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The founders of iconic Pacific regional documentary festival FIFO say, it’s time for the next generation to carry the torch for the event as it marks its 21st anniversary.
The current edition of the festival officially opened in Papeete, Tahiti on Sunday, local time with French Polynesia President Moetai Brotherson on hand for the exchange of gifts and ‘ava ceremony.
He was joined by an international collection of film-makers, producers and broadcasters from the region, many of whom have cast a discerning eye over ‘Oceania’ through their documentaries and films.
Twenty-one years ago, former New Caledonian journalist and author Wallès Kotra joined Tahitian Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu, then director of French Polynesia’s ‘Maison de l Culture de Tahiti’, to create FIFO, the Oceanian International Documentary Film Festival.
At the time, Kotra was head of French Regional Television (RFO) in Tahiti, following a successful career with the organisation in New Caledonia and France.
Speaking through an interpreter Kotra says, “We created FIFO because we were scared we were going to disappear; there was a lot of television, but we didn’t see ourselves on the channels.”
Maamaatuaiahutapu says, no one thought a festival for documentaries was a good idea at the time believing it would lose money. But with some public funds and the help of private enterprise, they managed to put on a “small” event.
The result he says, was a surprise. “I think what really make the FIFO start was the people,” he says.
“The first day all the rooms, full. All the Tahitian people came and was hungry with reconnecting themselves with Oceania, with the Pacific region.
“Like I always said, our ancestors probably met more than us, only with canoe.”
Helping to drive interest in local story-telling was the country’s own experience during the controversial period of French Nuclear testing.
“I should say, that probably, some film, some documentaries were really inspiring,” Maamaatuaiahutapu says
“For example, here, nobody wants to talk about nuclear bomb testing and then there was a documentary made in Australia on the nuclear testing in Australia and so the people here just discovered that the Pacific region was a place where the bomb was brought.”
Today the documentaries screening in competition at FIFO span the issues of the day from the environment, to sport and the crisis of identity, while revisiting some of the historical events which have impacted families and communities. There’s even a film looking back on how Nuclear testing 70 years ago continues to scar indigenous communities in Australia.
FIFO describes itself as an ‘unmissable meeting place for documentary film enthusiasts’ providing a unique professional opportunity for the media and the audiovisual sector in the Pacific. While it runs an annual competition, it also screens a range of out-of-competition films while running workshops for students and attendees which add to the richness of the event.
For Wallès Kotra, now retired, FIFO needs to continue to be supported.
“I think what’s important is that there is a cry, we exist! and that’s expressed by several documentaries and personalities from the Pacific and this willingness to work together in television and radio,” he says
Twenty one years on, Kotra says the challenge for young people is even greater, given the plethora of competing content via traditional media and the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime.
“The Pacific is our story and the Pacific must be on our screens; It must be on every channel, otherwise we will disappear.
“Our ancestors didn’t give us this culture for it to disappear.”
Maamaatuaiahutapu became the minister of Culture and the Environment from 2015 to 2023, in the French Polynesian government.
He remains convinced that “connecting” is what FIFO is all about, and that the peoples of Oceania have it in themselves to do so with ease, in an organic way, despite the artificial barriers of international borders and conventions.
“Who put on the Pacific map those frontiers between Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia? There’s something that we have also to say, this is not the reality, this is not what happened in our history,” he says.
And he echoes Kotra’s sentiments about the future, adding with a quiet laugh, “Wallès and me, we’re getting old.”
While it’s great to see a range of work produced about the Oceania, it’s important to also support indigenous communities to tell their own stories.
“Of course it’s very important to have overseas people talking about us but it’s really important also, to have our own people talking about us because the point of view should be a little bit different,” he says
“So, we have to call our young generation to be able to stand up and tell our stories.”
FIFO runs until Feb 11, find out more here