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Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree

A feature film from the short novel by Albert Wendt is an ambitious project and first-time feature director Martyn Sanderson tackles it head on.

Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, New Zealand, 1990

Director: Martyn Sanderson
Production co.: Grahame McLean Associates
Producer: Grahame McLean
Screenplay: Martyn Sanderson
From a novella by Albert Wendt
Director of photography: Allen Guilford
Camera operator: Barry Harbert
Editor: Ken Zemke
Music: Michelle Scullion
Assistant Editor: David Foreman
Production manager: Ilasa Tiava’asu’e McClean

With: Faifua Amiga Jnr (Pepe), Richard Von Sturmer (Tagata), Peseta Sinave Isara (Pepe’s father), Aloema Anae (Pepe’s mother), Fuialo Molimau (Toasa), Afatia Aloese (Susana), Pativaine Ainuu (Susana’s mother), Sapio To’ala (Susana’s father), Tavita Leaumoana (Faitoaga)

35mm, 92 minutes, M

Festivals: Tokyo (Best Screenplay), 1989. Sydney, Auckland, Wellington 1990. Singapore 1991

Pepe is a young Samoan who rejects the colonial ideals of God, money and success so fervently supported by his father. Instead he cherishes his relationship with an old man wise in the ways of the old gods. Expelled from school, Pepe becomes friends with another outsider, the half-caste dwarf, Tagata, ‘the flying fox’. The two embark on a life of petty crime, culminating in the elaborate raid on Pepe’s father’s store. When Pepe’s father lies to the police to protect him, Pepe expresses his scorn for such hypocrisy and the erosion of the old ways: he owns up to the crime and is sent to prison. The disparity he feels between his society and his own nature begins to find expression in his writing. Meanwhile his friend Tangata finds a much more radical fulfillment.

“A feature film from the short novel by Albert Wendt is an ambitious project and first-time feature director Martyn Sanderson tackles it head on. Wendt’s view of the emasculation of Samoan values is bleak and pungently expressed, but there’s a touch of self-flagellation in the way the palagi filmmakers dramatise it here. ... Nevertheless, Flying Fox shows us something new to movies – as its success at Festivals elsewhere surely testify. It unfolds in a paradise of lushness and intense, saturated colour. Without at all resembling a travel brochure, the film is beautifully photographed and provides a vivid and attractive evocation of a considerable range of Samoan life. As the rebellious Pepe, Faifua Amiga Jnr has the physical energy and grace to hold the screen and his narration of events has a wry jokiness that’s hard to resist. His scenes with the old man, Toasa are powerful and provide some poetic insight into the lost culture which the film so bitterly laments.” — Bill Gosden, NZ Film Festivals, 1990

“A thought-provoking film about the wave of cultural change in the Pacific Islands. Pepe, the hero, is a young Samoan. He has two mentors, who represent two opposite paths. One is Toasa, the senior chief of Pepe’s village, an elder powerful and wise in the ancient ways of his people. He is Pepe’s ‘conscience’. The other is Tagata, the city-bred dwarf, street smart, bold and cheeky, but condemned by his stature to be an oddity, a flying fox ‘with an eagle in the gut’. Tagata is Pepe’s ‘other’ side. Pepe sees his life as a constant set of choices, personified in both Toasa and Tagata; tradition and modernity, rural and urban, communal and individual. Torn between this paradox, he embarks on a life of defiance against his father’s unholy trinity of ‘God, Money and Success’ only to find that the precepts and responsibilities Toasa had taught him are impossible to practice. Based on an Albert Wendt story, Flying Fox in A Freedom Tree gives another twist to the coming-of-age genre. This time, there’s an almost ethnographic quality to a young boy’s reaction to adulthood.” — Singapore Film Festival, 1991

“Pepe, dying of TB and spending his last days writing his life story from a hospital bed, shares with his stunted friend Tagata the bitterness felt by those whose culture is appropriated and twisted out of shape by their colonisers… Written and directed by Martyn Sanderson, Flying Fox is an excellent adaptation of Albert Wendt’s fine novella, though there are awkward moments in the dialogue, action and music that give the film an amateurish feel at times. Filmed on location in Western Samoa and with many in the crew and cast working for the first time in the medium, any clumsiness is more than compensated for by the power and passion of a story that picks you up and rushes you along. Beautifully shot by Allen Guilford, with constant contrast between the calm lushness of the setting and the bleakness of the disaffected characters, and between the certainty of the old ways and the anxiety of the new, the film’s editing also skilfully enhances the metaphysical themes. Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, partly financed by the New Zealand Film Commission and successfully launched here at the 1990 Film Festival, gives ample evidence that the light has not yet died in our local film industry. Support it.” — Helen Martin, Listener, 15 April 1991

Screenings: Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree screened on 7 March 2007 as part of the Adapted: NZ Literature into Film season.