Transforming Polynesian Myth into Digital Art – “Sina ma Tinirau” Screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival

Vilsoni Hereniko, known to his friends as Vili, has come a long way from his native Rotuma, a Polynesian aberration on the far reaches of the Fiji archipelago. Inspired by island folklore told to him by his father, the Honolulu-based filmmaker and professor at the University of Hawaii’s Academy of Creative Media has just released his latest film, Sina ma Tinirau, (Sina and Tinirau) which is currently screened (online only) at the Hawai’i International Film Festival.

Sina, a beautiful woman, and Tinirau a handsome man, are two mythological icons of Rotuman oral literature. Their story looks like this:

A prince, who is cursed to become an eel, must win the love of a beautiful woman to become human again. He offers her his body in the form of a coconut palm in a seductive display. The film is narrated in English with some dialogues in Rotuman, which are subtitled. It gives authenticity to the story.

(See trailer below).

In her account of an ancient tale for the world today, Hereniko draws inspiration from Carl Jung by interpreting a legend as central to the Polynesian collective unconscious as the Crucifixion of Jesus would be in the West. In doing so, he makes the wisdom of traditional Polynesia accessible to the rest of us.

In the words of Selina Tusitala Marsh, New Zealand poet laureate Hereniko “combines sound narration with visually vibrant animation to tell a hanuju, a mythical Rotuman version of Oceania’s greatest love stories of all time.”

“Sina ma Tinirau”, says Hereniko, “is an ancient oral tale that has stood the test of time because it embodies our sensitivity, our worldview and our aesthetic as Polynesians.” This is not a conventional romantic love story between a man and a woman.

On the contrary, he explains, “it is an unconditional love, similar to that of Christ, illustrated by forgiveness”.

“Even though Tinirau’s head was cut off and Sina betrayed him, he gave the Polynesian people, personified by Sina, the tree of life. This donation allowed us to survive. It is the most useful and important tree for us.

The coconut palm is the Polynesians’ tree of life. In Hawai’i, the tree is stripped of its nuts in all public spaces.

For Vili Hereniko, the attraction of the coconut palm is very personal.

“As one of eleven children who grew up on a remote island in the South Pacific,” explains the filmmaker, “this tree has saved my life on several occasions. We didn’t always have enough to eat. When the weather was bad, we survived on coconut meat and water.

Hereniko said that when he first came to Hawai’i and observed that coconuts had been removed from all parks and public places, it deeply moved him. He called the trees “eunuchs”. It also bothered him that many people apparently weren’t bothered by what he observed as some kind of cultural castration.

“It’s all about education, learning to live with trees,” Hereniko said. “I mean, no one in Fiji would have wanted to picnic under a coconut tree. They know better. By turning a source of food and water (at least) into a pretty dancing tree and symbol of paradise, local residents are being denied the food and sustenance that trees provide.

Sina lures the eel to come ashore where her brothers are waiting to kill the creature.

Hereniko also said that her film also touches on the “shadow” side of Polynesians, especially their prejudices against black skin.

“It’s something nobody talks about in public,” Hereniko says, “but it’s pervasive in my culture and in Polynesian society in general. The bias is there and I wanted to bring it to the surface ”. (In the myth, Sina has fair skin and the eel is black. Sina initially rejects the advances of the eel because of her black skin).

A collaborative effort

Hereniko said the film was a collaborative effort between several ACM UH professors and their animation students.

Sina ma Tinirau was also recently awarded at the Los Angeles International Film Festival.

The university funded the making of the film through the University of Hawaii at Manoa Strategic Investment Grant for Film and Animation Collaboration. However, to complete the project, Hereniko had to appeal to the European Research Council, an entity of the European Union, which provided more funding.

He said he was “very grateful for the support from these two funding sources, and the support from Philipp Schorch (co-producer).

The UH Manoa teachers involved were Laura Margulies (animation producer), George Wang (editor), Brittany Biggs (consultant), Vilsoni Hereniko (producer, screenwriter, director and narrator).

The animators of UH Manoa (some of whom are now alumni) are: Gavin Arucan (Animation Director), Alexis Nelson (Sound Designer and Sound Editor) and Sophia Whalen, Molly Tapken, Mirren Hollison, Danae Naone, Jewel Racasa, Angela Isidro, Alex Narimasu and Samuel St. John.

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