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Meet the Polynesian-American team behind upcoming film Sosefina

By Alice Lolohea

PC: Sosefina

Billed as “a drama, romance, Polynesian American movie”, Sosefina tells the story of two Pacific females who through hardship and suffering, must decide between a straightforward path or the easy money of the adult entertainment world.

Written by Manu Tanielu and Namualii Tofa and directed by Hinano Tanielu (all first-time screenwriters and filmmakers), it might surprise you to learn that the film is based on a real-life event. As Manu recalls, “I was 16 years old… Back in the days it was rare to see a Polynesian female on stage. We had that encounter that night and she came down and talked to us about her struggles and why she had to go that route. So, the whole story is about that situation, because it had a great message for our people – to share awareness about the dark world and make sure you make the right decisions in life.”

While it is rare to see depictions of Pacific strippers on screen (who remembers Robbie Magasiva and Nicole Whippy on The Strip?), we have yet to see a film which portrays real Pacific characters in these spaces, their stories and the choices they’ve made to end up working in the adult entertainment industry in the first place. As Hinano points out, “You know, people don’t just wake up and say, ‘I wanna be a stripper.’”

Sosefina writer Manu Tanielu, director Hinano Tanielu and writer Namualii Tofa. PC: Alice Lolohea

When Manu began shopping the script around, he was met with constant rejection – especially from his own people. As Manu recalls, one of the main criticisms he received was, ‘You’re gonna embarrass our culture.’ It was tough for Manu’s wife, Hinano, to watch. “I would watch him day in day out message these companies, send his scripts into different companies, and the responses that came back were so sad. It was just stuff like, ‘You can’t do it, it can’t be done’, ‘Only the Rock can do this stuff.’ Like really bad stuff.” But the importance of telling this story weighed heavily on Manu, particularly because more and more Pacific women were taking up professional stripping due to financial, family and academic commitments. “There’s a lot of females that are really into that world. This was the first one that I really wanted to do, and so I pitched it to [Hinano]. At the same time I have a daughter, and we gotta learn from our own people’s mistakes and share that story with the world.”

With no studio or company willing to back the script, Manu implored Hinano to take on the role of director and create the movie together. They decided to venture out on their own and make the film themselves. “I was like, ‘You know what? We’re gonna do it ourselves.’ [Manu] has said a bunch of times and I’m gonna say it again; we go and watch other films that are just as bad, yet when it comes to our own culture shedding light on things that happen to us, they’re so quick to judge.”

Before Hinano could begin her role as director, she knew she had to address her own prejudices. “I was a little annoyed about the story. I understand it was a long time ago, but as a mother and as a wife and a Polynesian female, I didn’t wanna portray Polynesians that way… I was just worried because [Manu] is my husband, and I didn’t want that around him. It’s a past event, but I had to put my pride aside. And so for this movie, I said under one condition will I help you; it has to be done a certain way.”

Sosefina has been a family labour of love. PC: Alice Lolohea

While Sosefina has an M rating for its language, drug use and alcohol depiction, the film contains no nudity. Hinano also took it upon herself to look for a few of the female cast members who would portray a stripper, and discovered Enola Hayes. A woman of Samoan descent, Enola entered the world of adult entertainment through a tragedy. “I sent her this message and we were talking back and forth for a few hours, and she was telling me her story. And I was more of like a mother. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened?’ Her mother passed away, and she had to go down that way.” Enola went on to become a cast member, and also taught the dances for the club scenes. It made Hinano realise there was something she had missed before. “There’s more to the story than what’s on the surface. There is obviously something that happened to this girl.” This message is what the group implore of the viewers, to look beyond the superficiality of the situation and understand that there’s a real human at the heart of this story.

Making this film has been an incredible labour of love for the ManuScript team. So much so, Manu decided to uproot his entire family and bring them to Aotearoa, where they have become Māngere locals. They’ve received support from the likes of Hans Masoe (Director/Writer of Brown Boys) and Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa (Director/Writer of Three Wise Cousins, Hibiscus & Ruthless, Take Home Pay), with artists and businesses endorsing this Polynesian-American team. Compared to the lack of support he received in the States, for Manu it’s been an overwhelming experience. “What brought us here was our faith in the universe. We feel like this is the land of opportunity for us, we feel like this is the best place to release our film first. We couldn’t find anybody to help us out with film companies, we just came here out of faith and everything’s working out.”

The film is expected to be released this summer. Check out the first teaser for Sosefina here:

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