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The Venerable - Vela Manusaute

Interviewed and transcribed by Gabriel Faatau'uu-Satiu

Vela Manusaute, Rocky Manusaute and Anapela Polataivao - Club Paradiso by Victor Rodger

PC Raymond Sagapolutele

Introduce yourself:

Talofa lava, fakaalofa lahi atu, kia ora, my name is Vela Manusaute. My mother is Niuean, and my Father is Samoan.

What area of the creative industry do you work in?

As of right now, I am primarily a writer/director. I have worked in many areas and have produced and acted too. Someone in my life had actually told me to focus all my energy onto one thing. But I always went against that and tried to do it all. I don’t want to be limited to one craft.

I sympathise with that. A lot actually. People are genuinely shocked when I say, I never actually went to film school. That I studied Creative Writing. And although people see me as a scriptwriter/storyline writer, I never wanted to be limited to one thing either. I am a storyteller. Which is why it’s important that I write other things, like short stories, a children’s book, reviews, articles, and this blog haha.

Exactly! I was like that too. And I still am to some degree. I started doing so many things purely based on the fact that no one was making work. Work that suited someone like me. So I had to wear all those hats and just do it myself.

Did you always envision this for yourself? Was there a defining moment for you?

I grew up in a small village in Niue. And every Friday, they used to play films that were operated by a generator in a hall. Sometimes it would break down hah. But I always loved and was so fascinated by visual storytelling. I always wanted to understand the mechanics behind the big machine. How and why? Those were questions that I always asked myself. I just always knew I wanted to tell stories. I just never really knew that I’d end up here as a filmmaker. Someone who tells stories on screen.

Did you grow up in a conservative family? Were they always supportive of you growing up and wanting to pursue art?

No, my family was pretty good. I mean, I was only half Samoan, so.

Haha! Sounds like they were much open minded than most. Do you want to elaborate?

At the core of it, I think my parents never understood what I was doing half the time. So they were concerned and worried about what I’d end up doing. I was just very lucky that I had some amazing teachers who really supported me. They were palagi and much older teachers too.

Did you grow up in Niue? Or here in New Zealand? It sounds like a very mixed experience.

So I grew up in Niue until I was 9 years old. And the experience taught me the best of those two different worlds.

My first experience in Niue, I remember a performance that was related to church. It was me, reciting my bible verse. And as a reward, I got a pear, which might not seem like a lot. But it meant something to me. And I understood the value of rewarding good performance. And I go back to it as a reminder for me to work harder.

You obviously know that I am not a big guy. So growing up, I was an easy target and bullied heaps. I used performing as a way for people to not just like me, but also see that I could bring something different to the table that they necessarily couldn’t. The way I saw it, I was generally the clown, the funny guy, who ultimately becomes the one people don’t touch. So I was always left to be that person, as a way to stay very much on the inside. I made this discovery at a very young age. My sense of humour is one of the tools I used to joke my way into almost everything and anything. But a way that people can still see me seriously too.

It’s why this opportunity to share my story is amazing and I was so flattered when you reached out. Most people don’t understand how hard it is to do what we do. To overcome such obstacles. The sacrifices, sweat, blood and tears we’ve endorsed. It’s hard. But I always think that if my story, my experience can touch someone that is currently feeling those things I did many years ago, and make them realise that they can do this, succeed to, whatever that might look like to them, then I can leave this place happy.

This is probably a nice way to segue into the next question. But if there is anything you could say to little Vela, what would you say?

I’d say, to listen. Like really listening. It’s a long road. Prepare for the journey as it’s a long one. And not an easy one. I’ve known so many talented people who have given up. And it’s heartbreaking.

Was there a time when you wanted to give up?

No. I mean, definitely not now. I’ve been around for a while for people to know and understand who I am. I think if I was younger, or had lesser experience, for sure. But I’ve worked really long and hard to get to where I am. And I still have lots and lots of stories I want to share. I’m not ready to give it up. And to be honest, Gabriel, I don’t think I ever could. Creativity is my space to be free. It’s where I find my freedom. But it’s also part of my healing. In a way, I still see myself as a child, in the sense that I am always learning. That is what life is about.

You know, it took me 4 times to audition to eventually get into drama school. I had so many people tell me that I wasn’t good enough, or that they didn’t want someone like me. But I hung in there and eventually got in. Good things take time. It’s a really long journey.

That’s really nice to hear, actually. You are definitely, one of the most resilient people I know.

Thank you. You know, I’ve fallen more times than you can imagine. And you kinda get used to the pain, which is never enjoyable. But you have to find it within yourself to get up, start running again. It’s never easy. The pain is second nature. But you have to be the one strong enough to navigate through that and come out of the other side. It’s the part that non-Creative people will never see or understand.

Once Were Samoans KTV PC Kila Kokonut Krew

Manurewa to Scotland The Factory PC Kila Kokonut Krew

Can you tell us how important your theatre works is, and how that has influenced your screen works.

The theatre is a huge part of my process. It’s my training ground. In comparison to screen, it’s definitely much easier. I’ve made stage work in the space of 3-4 weeks. You as the creative in charge is seen as the chief of the work.

What I also love about theatre is, particularly here in New Zealand, is money. It’s not a hugely talked about thing in my experience. Theatre is seen more as an escape and as someone who has performed, directed and produced theatre works, there is this sense of satisfaction in a live performance that is really hard to achieve on screen. It’s what makes both worlds so vastly different. The cool thing even going in as chief is the collaborative process. As much as I claim it to be mine, it’s hugely a collaborative effort. The stories belong to us all. And that’s beautiful. Over the years, I’ve learned some tough lessons. Part of it was leading. I’ve had to learn when to step back and let others lead. It’s where I really learned the skill of listening. Something that I mentioned that I would reiterate to my younger self.

Although theatre is such a live and beautiful experience, the flipside is that it’s live. Like once you’re on, you’re on. There is no turning back. It doesn’t give you the luxury to cut, reset and go at it again. But I always feel alive in the theatre. It’s where I feel most creative. Part of the stories that we share in that space, which you understand being from that world too, is that satisfaction of live performance. The engagement with a live audience. But also how healing it might be for you onstage. To share a story. One that resonates with us all. And going back to the reward of a pear, live theatre is just like that, a way to give back too.

Is there some theatre work you want to talk about specifically?

Uh, there are so many. Um...Taro King. It was my first play while I was working at a supermarket at the time. It was my show just before The Brownies.

Wow! I remember The Brownies.

Yes, it was a Pasifika comedy duo with Canada Alofa (a comedian at the time). It was my first big thing after drama school. And I was a serious actor at the time. Like, real serious. If you look at the evolution of Pasifika comedy, it began with Petelo ma Sumeo, which was legendary. We took a page out of their book and were able to come into our own. Following us, there were the Naked Samoans, and eventually, Laughing with Samoans. We’re funny guys, us Samoans haha! But I think part of being funny, is also being really smart with the way you think on the fly, have to really time how you say your jokes and read an audience. Most of our experiences actually stemmed from working in the supermarket, where I learned to really read and understand people. I was very observant in my job there and it really opened my eyes to creating a space for people’s voices, and telling their stories. Doing comedy actually forced me to write, and it’s something that I never considered doing, graduating drama school. I was a serious actor at the time. But going back to Taro King, I met so many amazing people in that process. It’s how I met my core crew, people who are still very close to me today like Aleni Tufuga, Stacey Leilua and Glen Jackson.

Do we want to talk about KKK? Kila Kokonut Krew.

The group was formed by a group of people who were fearless. It was the basis of our company. We had so much drive and determination to really make good sizable works that were unapologetically brown. We obviously lost many people as they’d come and go, but the core crew were solid. We had the canoe going. The sad thing was people were ready to tear us down. They’d say things like, I wonder how long they’ll last, I wonder if they’re just one hit wonders. But those experiences taught me to block out a lot of the negativity and discouragement from our own people. If anything, I think it just gave me more of the drive and push that I needed, that we needed to just keep going for as long as we did.

Can we go into the Factory?

The Factory was a huge success. It was the first of its kind. There were no full-length Pasifika musicals prior to this one. At that point of my life, I realised what was the vehicle behind my drive as a theatre maker. Was it to be funny, or was it to tell stories, important and real stories that would have an impact and make change. The Factory was a tribute to people like my Father who migrated over the years and worked on the factory floor. As I am sure it’s a story that lots of our people will and still resonate with. Which is fine if that is still your thing too. We have it hard. But we are hardworking and determined people.

The Factory really pushed some boundaries. We had the luxury of going on tour. And it was really successful. Here in Auckland, different parts of New Zealand, around Australia. And eventually taking it to Edinburgh. Taofia was part of it actually.

Yeah I do know that. I was very lucky to have witnessed a show of it back home and saw the online web series version too. It was amazing!

Thank you. The experience really allowed me to see myself as a person who gave so much to our young people. Really championing young Pasifika creatives. People like Taofia. Even yourself, who wasn’t part of the Factory, but the work I’ve seen you do is just as important too. I mean, I look back at the incredible cast that we have and most of them have really progressed, moved on and are making waves out there in the real world. It’s incredible. We need all the hands we can get to really push our stories. The Factory, for me at least, really allowed me to see how I could create a space for our young people to get some real experience, but also, give them tools to create the works at this level for themselves. It’s amazing!

While we were doing the musical, it was simultaneously running as a web series, written by a good friend of mine, Michael Bennett. The Factory really opened opportunities to show that our stories weren’t limited to just being on stage, it could be seen on other avenues, like on screen through this series too.

Can you talk me through the transition between screen and stage? It sounds like the Factory, was a segue into that, would you agree?

I think for me it was more of a natural progression. I can definitely agree with aspects of what you are saying. So, when KKK disbanded, after making that decision, it gave me time to really sit, ponder, and think about what my next move was. Like I said earlier, people were watching us. And I was aware of that. I didn’t allow myself to go down that rabbit hole of feeling sorry for myself. Our people are so resilient, and all I kept thinking about was creating. It’s all I ever wanted to do. And having some experience, like real experience under my belt, I knew I wasn’t ready to give it up without fighting.

While I was in this transition period, we did a show called, My Name Is Pilitome.

I remember that too. I’m getting so many flashbacks.

To be fair Gabriel, you probably saw every Pasifika work.

I really tried to support as much as I could. Anyway, back to..

My Name is Pilitome. Yeah, that was an amazing experience. Up to that point in my life, I had never given Niuean stories any real light. And through that I worked with some incredible Niuean storytellers. Glen Jackson, Haanz Faavae-Jackson, Joseph Iosefo, Leki Jackson-Bourke, Tim Mitipelo and Aisea Latu. We took the show back to Niue, back to my village, and performed it in a community hall. It was beautiful to really see the cast/crew tell a story that was specific to our own people. And it resonated with a lot of them. But through that experience, I was able to think about the stories about my own experiences, and it’s how the Messiah eventually came about.

Vela Manusaute, Anapela Polataivao and Victor Rodger

Vela Manusaute and Anapela Polataivao at the screening of Brutal Lives PC The Coconet TV

Before we talk about your screenworks, beginning with the Messiah, can we talk about your work, Anapela’s work with Victor Rodger.?

I’m so glad you asked me this. Victor is like no one I have ever worked with before. His work is so raw, bold and unapologetically himself. Something that Victor’s work done is going against the grain, the norm, if you will. For the most part, our people gravitate towards migration stories, and that is fine. Except for me, I feel like I’m past that. I’ve arrived. I am here and I want to tell stories that will show our people in a different light.

My son, Rocky, had the privilege of working in one of Victor’s plays recently. And he was paired with Robbie Magasiva, who’d hate me for saying this but someone that is very generous with his time and his craft. His 60% of giving, is so different to someone else’s 60%. He’s incredible. And I am so grateful that my son was able to absorb that from Robbie.

Can you tell us about the Messiah? The process for you.

The story comes from my own real life experience. I was 14 years old. But the story took a long time to write. I think, in total, somewhere around 2 and a half years. I just remembered, that during the Factory (web series), I was executive producer at the time, but we as the Kila Kokonut Krew had made small things on screen, videos etc, these were just experimental things that we did in the background of what we were presenting just to keep the creative grind and exercising those other muscles. So coming back to the Messiah, the film was much more concentrated, in a way that only allowed me to focus on one thing solely. The luxury and space between those 2 experiences is definitely one that I can see vividly.

Funny story, actually not that funny, but I’m gonna share it anyway. On set for the Messiah, I remember getting in trouble even though I was the director. And you know when the 1st AD yells, ‘shooting/rolling’, I called ‘action’ so many times before the DOP was set. It confused so many people, poor cast mostly. I mean, how was I supposed to know haha. I obviously learned now. And it’s great. Writing and directing a film, although has my name attached to it, it was a huge collaborative process. I got to meet some amazing people through the experience too. Like Sandra Kailahi (now doing Brutal Lives with me) and our incredible crew. Our DOP really worked with me to tell the story visually. And how to place actors, and every prop, detail etc intentionally to serve the story. It’s like going back to the theatre, in the way that the experience is live, and that feeling is amazing. Something that you can’t relive. Even watching it again on a different night, the experience changes because the audience changes too. So the screen has to be able to do that in the same way, theatre does. The luxury screen has to redo it until it is perfect.

The Messiah also let me see the world. I was lucky to have gone to the imagiNATIVE festival in Canada where it screened in 2018. That year itself was a huge deal for a lot of kiwi filmmakers who were also there. I loved being in that space. Any space. To see your work on the big screen, especially my experience for the first time. I felt like I had arrived, in terms of my onscreen storytelling. I go back to the days on set, and I had such an incredible amazing team. I loved the art department team, as you can see the things here around me are from that set too. I had Vea and Emz Mafileo who are so good at what they do. They really came through in building the world I wanted to build. And although sometimes on set it can be a bit stressful, I worked really hard to make sure it was fun too.

Speaking of Vea and Emz, do you want to share about the award you won?

Yes! As I mentioned, they are both incredible at what they do. And they really understood the shrine, the world, the look that I wanted to convey. To be honest, not many people know this, but I had to break down parts of my garage to get it there hah. It was filmed here. And I love that even more that I was able to film this baby of mine, here, at home. But the award they won was best art direction.

I saw The Messiah at the NZIFF in 2018. And I vividly remember the Messiah thinking, this set is f****n amazing! Just the colours, it reminded me of the old stained glass windows you have at church. And you’d never know that it was shot in a garage. Awesome job!

That is exactly it! We really wanted the look and feeling of those windows. That was the intention we wanted. And Vea and Emz really understood that and took it to the next level.

Can you tell us about Brutal Lives? How that experience from the Messiah progressed into this one?

Well as you can tell, the Messiah was my first real directing experience on screen. Constantly getting into trouble for speaking out of place, even as the director. Part of my experience in theatre, especially as the director, is I just like to be involved in everything. But the screen is different, in a way that it is more collaborative (not saying that theatre isn’t), it’s just with screen, the roles are more specific. Theatre is the same, but there is more freedom to move into other spaces without it stepping into another's territory and areas of expertise.

But going back to your question, Brutal Lives, is a web series that is going to be displayed on the Coconet TV platform. It’s about a fallen fighter, about boxing. Which is actually a big part of my upbringing and family members who did it back home. Even for those who might not be boxers, we are still fighters. We are always fighting for something. Look at you and I, we fight for our people and stories to be heard. At the heart of Brutal Lives, we have to fight for something. So it’s something that everyone will resonate with.

Brutal Lives is a collaboration between myself, Sandra Kailahi and Michael Bennett which was funded by NZ on air. It’s a web series, an hour long in total, and it’s a story that is specific to Tongan culture. It was such a satisfying experience to write and direct again. My experience and transition having worked on the Messiah also played a huge part. I went in having more knowledge and experience under my belt, but I came out and learned even more. It’s endless.

It’s special to me in the sense that I only wrote the Messiah for onscreen time of 15 minutes. Whereas with Brutal Lives, it’s an hour long. Which is 4x more the length. It might not seem like a big deal to some people, but it is to me. Writing ain’t easy. Just like creating ain’t easy. I do want to say that people should do theatre first. Screen is far more spoiling. The onset food for starters, which is a huge part of us.

Brutal Lives really honours those fallen fighters, and in some ways mirrors my journey of never giving up. But it also is a story of resilience, and it’s one a lot of us, creative or not, will really resonate with. There is a spiritual element to it. I am fascinated by that world and I really want to share a story that has that. I don’t want to give too much away. I also love that it’s specific to Tongan, another Pasifika story, that isn’t necessarily mine. So collaborating with Sandra Kailahi and other Tongan people in that regard was really important in the process. We need all Pasifika to rise, and shine. There is room for us all.

Something I take from these experiences, which I’ve said before is listening, which is a huge part of collaboration. For so long, I really want to hold on to everything and make it mine. My way. My vision. But collaboration is such a beautiful thing that you have to be open to. You have to be willing to listen, compromise and really understand where everyone is coming from. And sometimes, that might mean giving up what you contributed. Not that what you had wasn’t good, it just wasn’t fit for this picture. You can always revisit that idea later and let it serve another story, when it’s best suited to fit then.

In saying that, collaboration can also hinder people. Sometimes, your voice might drown, or you might work in a space that doesn’t value your presence, what you bring to the table. I say, for those people, those spaces are not for you. You have to be in a collaborative space where everyone wants the same thing. When you want the same thing, even if you look at it differently, we can have the same goal, and plant the same seed to produce the same plant. It’s so important to me to maintain the idea of the rules of the village, where we come from, how we work and manifest new spaces. We must and always abide by those traditions.

The Messiah Inside PC Ramond Sagapolutele

The Messiah art work PC Raymond Sagapoloutele

If I could give you all the money in the world, offer the best resources which you’ll have at your disposal, what would that project look like?

Thank you. That’s an amazing question.

Speak those dreams into existence my friend.

A feature length film, one that I have been writing for a long time. I went to the NZ Film Commission about 10 years ago, where 105 scripts were submitted and I think about 6 were selected. It’s a story that I am really taking my time with and one that I know will be amazing, and surface when it’s ready to. And only the story itself will know that, I can’t explain it. This story is worth more than money and resources. And I will not touch it, if the energy doesn’t speak to it.

Who would you dream cast or crew be? Would it be Anapela (Polataivao)?

Yes! Always.

Despite her being your partner, she is incredible. On stage and screen. And I feel like we still haven’t seen her full potential.

Exactly. I think the same thing. She’s incredible. So giving. And very very talented. It’s probably why I chased her when we were younger hah.

Would you act in it?

I look at people like Taika Waititi who is really good at doing both. And I mean, I love to act. I am an actor first. It is what I dedicated years of formal training to. But, I’d prefer to put all my energy behind the scene. In the writing. As a director. I think that is where I need to be.

But going back, definitely would make this for Pels as a way to really highlight how amazing and incredible she is. But also, a way to bridge newcomers and so many young and emerging talents that I’ve been so lucky to work with. I think of it as a way to really leave something behind once our time is up. But I know wholeheartedly this will always be something I do for her for all the years she has been and helped me too.

Who are your heroes?

June Renwick, she was my drama teacher at Selwyn College. She had a huge influence on me and someone I hold so dear and close in my heart.

Also, I have to show you a board I have in my studio. See here on the wall, I have Alfred Hitchcock.

I love Alfred Hitchcock. He’s also one of mine. Master of suspense.

Yes! I also have Sima Urale, who you obviously know too. I have some random films that I like, The Warriors, Parasite, The Godfather (Marlon Brando). And in the middle, I have me. I am the centre of their universe. But also, it’s a way of them surrounding me, and how I am influenced by their works. I’m fascinated by some Japanese filmmakers and Indian filmmakers. Even though I have all these people (apart from Sima), who are not necessarily Pasifika, their works speak to me in a way that is universal. And in a way that I can present them through my storytelling visually as a Pasifika storyteller.

Just this morning actually, in the car, Pels grabbed my phone and played some music. And she said, ‘what the hell is this’. It was some music from 1925. She looked at me weirdly. But I am influenced by really old stuff. I can’t explain it. But these were things that influenced me as a kid. Which I still see myself as in the sense that I can be creative and fun. And sometimes these old things, I need to listen to, watch, hear etc just to get into that mindset, and just so I can be influenced to keep creating too.

Brutal Lives PC Matavai Taulangau

Vela watching screen PC Matavai Taulangau

What advice would you give to young writers? Especially those wanting to go into film?

Dialogue is probably the thing that I struggle with the most. In theatre, you have the luxury to use dialogue, to over explain, build a world around you. Screen is so visual, and is less dependent on dialogue. So trying to say the same thing on screen, in a visual way that leaps out at you, without saying too many words. It’s hard. Learn and study the art of dialogue. Ultimately, it’ll be the thing that makes you different in your stories. How you show and tell them. Often, we are told to pull back and say the same thing. And it’s easy to say, but not easy to do.

Is there anything (other than Brutal Lives) that you are working on and want to humble brag about?

Firstly, I think I am too old to brag.

You are never too old to brag.

You know what I mean. I have been in the game a long time now. I have worked really hard to get to where I am. To tell my stories. Our stories. To do this for me. For my people. For visibility of us. But going back to your question, the one thing that I can “brag” about is that I am a survivor. I am still in the game. I have not given up. I am still going strong. It’s such a mental game. And it’s tough. And I’m so grateful to still be here. And to be fair, I couldn’t have done a lot of what I have done creatively without those who have fought the long game before me, who have paved the way, set out a path and opened some doors. I’m just grateful that I also opened some doors for others. And now, I see them opening doors too.

It’s like, like a campfire. At the moment, I feel like we are all sitting around the one. And that’s cool too, we should always be able to return and come back to the one. The main one. But at some point, we need to take a torch and make new fires too. I see all our young people, like you, and everyone else take these torches and light your own way. And you never forget where the main fire came from. It’s so beautiful and makes me happy.

I’ve worked with so many kids who had parents that wanted them to be doctors. The way I see it, we as storytellers are those doctors and healers. We have the ability to heal our community, to create, share stories that honour who we are, where we come from.

So my bragging rights is that I never gave up. Never say die, man!

Where can we see some of your work?

I’m on social media, I prefer Facebook and Youtube. All under my real name. I document a lot of the BTS that happens in all the works I am involved in. I think it’s important. Documentation. People need to see the creative process, which is what people don’t understand and misconstrue.

But also, I find if we don’t do it, who will? Sort of like what you’re doing with this blog. I’ve read them all. But with Haanz Faavae-Jackson’s one specifically, you did really justice to it.

Thank you, that’s so kind of you. I don’t know what to say. I mean, those words are his and his journey. All I did was facilitated the space and transcribed it all.

Yeah, but you understand the importance of documentation. And just being kind. And super supportive of all creatives, whatever level and experience they come from, you understand that we have to start somewhere, and that all our journeys are unique and different. There really isn’t a right or wrong way to go about it and you help us celebrate that. You know as a writer yourself, that we have the power to dictate and tell our stories for ourselves. No one can take that from us.

But quickly, going back to you, you were always so kind to everyone. And giving. And it’s so reflective in your work now and it makes me proud. And it’s a lesson that all our creative people need to remember. To be kind. So thank you.

What’s your greatest fear?

Not getting things done. Not leaving enough behind. That is my greatest fear

Have you had any regrets?

My biggest would have to be with the Factory, the musical. Obviously out of respect, I can’t go into details. At the time, we were on such a high, on top of the world and some things just got the better of us. I’ve definitely learned heaps since then. And I’m endlessly proud of the people who were of that world who continue to make, create and tell stories. I don’t have a relationship with all of the creatives that were involved, but for me, sometimes that’s okay. I still have lots of love for them and support them from a distance. It’s like a big family. Families have fights too. We aren’t always going to agree. But when things are aligned and go well, we can drink the house down - you know what I mean?

Someone asked me the other day if I would help revive it in some form. And it still sits with me in the back of my mind. It’s definitely a work that I am proud of and I’d love to bring it back in some way, maybe to the big screen, who knows. Whatever happens, I will always hold that project so close to my heart.

Vela Manusaute with Brutal Lives Producer, Sandra Kailahi

PC Matavai Taulangau

Any last words?

Honestly, just a huge thank you for this opportunity. I was honoured when you asked me.

Just doing this is a huge acknowledgement of my why, my family, the people I have met along my journey. It’s huge! I acknowledge Anapela Polataivao, my amazing partner in crime, but also, the genius that she is and the work she’s doing too.

I also want to shout out to my fellow contemporaries. The amazing actors, directors, artists. Even my drama teachers, who saw me, gave me a chance, and really helped me to grow too. Without them, I wouldn’t have pursued this, and I may not be in this position. So am super super grateful!!

I’m so humbled to be of service, and serve alongside, and serve these stories. But this is just the beginning for us. For you. For us all. And I’m so hopeful for the future, and what it looks like for our own people.

Pasifika we rise. Malo!

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