Movie Review

The Land Has Eyes

Directed by Vilsoni Hereniko

Te Maka Productions Inc

Zipping from Ec10 section to your latest power lunch at Lowell, designer grande latte in hand, have you ever found yourself wondering with ironic detachment how exactly you ended up in Cambridge, Mass. and how the very ground you now tread can sense your movements, know your intentions, guide your destiny? If you can interrupt your fast-paced, mochaccino-charged life long enough to take to heart the message of Fiji’s first indigenous film, The Land Has Eyes, you may find that the title rings true.

According to an ancient proverb of Rotuma, the tiny Fijian island that provides the setting for the film, the land has teeth and knows the truth. Viki (Sapeta Taito), the young protagonist of The Land Has Eyes, discovers one of these truths: the land to which you were born does not determine who you will become.

This quiet, stunningly beautiful little gem of a movie, a 2004 Sundance Film Festival selection, was screened at Larsen Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on Wednesday, Feb. 16. The screening was hosted by the Cambridge-based nonprofit organization Cultural Survival as part of the group’s International Bridge Builders Conference. The group sponsors a monthly film series that seeks to promote awareness of the indigenous experience by introducing the Harvard community to foreign-made movies.

The film is helmed by director Vilsoni Hereniko, himself a native of Rotuma. Much of the movie centers on the emotional evolution of a young girl as she fights to cast off the shadow of a shamed family and cultural repression. Eyes chronicles the trials of Viki and her traditional family as her wise, gentle father is first accused and then unjustly convicted of stealing from a neighbor, a sentence which brings with it not only a steep fine but a crushing disgrace upon the entire family.

Resilient and proud even as she faces her community’s contempt, Viki struggles to help her family raise money to pay the fine and fights to restore her family’s good name. But Viki’s loyalty to the traditions of her native land is routinely rivaled by the expanding presence of modern Western influences, manifested throughout the film by the looming colonial government and its military presence.

One such theme is the presence of legend in the film. While Viki is at the same time assisted by the legend of the Warrior Woman, the island’s first settler and a figure of courageous independence, she is also frustrated by her culture’s collective expectations of dedication to the land.

Suddenly, Viki’s life is interrupted by her father’s devastating illness. In his last moments with his daughter, her dying father asks Viki to promise him that she will continue her studies and become a lawyer. “Lawyers lie,” she replies, to which he answers, “Be a lawyer who tells the truth.”

Grief-stricken by the eventual death of her beloved father, who is played with by Voi Feseaitu in a performance of tender devotion, Viki runs away from her home and into the wilds of the jungle. In her forsaken state, Viki finds solace in her promise to her father. She finally realizes that she does, in fact, have the power to combine the integrity of her traditional values with the ambition of her Western education, and thus stay true to herself without abandoning her heritage.

Viki is played sincerely, if perhaps a bit too stiffly, by the striking Sapeta Taito, who always manages to appear as if she has just stepped out of a Gauguin canvas. Though untrained, first-time actress Taito gracefully carries the film, projecting such emotional intensity and fearless innocence in her role and capturing Viki’s restless confusion and defiant courage. With fire in her big, brown eyes, Viki has the air of a girl who could look unflinchingly at anything in the world, and yet still retain the soft naiveté that comes with adolescence.

Filmed with great patience and skill, and accompanied beautifully by a rich, haunting soundtrack, Hereniko’s picture brilliantly captures the tension slowly consuming an island torn between its loyalty to deeply abiding tradition and submission to an ever-encroaching modernism.

This salient conflict pervades the film and is subtly highlighted by Hereniko’s direction of the most mundane aspects of daily life. Viki is in many ways a typical Rotuman girl, learning traditional dances and helping her father harvest coconuts; however, she also studies English in a modern, Western-style school and dreams of earning a prestigious scholarship to leave Rotuma for the big island of Fiji.

Paradoxically, the film itself exemplifies a modern commercialism intruding upon indigenous culture. It illustrates a fiercely independent people at once captivated and threatened by Western culture. Roughly ninety percent of the film’s cast was comprised of native islanders—many of whom have never seen a movie theater, let alone acted in a feature—and the incorporation of such a real, Rotuman presence lends the film a deeply raw, affecting richness. The movie plays like a kind of cultural window, presenting to the world a vision of life in the distant Pacific from the very imaginations of those who live it.

The movie presents the possibility of a reconciliation between divisive Western and indigenous cultures. As an existential offering, the film asserts the power of choice, advocating fierce dedication and courage which can overcome shame and adversity. And that, ultimately, is a very powerful message to send from this distant island into a world already so crowded by globalization and mass modernization, making Eyes at once gently affecting and quietly uplifting.

—Aleksandra S. Stankovic