The words Islands speaks are silent, written on the faces of the film’s actors and in the pitch of its background music, but they are powerful and they are poignant.
Hayer says the film’s moral is open to interpretation, but explains that his team’s 16-minute production is generally about self-determination and an individual’s power to change the trajectory of his or her life.
To me, Islands is about hope and the idea that for those among us mired in tough circumstances, moving on is an option. The film is a love story, to be sure, but one that raises darker questions about abuse and domestic violence, which are relevant and prevalent in many Pacific societies.
In brief summary, Islands introduces us to a young girl who’s stuck in an unhealthy relationship with her partner. We watch her tend dutifully and begrudgingly to his every need. We see her fear and we feel her profound sadness. We watch as she pines for freedom and a fresh start, slinking away to lock eyes from a distance with the boy across the shore.
We watch her partner Putu hit her when he discovers where she’s been going. And then we watch as Vaine makes the difficult, life-altering decision to leave. The film ends when Vaine presents to Tamatoa, her lover from another island, a bloodied coconut as evidence of her violent escape.
“(Vaine is) trapped and, in the course of the film, comes to realise her state and does something about it,” Hayer told me from his U.K. base, where he teaches creative writing and writes for theatre, film, and radio.
“However, I also see (Islands) as a story about Vaine growing as a person, and growth can be a difficult as well as a rewarding process. It’s not easy for her to leave Putu; not just because he is violent, but because he is the only world she has known and there’s still a residual affection there.”
We watch as Vaine tenderly touches Putu’s face before she makes her escape, and in that moment we understand how hard it is for her to leave even though she’s clearly unhappy and ill-treated.
This is the problem with judging women (or men) in abusive relationships who don’t leave and who subject themselves to a viciously repetitious cycle of violence.
They might fear being alone. They might have family-related or financial obligations to consider. They might not know anything different.
Hayer continues: “I didn’t want Putu to be just an ogre, and I think it’s a tribute to John Trego’s performance that there are moments in there where we do see things beyond anger and jealousy – moments of sadness and pity.
“So, while Vaine’s escape is ultimately a positive step for her, it also has a painful, violent side to it – Putu is killed. In giving the bloodied coconut to Tamatoa, she’s given him her heart but is also admitting what she’s done.”
Of course, not every escape is necessarily bloody. The coconut and Putu’s death are symbols of the struggle involved in such a drastic life decision. Still, I think the film suggests that while leaving is not always easy, it’s often worth it.
Hayer told me that while the film addresses the problem of domestic violence, its application is broader than that.
“I was aware of domestic violence in Pacific communities; I think I was also influenced by examples of patriarchal violence in British Asian communities,” he said.
“However, I was also aware that I wasn’t making a piece of social realism or a documentary. So, this was a more archetypal look at how someone with a monopoly of violence can dominate someone else.
“I’m fine with it being seen through the lens of gender and domestic violence, but it could also be about state oppression, cultural subjugation and other barriers to self-assertion.”
To Hayer, for example, the theme of self-determination struck a personal chord.
“I also think that, as I was moving away from my parental home at the time, there was an element of that seeping into the story; Vaine’s tale could be read as a symbolic rendering of a child cutting the umbilical cord and the difficulty of that act,” he said.
In the case of a child separating from a parent, just as in the case of a partner severing ties with an abuser, departure is difficult. But I think the beauty of Islands lies in its suggestion that while escape isn’t necessarily painless, it is at least possible.
Hayer, who calls the process of creating Islands “one of the most professionally and personally rewarding experiences in my career”, hopes Film Raro will become an annual event, resulting in “a back-catalogue of great films, a stellar list of Cook Islands and overseas alumni, and a thriving film festival (and industry) that the people of the islands can be proud of”.
In the meantime, though, I think he can count his own as one of the great films in that back-catalogue.
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