For a minute I was hesitant to admit that so publicly, but only for a minute. I’ve decided to welcome those tears as symbols of Cook Islands pride, prompted by a film that I think captures the spirit and the cultural potency of Polynesia.
“The film is going to make the Cook Islands appear to be what I think they really are, which are some of the most culturally powerful islands,” director Eric Heimbold told me this week from Los Angeles, fresh from a month spent in Rarotonga shooting The Offshore Pirate alongside Hollywood producers Robert and Webster Stone, California-based Maori-Samoan filmmaker Hagoth Aiono, and the Cook Islands’ own Henry Ah-Foo Taripo.
“All islands have fantastic culture, but something that’s really cool about the Cook Islands is the people have a very strong sense of their own culture and identity and spirit, and I think that’s strong and clear and visible in this movie and all these Film Raro movies,” Heimbold continued.
“I think that really comes across, as well as the islands being a great tourist destination – that’s a given – but what really stands out is this strong cultural identity.”
The Offshore Pirate is the only Film Raro production I’ve seen and its producers are the only contestants I’ve met, so I can’t speak for the rest of the films, which I’m sure provided equally valuable insight into the Cook Islands. Indeed, I’ve heard nothing but praise for each, and especially for Mou Piri and Little Girl’s War Cry.
But I can say I was moved by Heimbold’s 36-minute filmic journey through the Polynesian culture, through the poignant notion of te pito enua. For me, this film was personal because it told the story of a girl who grew up in a place far away from the islands in her blood, and who fell in love with them as a 20-something. That is a story to which many of my friends can relate. That is also my story.
Ardita tells Carlyle she’s grown up in “the real world”, and rolls her mascara’d eyes at the idea of spending time in “the backwater”.
“The real world?” he asks her. “What could be more real than where you come from, your people, your tribe?”
I love that line. That’s as real as it gets. And what’s beautiful about the Cook Islands is that she welcomes her people home no matter how long they’ve been away, no matter how many generations they’ve been removed. It’s the nature of a migratory culture, one based on voyaging and seafaring and movement, to continue welcoming its own back into the fold.
The Offshore Pirate is the story of a homecoming, of a voyage into a timeless culture that’s retained its mana in a world globalising at breakneck pace.
“Out of all the scripts I think this one really did capture all the current elements of Rarotonga,” Aiono told me over the phone.
And that’s what the writers were aiming to do. The Stone brothers, reputed Hollywood guys who adapted an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story to write The Offshore Pirate script, met me at a Los Angeles caf last night to talk about the challenges of working in Rarotonga – the need for cultural sensitivity, the sickness that debilitated half their crew during an at-sea shoot, the 10-day time crunch – and the island’s intriguing beauty, which overshadowed the rough patches.
For 15 years the pair has been toying with the idea of transferring the Fitzgerald story to the big screen, but setting the film in Rarotonga enabled them to tell a different story altogether, based not only on romance and drama but also on something deeper and more culturally meaningful.
The end result was 36 minutes of love, adventure, suspense, and all things Rarotonga – her pristine beaches and verdant jungles, her black pearls and marine life, the ura and the tapa and even TAV.
“We wanted it to portray Rarotonga as well as possible because eventually we’d like to see this package of Film Raro films go either to a film festival or individual screenings in LA and New York in order to help promote the island, both its tourism and nurturing a film production centre there,” Robert told me.
“It’s not easy because people in this country (haven’t) heard of Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.”
“We’re pretty well-travelled,” Web interjected, “and before this we’d never heard of the Cook Islands.”
“But it’s a beautiful place,” Rob continued. “And it’s phenomenal that there’s a non-stop flight.”
The subtext of this conversation, of course, is that the Cook Islands taxpayer continues to prop up the L.A. flight even as Rarotonga hasn’t yet entered the Los Angeles imagination.
But maybe these productions will snag Hollywood’s attention. The Stone brothers are aiming high – they’re considering entering the Academy Awards, the Toronto Film Festival in September, the American Film Institute Festival in November.
They’re confident they have a real shot. So am I.
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