Cinema

Sons for the Return Home

BRIAN McNEILL

Let us assume that I'm an established film-maker. In my work I have acquired a certain reputation for honesty. I come across a novel that excites me: an honest novel. I am a white New Zealander. The author of the book - the property that I'm interested in - is Samoan. I arrange to buy the property, and sit down to write the screenplay. Being perceptive and therefore critical of my own society, I tend to bias my treatment towards the Samoan angle, and by so doing unwittingly sacrifice a small portion of my own honesty. I don't realise this at the time of course.

Uelese Petaia (Sione) and Lani Tupu as Sione's father in Sons for the Return Home

The main theme of my film appears to be clear-cut. A simple love-affair between a Samoan boy and a palagi (European) girl. But wait a minute: the book's hero is not your usual dumb coconut. His intellect is commensurable with our own(!); he has been given a university education which not only sets him apart from your ordinary Joe, it also alienates him from his own race - he becomes, in a sense, an 'outsider'. And the girl as well: she too has acquired a modicum of 'brains'; in fact it is the girl who initiates the relationship and who gives it, in the beginning, the status of a cause. Her background is white, Kiwi upper-middle-class; and in the novel she is the stronger character, with a muscular aspect appropriate to New Zealand. To emphasise this quality in the film, however, would detract from my Samoan bias. I therefore emasculate her and take the gun out of her hand (literally), and in so doing I commit my second mistake, for I am now left with an imbalance. Moreover, I am obliged to perpetuate this imbalance when it comes to the girl's parents, friends and acquaintances.

The boy's family emigrate to New Zealand to acquire a slice of the national pie. Coming from a traditional island culture, they naturally find the life-styles of this country terrifying. Yet when they return, financially well-off, to Samoa, they take back with them many of the values they earlier professed to despise. It's as if those values were already there but under another guise.

In preparing the screenplay I can see that the boy's mother personifies beautifully this whole dilemma and I expend a lot of energy on both her and the boy. My casting of Moira Walker as Sione's mother is well nigh perfect, and I know that the film will be worth seeing for these two performances alone.

Uelese Petaia and Fiona Lindsay in Albert Wendt's Sons for the Return Home, 1979

Yet the main problem still remains unsolved: how to knit together the various sequences as they appear in the book. There are so many cinematic moments lying latent, and somehow I must try to work in as many of these as I can; and it is here, unfortunately, that I commit my third error - a compound error, containing two aspects. Firstly, I forget the rules of selectivity and try to cram in too many minor events - all of which added considerablyto the book but only undermine the screenplay. Secondly I find great difficulty in translating the episodic nature of the book on to film. In the novel the narrative runs clean and swift, encompassing along the way deep pools of family history and motivation. These motivational depths are fine in a novel, as one can pause, go back and reclaim oneself: but in a film this is not possible. I can, of course, use the 'flashback' technique or indulge in a welter of 'jump-cuts' etc., but because I'm obliged to use these devices so often, having already opened my film with a 'flash-forward', the whole exercise begins to turn into a 'guess where the characters are now?' game. Where is the boy at this precise moment? In his hotel room at Apia? Or back in Wellington? And what about the girl in that very early scene; where is she? In a Sydney pub? A Wellington pub or where? And what's she suddenly doing in the middle of Trafalgar Square? For me, as the director and writer, it's okay: I know the story backwards - but what about the audience?

My final error is in failing to give the Samoan hotel receptionist the truthfulness that was evident in the novel. In the film she becomes simply a contrivance to enable the boy to express his feelings. In the book she is much more than that.

Possibly Paul Maunder may recognise some validity in my perhaps all-too flippant reconstruction of his film. On the whole Sons For the Return Home is an important film with excellent camerawork and a whole host of fine understated performances.

CREDITS FOR SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME

Executive Producer: Don Blakeney (for The New Zealand Film Commission); Director & Screenplay: Paul Maunder; based on the novel of the same name by Albert Wendt; Director of Photography: Alun Bollinger; Cameraman: Paul Leach; Art Director: Vincent Ward; Sound: Don Reynolds; Music: Malcolm Smith; Uelese Petaia as the boy Sione; Fiona Lindsay as the girl Sarah.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 14 Summer 1979-80