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Students reflect on Polynesians in media after Taika Waititi’s Academy Award win

An illustration of an academy award and curtains

At the 92nd Academy Awards, writer-director Taika Waititi, from New Zealand, made history on Feb. 9 as he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film “Jojo Rabbit.” This was Waititi’s third Oscar nomination and first win, and he is the first person of Maori descent, and the first ever indigenous person to be nominated in that category, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lisa Agafili, a senior from New Zealand double majoring in Pacific Island studies and TESOL, commented on how she saw this as a historical event. She said, “I think it is cool he is making a name for his country in America. People know about New Zealand and go there for holidays, but they don’t know about the culture.”

According to The Guardian, Taika Waititi grew up in New Zealand, of Maori and Russian Jewish heritage. He made his breakthrough in filmmaking with his short film, “Two Cars, One Night,” in 2005, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. He continued with the films “Boy,” “What We Do in the Shadows,” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”

Waititi broke into mainstream Hollywood with the Marvel film “Thor: Ragnarok.” His most recent movie, “Jojo Rabbit,” told the story of a boy living in Nazi Germany with a comedic imaginary friend version of Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi himself.

Additionally, Deven Beaston, a sophomore from New Zealand double majoring in psychology and social work, reflected on how Waititi’s win could have an impact on other indigenous individuals around the world. She said, “Even though you might think you come from a little place and your opinions and thoughts and humor or the way that you look at the world isn’t important, they can reach big places.”

Other students commented on how other Polynesian movies can showcase various aspects of the culture. Agafili shared a favorite Samoan movie of hers, “The Orator.” She said although there are not many words, Samoan cultural values are reflected. “You can understand what the Samoan setting is like, being humble, respectful, and prideful when it comes to status.”

Similarly, Tui Tukuafu, a senior from Tonga majoring in accounting, shared how his favorite Polynesian movies directed by Taika Waititi, such as “Boy,” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” reflect an important aspect of Pacific culture. He commented how Polynesians are often viewed “as being tough football players, but Waititi shows a different side of Polynesians, such as bringing the humor out.”

The importance of Polynesian individuals being the ones to share their own stories through the media was also discussed. Beaston added, “When indigenous people write their own stories, it is like re-writing all that has been written about us. Giving Pacific people the chance to write their own stories gives them back the power to share what they want to [share].”

Tukuafu related the idea of Polynesian people being the ones to share their stories by discussing the process of translating his native language, Tongan, to English. Tukuafu added how the meaning is often not always able to translate perfectly. He shared, “In order to fully translate, I have to understand a bit of the background of what they are trying to say. You can’t translate word for word, because the meaning gets lost.”

Agafili shared why she feels indigenous people should be the ones to tell their stories in the media. She commented, “It is important that indigenous people do it because they have their important history and connection.”

Tukuafu also shared why he feels it can be helpful for Polynesian stories to be put in the media. He said, “It is important to share the culture. Because stories are not being told orally as much as they were before, they are getting lost, so another medium is the media.”

Beaston and Agafili discussed the elements which are incorporated within some Polynesian films that differ from Western movies. Beaston said there are starting to be more movies produced in New Zealand’s native language of Maori. Agafili added how more often than not, the movies reflect Pacific cultural values, such as not displaying excessive physical intimacy or violence.