Each of these three brief films depicts a traditional Oceanian story. Footsteps, directed by Lennie Hill, tells the story of One Foot Island, a tragic tale featuring real-life father-son duo Quinton Schofield Sr. and Jr. ‘Aho’eitu, a joint project from directors Jeremiah Tauamiti and Vea Mafile’o, presents the myth of its titular character’s ascent to apotheosis. Finally, Maisa, directed by Michael Q. Ceballos, is a story-within-a-story, told by a present-day grandmother to her grandchildren.
With almost no spoken dialogue, Footsteps is a spare and at times surreal film. It opens with an unnamed boy and his father fishing on a raft. In the distance, they spot an uninhabited island (later called One Foot Island). When they come ashore they smilingly deposit a bounty of fish before returning to the sea.
The father sees more canoes in the distance and frantically paddles back to the island. After his son runs into the woods, the father hesitates, then carefully steps over each of his son’s footprints in the sand. Thus, when the enemy rafts come ashore, they begin chasing after what they suspect is a lone man, passing by the tree in which the boy is hiding before spotting the father.
With the swing of a club, the boy is left alone on the island, alone in the world. He prepares his father for a burial at sea, as a storm rises on the horizon. Before letting go, the boy grabs his father’s necklace, putting it on as he watches the body float away. We—or at least, those of us who are unfamiliar with the story—are left to wonder whether the father’s sacrifice was in vain.
The film begins with the titular character asking his mother Vae’popua about his father. For a moment she is silent; she hadn’t told him sooner because she knew he would leave when he found out. “As sure as the sun rises from morning,” Vae’popua sighs, “I knew this day would come. Do you know why you are different? Do you know why you are loved differently? Why you are respected differently by everyone else? Because you are the son of Tangaloa,” a powerful god who “resides in the skies above” and “created everything.”
Sure enough, ‘Aho’eitu decides that he must leave to meet his father. The villagers bid him farewell as he begins his ascent up the Toa Tree into the sky, and Vae’popua looks on anxiously. Tangaloa is an older man sitting by the sea, wearing a robe and carrying a staff. He immediately recognizes his son, and treats ‘Aho’eitu affectionately and on equal terms, like a father rather than a god. He even gently chides ‘Aho’eitu when he addresses him formally.
‘Aho’eitu learns that he has five brothers—Talafale, Matakehe, Maliepo, Tu’i Loloko, and Tu’i Folaha, all of whom live together in the sky world. They regard him suspiciously, except for one, and challenge him to a spear-throwing contest, which ‘Aho’eitu wins handily. Furious, Talafale rallies his brothers to seek vengeance against ‘Aho’eitu. “We are the only sons of Tangaloa,” he tells his newfound brother. “But you? You are nothing. You have no father.”
That night, the brothers feast upon ‘Aho’eitu’s body. They awaken to find an angry Tangaloa demanding to know where ‘Aho’eitu is. (Of course, he already knows the answer.) Only by vomiting into the Kumete can they bring their brother back to life. A triumphant score signals ‘Aho’eitu’s twilit rebirth. The penitent brothers crawl to their father, seeking forgiveness. Tangaloa declares: “You will all go down to the land to him, but know this, he will not be your brother again. From this day on, ‘Aho’eitu will be a King, and when you go down to Earth and meet him you should understand that he is now your king.” Finally, he gives his erstwhile sons new names and designates them the eternal servants of ‘Aho’eitu.
Maisa the Chamoru Girl Who Saves Guåhan
This animated film, the first Chamorro-language film of its kind, begins with a telling of the Chamorro creation story, followed by a live-action sequence depicting a grandmother telling her grandchildren the story of Maisa. “I may be retired,” she remarks, “but I can still teach.”
We are introduced to Maisa and her father Asinan, who are floating on a canoe in Pago Bay. They approach what appears to be an unknown island, but it turns out to be a bizarre monster who begins ravenously devouring the island of Guam (then called Guåhan). Understandably, the other residents of Guåhan are skeptical when they hear what Maisa and Asinan saw, even when they notice the shape of the shoreline changing. Their leader A’ot asserts that it’s just “a trick of the tides.” But Asinan protests: “If Hagåtña Bay is also shrinking, then the beast must be eating our island from both sides.” A wise woman named Hesna announces that she is familiar with the beast. “This beast is powerful and devious,” she says. “It will split Guåhan apart and separate our people.” Thus, Maisa suggests that the islanders work together to defeat the beast. So, A’ot rallies the men, while Hesna gathers the women together at the spring. (“They say the spring is a special place filled with the powers of our ancestors.”)
But the men’s spears are no match for the beast. Horrified, Maisa exclaims: “But if the warriors couldn’t stop it, what could we [the women] possibly do?” Hesna replies that “men can be hasty. Quick to kill. Women are measured. Givers of life. We can use our heads.” Maisa devises a plan for the women to weave a giant net out of their hair, a “sacrifice, woven together from our combined wisdom and strength.” Unsurprisingly, A’ot scoffs at the women’s plan and their confidence. Asinan, apparently sharing some of A’ot’s skepticism, wants to accompany the women, but Maisa denies his request: “The men of Guåhan have tried. Now it’s our turn.”
It turns out that things don’t go exactly according to Maisa’s plan; Hesna’s warning about the beast splitting the people of Guåhan in two almost came to fruition, though perhaps not in the way the villagers anticipated. Even so, a very humbled A’ot commends Maisa upon the beast’s defeat: “I’ve never seen such bravery and strength. From man or woman.” But “it’s the strength of our people that did this,” she reminds him, “not my own.” Instead of killing the beast as A’ot would have it, Maisa and Hesna release it, commanding it never to attack Guåhan again.
Back in present-day Guam, the grandmother finishes up her story. She concludes with the moral that “if we forget our culture, our taotaomo’na, and our way of life, or we do not stay united as a people, the beast will come back to Guåhan.”
In the next post, I’ll be discussing another three short films that deal, in one way or another, with the theme of betrayal:
The Dog (Uzbekistan, 2013)
Jus Lyk Dat (Guyana, 2014)
Bal Kan (Kosovo, 2016)