Niuafolau’s experience contributing to ‘Moana’

By Sarafina Sanerivi ,

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NIUAFOLAU DIONNE FONOTI: One of the advisors for the Disney movie, Moana.

NIUAFOLAU DIONNE FONOTI: One of the advisors for the Disney movie, Moana.

Usually when you get a rare opportunity to achieve great things in life we always feel overwhelmed and humble.

Ask Niuafolau Dionne Fonoti from Apia and she will be happy to tell you.

Niuafolau, a Samoan anthropologist, historian and filmmaker is a member of the Oceanic Story Trust who were brought together by the Disney corporation five years ago to do research for the making of the Disney film, Moana.

Speaking to the Sunday Samoan, Niuafolau said “humbling” would be the best word to describe her whole experience in the making of the film.

“I mean I am just one person, there are a lot of Samoans out there and a lot of Islanders out there who could’ve done what I did for this movie but to be chosen as one of the 20-30 people that make up the Trust and to be asked to contribute to this film is extremely humbling. 

“It’s an opportunity that I knew that I just couldn’t ignore. So humbling in that sense, but also humbling in seeing how collaboration with these filmmakers in making this film changes them. I mean we are all learning from these things. This has been a learning experience not only for me but also for the directors and producers and everyone involved. 

“And I got to see the movie evolve over the years and how the characters evolved all throughout the project, and being part of that is just extremely humbling for me. And now that it seems like it’s a huge success around the world and that too is humbling. And I have been getting messages and emails from people around the world and people I don’t even know, thanking me for my contribution to the movie.”

What was her contribution to the movie?

“I was lucky enough to be part of the Oceanic Story Trust, a group of individuals who were brought together by the filmmakers and by the Disney Corporation at the beginning of the research period basically of this film. 

“So about five years ago, we all met for the first time and they travelled around the Pacific like you’ve heard and they met various people who are experts in this area.

“I am a visual anthropologist and film-maker and I have a background in history and culture studies as well. And because this is film based on the Pacific and about the Pacific culture, there are a few things that I can contribute , so I was asked to do that over the past five years.”

Niuafolau admits that when she was first asked to work with the filmmakers of Moana, she was a bit “worried and concerned.” 

“To be honest it was a little bit scary,” said Niualofau.

 “Like I said, I am a filmmaker, and I study filmmaking and the representation of the Pacific islanders in films for a long time and it hasn’t always been positive. 

“And Disney hasn’t always has the best records of how they represent people of colors and the different ethnicities from all around the world, so obviously I was aware of that history. So when they said they wanted to do something like this in the Pacific, I was a little bit worried. I mean I always knew someone was going to do something like in our region because it is so attractive to a lot of people, because it’s a beautiful place, wonderful people and amazing culture and I think that we probably have one of the sexiest cultures in the world. So I knew it was just a matter of time. 

“So when they first asked me, I was a little bit concerned. And I guess a lot of people would feel the same way too because like many people, you worry about how you are going to be shown in the film when you have little control over it. That’s a normal concern for people to have. 

“So I was concerned at first, but what impressed me was that, from what I know, this is the first time that a major studio from Hollywood, has actually come to a community and asked them to collaborate in the making of a film. Now we have had a number of outsiders who have come to our region and cultures and they would come and tell the story, bring in their crew, do whatever they want and then leave. 

“And they tell the story, or write the book, they write the play or publish the pictures, and we don’t really get to be part of it, contribute or express an opinion. So this is the first partnership of this kind to my knowledge.”

However, she said she saw this as a great opportunity for her to use her knowledge and understanding and contribute to the making of the film.

“So once I realized that this was an opportunity to be a collaborator, whether it’s a good or bad thing, on a personal level, I thought that this was a good thing for me. 

“Because I thought to myself, if Disney wants to make a film about our culture and involving the Samoan culture, I wanted Samoa to watch the film and recognize themselves. I didn’t want to leave it to people who have little knowledge and no understanding of who we are, our culture and history and the way we live today. 

“I mean I knew Disney;  they are monsters and it’s a big industry. So you know they make good movies, you know their animators are extremely talented and gifted, just amazing you know, they make dreams come true. 

“So for me, it was a good opportunity for me to partner up with extremely talented and gifted story-tellers in telling a story that really is their story but told with respect to our cultures and which borrows from our culture. “There is no mistaking the fact that the story was borrowed from our cultures and borrowing doesn’t always go well. But I think there are ways for us to facilitate the borrowing so that’s it’s something that will benefit us as well, and something that is respectful of us as well.”

Ask for the success of Moana since its premiere, Niuafolau said,  “The last time I heard I think its been three weeks now in the top spot in the US, so if it’s the number one film in the United States, I think that probably makes it the number one film in the world. 

“I also spoke to the people at Apollo Cinemas last week, and they said that Moana is breaking all their records. So it’s a success on the world stage and so far it’s been a huge success here in Samoa and I heard people are going three to four times to watch it at the cinema, which is great.

“I mean making money is great, and it’s nice.”

However, she said that the biggest success for her is that people are enjoying the movie and that there has been positive feedback about the movie so far.

 “But I think the biggest satisfaction for me and I am sure it’s the same for the filmmakers , is to actually make a film that people actually want to see. I mean you can make any film you want, but the reality is if you want people to hear your message, you have to get people to see your film. 

“And the more people who want to see your film, well that is more money, but I think the best thing is that it shows that people get the message and they hear and agree with your message and they love it. 

“The greatest success is when people learn from the film and love the message and understand the whole idea of the film. So I think it’s a success on many levels. I am most proud of the fact that Samoans like it. As we all know, Samoans are hard to please but the fact that Samoans like to watch it over and over again and see parts of our culture in it, I think that’s a good thing. 

“I mean people can be offended by things and not like things but I think it’s good that people recognized the effort that has gone into it. And it’s not always going to be perfect, and it’s going to make everybody happy, but you can’t deny the effort and the five long years of work for these people who worked extremely hard to get to this point. 

“And the fact that they worked in partnership with Pacific Islanders all throughout this project to make sure that they understood our cultures is one of the greatest things about this movie. And now we finally have a movie that our children will get to watch that has elements of our culture over and over again. 

“I mean I wish I grew up watching a Disney film like Moana. I grew up with Snow White and other movies with Palagi heroes in them. But it’s a wonderful thing to know that from this year forward, our children will get to know that there was this incredibly smart and brave young girl from our region, who loves her parents, is respected and loved by her grandmother and who went out to try and help her people.”

Finally, Niuafolau said that working with Disney in making this film was a “big bonus” for her. 

“It never occurred to me that I would end up doing something like this.

“I mean I am not into animated films.  I mean I don’t have kids, so I don’t watch animated movies. I never ever ever thought in my whole life that I would work on a Disney film. I got into filmmaking because I love story telling and I was trained in documentary film which is very different from this, but I got into filmmaking when I was doing degree when I realized that I could actually make a career out of telling the stories of Samoa. 

“And I was raised with myths like many other Samoans, and when I moved to Samoa seven years ago, I just wanted to come and make Samoan movies and tell Samoan stories and make stuff for Samoan TV. So I’ve done that and it has been very gratifying but I never thought that I would be working or contributing to a Disney movie. 

“So this is a nice bonus as far as a life experiences go as it was something I never ever thought would happen, but it’s not something that I regret at all. It hasn’t been easy but I can tell you that it was all worth it.”

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