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Tongan film puts spotlight on struggles with identity, language and culture

Mary Afemata

A Tongan short film has made its mark at one of the most respected film festivals in the world; showcasing the struggle many young Pasifika face with their identity, language and culture.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Lea Tupu’anga (Mother Tongue) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US this week - picked from about 17,000 film applications from around the world.

Directed by Tongan-Kiwi Vea Mafile’o, the short film tells the story of Katherine, a young speech therapist of Tongan and European descent, or hafikasi (half-caste), who lies about her Tongan linguistic abilities to get the job to help an elderly Tongan man named Siaosi.

She tries to reconnect with her mother tongue through Siaosi, who has a condition that means he can only speak in Tongan and cannot converse in English, but is met with strong resistance from the old man, who does not want anything to do with her.

‘I was just playing what I have experienced’

Siaosi is played by Tongan actor Albert Rounds, who also has experience as a stuntman, with over 20 years of stunt experience.

Rounds got into stunt work in the 1990s when he worked on local television series Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules with some acting in between.

He says of his character’s role: “It’s very close to me and it’s very similar to myself.

When I was playing the character, I was just playing what I have experienced through my family.”

Like Siaosi, Rounds is fluent in his mother tongue and moved to New Zealand when he was 13 years old.

“I’m privileged that I grew up in Tonga and I could speak Tongan perfectly - and that’s quite important learning your own language, your own mother tongue.”

The opportunity to be a part of the short film popped up when fellow actor Luciane Buchanan - who wrote the screenplay - approached him.

Buchanan is a Tongan-Kiwi actress known for her lead role in the action-thriller Netflix series: The Night Agent.

Rounds says he and Buchanan go back to when they first worked together on the comedy web series: Baby Mama’s Club, in which he played her father.

Buchanan told Rounds she had written the story and offered him the role of Siaosi.

The character Siaosi has a huge impact on Katherine, who is disconnected from her Tongan heritage and needs to find a way to communicate with him, or risk her patient’s life.

That sparks an urgency in Katherine and puts her on a journey to find her identity, language and cultural understanding.

How younger generation forget elderly

“Even the New Zealand-born Tongan kids or even Samoans…some of them say: ‘Oh, I wish my parents, or my grandparents taught me how to speak Tongan and Samoan’,” Rounds says.

“That’s why it’s important to learn and pass on your language, to the kids and grandkids.”

Other themes explored in the film include neglect and the loneliness sometimes felt by the elderly.

Rounds acknowledged that the younger generation can sometimes get caught up in other commitments in their lives, be too busy at work and therefore not have as much time for older family members.

His voice breaks as he talks about this issue; acknowledging how circumstances in the islands are markedly different compared to what he described as a “Westernised” mentality, where the elderly are often put into rest homes overseas.

“As you get older, everyone’s too busy with work and the oldies get left alone and they don’t have the kids, they don’t come in regularly and see them.”

This was one of the key messages portrayed in the film and which he felt he could relate to.

“It’s so close to home with me.”

Lea Tupu’anga/ Mother Tongue being accepted into the Sundance Film Festival surprised Rounds. However, he said he knew there was something special about the film.

“When I got the message from Luciane, all I could say was: ‘Wow’...I’m just blown away that it’s made it this far.”

Mary Afemata is one of 12 cadets in the Te Rito journalism programme, which has a focus on training more culturally diverse reporters to ensure newsrooms reflect Aotearoa’s multicultural society. Mary loves telling stories focused on her South Auckland community, Pasifika and has a special interest in reviews on theatre shows and film.

Hero Image: Albert Rounds and Luciane Buchanan star in Tongan short film Lea Tupu'anga/Mother Tongue. Photo / Run Charlie Films

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