for purposes of representation, or economy, is it still oratory?
Kiarie: You mean when it comes to editing?
Sanderson: It is like, "Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never hurt me." What? Words do things. They just don't say things, they do things.
MR: I just finished writing an essay on, language does not speak for us. It does not even know us.
Sanderson: That is a western point of view. Westerners don't understand the power of words.
MR: Was TUSITALA the first instance of Palangi (European) and Samoans appearing together on a professional stage in New Zealand?
Sanderson: There was a play by John Kneubuhl*, a Samoan television scriptwriter in Hollywood who, one day, took all of his scripts and dumped them in his Beverly Hills garden, burnt the lot of them then went back to Samoa and wrote, THINK OF A GARDEN. This play was set at the time of the Mau uprising (12 men were killed by New Zealand forces on the 29 December, 1929 in an uprising in Apia), which his father or grandfather had been involved in. We did it in Auckland several years ago. That was definitely a mix of Samoan and Palangi on stage. In the audience one night was Tupuna Tamasese Tupuola Efi the former Samoan Prime Minister whose great uncle was one of those shot by the New Zealand Police. It is an episode Samoans had not chosen to speak about. Possibly feeling that it was slightly shameful. So putting it on stage was quite an event.