Vai (2019) is directed by Becs Arahanga, Amberley Jo Aumua, Matasila Freshwater, Dianna Fuemana, Mīria George, ‘Ofa-ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki , Marina Alofagia McCartney, and Nicole Whippy.
The portmanteau film Vai, from New Zealand, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year, is a landmark in the history of cinema. It was directed by eight Pasifika (Pacific Island Indigenous) women, and shot in seven different countries. It is a successor of sorts to Waru (2017), the previous film by the same producers, Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton. Like Waru, Vai consists of eight short films that are narratively linked, almost all of them shot in single takes lasting about ten minutes.
Each of Vai’s eight segments narrates a moment in the life of the title character, from the ages of 7 to 80. In the first, the young girl Vai, who lives in Fiji, is being sent away from her home and extended family, likely for economic reasons. In the next, we find her in Tonga as a 13-year-old, collecting water in her neighborhood, with a distant dream of becoming a singer. A couple of years later, now in the Solomon Islands, Vai argues with her mother (with whom she has recently been reunited) as she struggles to learn the traditional way of baiting a fishing hook.
We then fast forward to age 21, when Vai is one of just two Indigenous students in her university class in Samoa, running up against a benevolent but uncomprehending white-dominated academic system. The rest of the segments follow her life as an adult: her passion for activism, her pain at the weakening of her contact with Indigenous ways of life, and her role as a family and community elder. In the closing moments she leads the naming ceremony for a great-granddaughter who is also named Vai. It marks a moment of continuity at the end of a journey full of movement and discontinuity.
Indigenous cultures share a fundamental connection to place; at the heart of Vai is the pain of fracture of this connection. The vignettes that make up Vai, in all their heterogeneity, have a common theme: the trauma of displacement experienced by Indigenous people — and the way this displacement endangers not just individuals and communities but entire traditions and histories.
Girish Shambu teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, and has a long-running film blog. He is the author of the book The New Cinephilia (2014), and editor of the online column Quorum at the journal Film Quarterly. Recently he authored two essays on diversifying film culture: “Time’s Up for the Male Canon” and “Manifesto for a New Cinephilia”.