The sweet smell of buttery popcorn fills the air as people begin to file into the cinema. Many of those in attendance proudly display their tatatau, or tattoos, which seems fitting given the theme of the film we are all about to watch.
Murmurs die down as festival organiser Joshua Baker grabs the microphone and welcomes the crowd. He introduces the film, Marks of Mana, and hands the microphone over to the film’s director Lisa Taouma.
Taouma, a Samoan native, was raised in Faleasiu, one of the largest village settlements on the island of Upolu. She later migrated to Dunedin in New Zealand, before moving to Grey Lynn in Auckland. Taouma graduated from the University of Auckland with a Master of Arts with First Class Honours. She has lectured in Pacific Arts, curated exhibitions, and written extensively for scholarly publications on representation of Polynesia in art.
Taouma got her screen break after writing two episodes for Tala Pasifika, a pioneering 1996 series of short dramas. Taouma then got a job as a reporter for TVNZ’s Tangata Pasifika, eventually becoming a senior director for the show.
Taouma’s 2003 experimental film Maesina Samoa: Stories of the Malu explored the experience of Samoan women who received the traditional tattoo. It screened at the 2005 imagineNATIVE film festival, as did Fa’afafine In Transit – Nothing to Declare, which examined transgender culture. Under the banner of her company Tikilounge Productions, which Taouma established with her partner Mario Gaoa, Taouma created Fresh, a Pasifika youth-focused television show in 2010.
In 2014 Taouma branched out into online content with The Coconet, an online portal aiming to connect New Zealand Pacific youth with their heritage and cultures.
Taouma is softly spoken and it is obvious that she would rather let the film do the talking for her.
“I still can’t believe that to this day, there’s no research or anything really that’s been done on Pacific female tattooing,” Taouma says.
After a few quick words of thanks, she sits down and an anticipatory hush comes across the cinema. The silence is quickly replaced by a Samoan tune, as the crowd is treated to a traditional Samoan dance, before the film finally begins.
Marks of Mana dissects the role of Pacific women in tattooing, something that Taouma says has been forgotten by many since the introduction of Christianity in the Pacific.
“I wanted to make this film because for years I worked for the wonderful Tangata Pasifika and we filmed lots and lots of tatau festivals all around the Pacific and what always occurred to me was that this was a world of men and if there were women tattooists there, they were always at the back.
“I really wanted to uncover what the women’s story was … I wanted to give a voice to women about what the meaning of our tatau is and to find out more about the history of it.”
The film explores ancient Pacific symbols, their meanings, and celebrates the wave of female tatau artists that are now turning the tides in what was once a male-dominated arena. It begins by telling the legend of Taema and Tilafaiga, the twin sisters who are attributed with bringing the art of tatau to Samoa from Fiji.
Strikingly supernatural portrayals of the twins capture viewer’s attentions from the outset. The film begins in Taouma’s native Samoa, on the island of Savai’i, where the supernatural twins are said to have landed with the tools of tatau.
Viewers follow the journey of a daughter of a female chief, who has travelled to Samoa from New Zealand to receive her malu. The experience is obviously a spiritual one for her, and she is brought to tears at the conclusion of a ceremony held for her.
“Indigenising our skin has become a really important thing for Pacific women and saying: ‘we’re here and this is part of our tikanga and our history and it’s saying to the world this is who we are’,” says Taouma.
The film then travels to Aotearoa, to explore the sacredness of moko kauae, or facial tattooing amongst Maori women. Next comes Papua New Guinea, where the art of tattooing amongst women is still a strongly held tradition. The film also features women and their stories of tatatau from the Phillipines, Fiji, and even here in the Cook Islands.
Cook Islander Therese Mangos appears in the film, explaining the significance of her own tatatau and how the marks represent her own history and identity. Mangos encourages women from the Cook Islands to not shy away from marking their bodies with their stories and to take pride in representing their Cook Islands heritage and culture.
The film wraps up with a strong message from women who feature throughout the film, encouraging younger generations of women to continue reclaiming their identity through the art of tatatau.
Taouma says producing the film presented her with a unique set of challenges. She says it was especially difficult to find people who were forthcoming with information about the art of tatatau.
“In Fiji for example, it was really difficult getting the old people to talk about tatau because that was in ‘the dark time’. There’s so much fear and shame … So many people who have that knowledge didn’t want to talk about it because that was considered the dark times,” Taouma says.
Overall, the film is awe-inspiring and encourages viewers, particularly women with a Pacific heritage, to reclaim pride in traditional the art of tatatau. Whilst there is room for improvement in terms of production value, the film conveys a strong message and carries it well throughout the film.