Why He’s On Our Radar: After a successful bow at the Venice Film Festival, first-time feature filmmaker Tusi Tamasese is in Park City with “The Orator,” which New Zealand submitted as its first-ever entry in the foreign-language film category for this year’s Academy Awards. Entirely shot in Samoa, the film boasts the feat of being the first Samoan feature film.
“The Orator” centers on Saili, a little person and taro farmer who is forced to defend his land and family when his plantation is threatened.
Tamasese, a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, the New Zealand Film School and the University of Waikato, made waves at the 2010 New Zealand International Film Festival with his 15-minute short “Sacred Spaces.” He worked with that film’s crew on his feature debut.
What’s Next: Tamasese told Indiewire that once Sundance is over, he’ll go back to finishing stuff that he as in the works. One of them is “a horror-type film,” he said. “We’ll see.”
You’re from Samoa where the film is based, correct?
Yes, I was born there. I left in 1996 at 19 years old and I went to New Zealand. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship and ended up going to university there, studying film and political science.
When I did the university course, I was very interested in film and I wanted to pursue it more so I went to film school. There I started looking for a job, but I initially couldn’t find one. So I studied some more and did a Master’s degree in script writing. That’s where I wrote this script.
Was the community you depict so vividly in the film a world you had close relations to, or was it something outside of your own experience?
I was looking for a village that sort of had the old village formation in Samoa. There are probably only two or three of them. I found this one. I wanted to portray this, so I talked with people of the village and didn’t really change their reality.
That included working with a cast of mostly non-actors, right?
Yes. We were quite keen on meeting Samoans that lived in Samoa, because we didn’t have an industry there. Most Samoan actors are based in Australia and New Zealand, but I wanted to use actors that actually lived there to truthfully depict their experience. It was quite a risky thing to do, but we were confident that they would do what we asked of them. All of them, except for the woman who plays the main character’s wife – she’s a trained actress who hasn’t done anything for I think 10 years or so – were newcomers.
So how did you go about finding the cast? I imagine the process was challenging.
It was, especially for the lead role. I advertised for auditions with posters for six months or so. No small people turned up! We were quite worried, because we weren’t willing to change the script to alter the role’s requirements. We were keen on using a small person. So we decided to go from village to village asking around, to try and find someone. We got a phone call from a woman saying that her son was a small person. So we took the ferry out to meet her and her son. He had actually heard about the ads, but didn’t want to come in. We asked him why and he said he just didn’t want to (laughs). But just seeing us there was like a sign from God that he had to do the part.
The film’s very quiet, requiring more effort on the part of your actors. How did you work with them as first-time performers to get them to truly commit?
Well, these people experience Samoa everyday, they’ve lived through many funerals. When we first began rehearsals, the performances were quite big. I wanted to tell the story through their eyes, especially for the main character. I told him, “You don’t speak, you speak through your eyes.” And you know, it took a while. We had a tight rehearsal, so it was just a matter of getting them familiar with what they were about to do.
Samoans, they don’t express too much. So it was just a matter of getting them to go deep into themselves and have them challenge themselves to see these emotions.
How did the Samoan community react to you shooting there? Did they rally behind you or were they wary of how you were going to portray them as a people?
People were definitely suspicious of what was happening. When we had the initial meeting with the family of Fa’afiaula [Sagote, the lead actor], they were quite suspicious, asking questions like, “How are you going to depict our son?” We cut the tension when we told them it would be written and directed by a Samoan and would be done in the Samoan language. They became very helpful then.
And the reaction we got – people were amazed that a story from Samoa could be put on screen. They really enjoyed seeing themselves and hearing themselves.