Review: “For My Father’s Kingdom” by Chesta Fa’otusia

“To be honest, to be love, to be understanding…then you will make it to Heaven.”

Saia Mafile’o (For My Father’s Kingdom, 2019).

I attended the NZ premiere of ‘For My Father’s Kingdom’ by Vea Mafile’o and Jeremiah Tauamiti last night and it was an invaluable experience. What made it even more significant was the warm and vibrant atmosphere that Tongan people are known to create. I was born and raised in Tonga until the age of 12. I claim my heritage with pride and joy. The island, my tupu’anga, remains the place I feel most grounded and connected. It is who I am. However, living away for so long has meant that I have had some hard times adjusting to Western society while simultaneously maintaining my identity as a fefine Tonga. Navigating two worlds. So, you can imagine how special a film like ‘For My Father’s Kingdom’ was for me and many families who were no doubt, resonating very deeply with its themes of faith, family and culture. 

How To Tell a Story

The film follows the journey of migrant Saia Mafile’o and his NZ-born children. It is directed and produced by an all Pacific film crew, and is the first Pacific documentary to be funded by the NZ Film Commission. A victory for not only the Tongan community, but all Pacific people. We are taken on a very personal, real and confronting ride with the Mafile’o family who, in my view, are just trying to understand one another. It is this display of honesty and vulnerability that strikes me as the best way to tell our Pacific stories, as unique and complicated as they are. The film successfully reflects the multiplicity of our culture, not only the good parts, but also the hard ones. In this, it achieves a touching narrative that proves relevant to many of us, presented in a soft, but powerful way.

Our Fathers, Our Heroes

Saia’s sentiments about the centrality of faith and culture to his world is one that reflects the values of our own Tongan Fathers. It is the display of Saia’s self-sacrifice that tugs at the heartstrings because his acts of service are all too familiar. I recall my own exclaiming that God and Tonga are the entities he is most dedicated to. I will never forget his words, and it is something that I came to understand better with age, and an open-mind. It was beautiful to see how this was illustrated in the film, revealing the way family truly fits into the picture; serving the church, and country equal blessings from God, for you and your family.  

The harder pill to swallow is that our culture of serving the church and/or others can sometimes leave families without. The financial burden that comes with big church celebrations such as misinale, or even the leniency towards payments for product leaves a big dent in the pockets of families. In the documentary, Saia devotes himself to raising a large amount of money through odd jobs and plates of food for a new church building. His dedication to his people is evident throughout. This causes a rift between him and his children, which also opens the dialogue on the culture clash between the diasporic world and Tongan values. When Saia goes home to Tonga with his family, we are welcomed into an experience where many myths about his duty and our country are dissected and refined. A seamless and tear-jerking move.

Regardless of your religion, I believe every Tongan has witnessed the giving spirit of our elders, understanding it is another thing. We are a proud people, proud of our church, schools, and country. It is often passed on to generations, young people can be seen at any event doing the pu’i (chores) and it becomes something that teaches them hospitality and keeping. This way of life can be viewed as relentless, but highly favourable. Selfless, but sometimes impractical. All of these things are explored further through the relationship of a father and son, a confronting depiction of our culture.

I submit that most people who felt strongly against this duty, agree instead that an immense wave of pride calmed any reservations they may have held. I know that this was my experience. Saia showed himself as a beacon of faith, who reminded us of our own akonaki (teachings) to give without expectation, serve without ego, live humbly and most importantly; have faith in God. The journey now is striking a balance between our cultural obligations, and new found belief systems as an evolving people. It is one we will achieve with time, determination, and togetherness.

For the Pacific

Sandra Kailahi (Producer) said something in her final address to the audience that affected me greatly; that her grandmother mopped the floors on which she stood to showcase her film, and she hopes that she is looking over her happily, seeing the fruits of her labour. This is the dream, the reason why we must pass knowledge and success forward. As children of migrants to the land of milk and honey, who found it not so sweet after all, we are bound to meet this film with tears, laughter and reflection. Reflection on the journey that was, and the journey ahead. It is an incredible experience to view our people on the big screen, speaking our language and showing our motherland. Our heroes.

I hope that more Tongan and Pacific people, especially youth, recognize the opportunities available to them in film and media. It is an awesome space for us to showcase and understand our culture at this time. It works to project it, but also protect it. Film is an excellent and creative way to give voice to the often unheard, documenting our multifaceted belief system and the dynamics of our families. It is also a great avenue for preserving our cultural practices and values, ensuring our future generations get to experience and learn from them too. With the threat of climate change, corrupt political climates, desecration of indigenous lands and so forth – ‘For My Father’s Kingdom’ is a great reminder of our continuous resilience, our ability to empower each other but also the infectious humour we carry with us in everything we do. Through these different mediums, we will be able to keep striving for a better future.

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