It wasn’t easy to get a copy of the Orator, but it was well worth it. Filmed in Samoa, using Samoan actors who speak Samoan throughout the film, it is a wonderful peek into a world far from the icy tundra outside my window. It is also a chance to glimpse something of the world from which quite a few local residents have come. People are often surprised to find that the community of Barrow, Alaska, has a significant number residents from the Pacific Islands, but we do. Watching the Orator was a chance to escape to a world of warm green vegetation, land perhaps to learn a thing or two about the place a few friends and coworkers might call home.
My knowledge of Samoan politics is scant – mostly it’s the stuff of textbooks – so I must admit that some of the more nuanced details of this film have escaped me. And yet, elements of the story seem quite familiar. They could almost have been written about Barrow.
This film tells the story of Saili (played by Fa’afiaula Sagote) and his attempts to resolve a number of quarrels threatening the well-being of his family. He lives with his wife, Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj), and her daughter, Litia (Salamasina Mataia). It is a small family, but each of them has a quarrel with someone outside the household, and each of those quarrels would be more than enough to provide all the drama needed for one film.
Saili’s problem appears simple enough at first. He is the son of a chief, and by all rights he should rise to the title himself. But Saili is also a dwarf, and his eyes as well as those around him that is a problem. How can he rise to a position of leadership when he cannot command the respect of those around him. He can hardly chase people away from the store where he works as a night watchman; others are planting taro root around the graves of his parents; and he cannot bring himself even to face his in-laws when they arrive to speak with Vaaiga. It isn’t simply that others fail to respect Saili because of his stature; his own lack of self-respect is palpable throughout the film. This is a man with more problems than most, and chief among them is his own inability to deal with any of them.
We learn quite early in the film that Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj) has been living in exile for 17 years, about the age of her daughter, Litia. She has been living with Saili ever since she was banished from her own village all those years back. Now her brother wants her to return with him. How they will deal with her banishment remains an open question. But he is quite insistent, returning with additional family members to pressure Vaaiga into changing her mind.
For her own part, Litia is having an affair with a married man, a fact which is rapidly becoming common knowledge throughout the village.
What one must understand about each of these conflicts is that resolving them is not entirely a question of establishing who is in the right. Whatever the outcome of each of the running battles that plague his family, Saili must find a solution that will enable him and his kin to live peacefully with those around them. The characters do not live a metropolis; they will not have the luxury of melting into the larger community after some judge has pronounced a verdict on the conflicts which divide them. They will not have the option to forget about each other in the wake of some legal solution. Each of the conflicts driving this story are as much about future relations with family and neighbors as they are about the propriety of past actions. And none of these conflicts will be resolved until the parties can find a way to live with each other in peace.
But is Saili up to the challenge?
Clearly the High Chief of Saili’s own village does not appear to think so. In an effort to secure his rights to the land wherein his father is buried, Saili seeks to claim the title which is his birthright. Instead he receives an object lesson in bravery. A chief must have the courage to bare his heart and soul before others, but the high chief isn’t sure that Saili has the balls to do the job; so he asks Saili to prove that he does, literally and metaphorically by baring himself on the spot.
Saili was not up to the task.
As events unfold, each of the three major conflicts intersect with one another and spiral out of control. Litia’s affair brings trouble directly into the home, and Vaaiga soon adds a life-threatening illness to her own troubles. For his own part, Saili’s efforts at using brute force to solve his problems by engaging in a rock fight do not end well.
But of course it isn’t really physical force that is required of Saili, which is precisely the point of the High Chief’s lesson. Saili’s adversaries are not evil, but he must find it within himself to earn their respect. It is not rocks that are required of Saili, but words.
And here I am close to saying all that I wish to say about this movie, other than that you should watch it. But I would suggest that the superficial morality tale I have outlined above does not even begin to reveal the richness of this film. It isn’t simply that Saili must learn how to speak up for himself, the lessons of his High Chief extend to the kind of words that he will need to use, and to the manner of his self-presentation.
But of course, his lesson is also about more than that.