Tautoga Gausia (Broken Promise): A Critical Review

Part I

Suicide or not suicide?
It's not in Verona (Italy), but in Samoa. It's not the Capulets and the Montagues, but the Tafu'e and Filemoni families. It's not two lovers' deaths but one. Both, notwithstanding, are tragic love stories involving suicide. But in terms of literary and movie merits Romeo and Juliet is miles ahead and oceans apart - as in setting and location - from Tautoga Gausia.

Tautoga Gausia is more a docudrama - and a "promo" cleverly disguised - than a feature film especially since it lacks and/or languishes in the main elements of a typical Hollywood film blueprint. Patricia Cooper in her book Writing the Short Film says:

"At the heart of the docudrama is the sense of actuality ..... [focusing] on real people, in a real place and time ....the nature of the [main] character's struggle is subordinate to the goal of the story....[and] the challenge of conformity is more critical than the main character's fate."

This partial docudrama template is basic to pulling Tautoga away from the Hollywood norm and tradition.

Further, Cooper says that the main aim of a docudrama is to "educate more than to entertain". This has been true for me. Though parts of Tautoga are entertaining, the immediacy and preponderance of the lessons about suicide have a more positive, didactic and educational impact.

Overall, however, as a pioneering effort in the fledgling Samoan movie making enterprise, Tautoga is not too shabby. Therefore I offer my heartiest congratulations to all those involved in the making of the film. But criticism - especially the constructive type - must still be rendered and received hopefully in amicable mutuality. After all, it is generally accepted, as credo in the arts, that criticism is that which makes the art - and artist.

Tautoga succeeds in one main area which is the reintroduction - through a different and perhaps a more effective medium - of the suicide problem among the Samoans. Though ambiguous at best and controversial at worst in that objective, the drama nonetheless raises a renewed awareness in suicide and its underpinnings - especially religion. That, in and of itself, is an irony in the movie and in a country that is reputed as one of the most religious places in the world.

Unequivocally, whether we like it or not, suicide is the main subtext of the movie. (For good or for bad, that is left to one's own interpretation and viewpoint.) Tautoga is a tragedy.

The images and foreshadows of suicide - or at least of general violent and tragic death - are both vivid and subtle. A few vivid symbolic ones include the sharpening of the machete, the fishing spear and the pickaxe - all ominously depicted and all belonging to Filemoni, the victim's father, who likely is incriminated and vilified for his son's death. Other digging tools are subtle reminders of the grave (pun intended) references by Filemoni and the soundtracks.

The most subtle foreshadow, yet proves the most fatal, is the ocean/sea which the movie effectively uses to foil the happiest and romantic moments of Sam and Teuila's courtship. Though water is universally symbolic of life, in the movie, it seems to take on a controverting significance. The swimming pool also advances this same notion. Sam's dive in the pool is a foreshadow of his own death. The canoe also is a fitting foreshadow of death and burial. This conforms to some Pacific lore and myths in which the dead are placed in canoes or canoe-shaped coffins believed to continue carrying the dead or spirits on to the afterlife. The transition from canoe to casket and the later transfer of Sam's body therefore are convincing.
Paraquat (weedkiller) has long been the
major method of suicide in Samoa.

Poison, using weedkiller, as the most common method of suicide in Samoa for a long time has its share of allusions.  In fact the image of drinking - albeit ostensibly casual - abounds throughout the movie. At the very beginning when Sam offers to pay for Teuila's shopping, he is buying two bottles of some type of drink (see picture).  I still remember the time when paraquat weedkiller was bottled in very similar bottles as those Sam is holding. The connection therefore is indubitable. (They look like bottles of Vailima beer which would have been more obvious had the Brewery been one of the sponsors, I guess.  Then again making it that obvious would give away an important subliminal message.)  The fact that Sam was holding them up in plain view of the viewers is very telling too.  In their very next meeting Teuila serves Sam a drink advancing the ingesting of poison reference. Though normal in such relationships, the metaphorical allusions still add to the overall suicide message.

Again, at Roko's, drinks get a more than fair share of the scene. Though both drinks get the initial medium close up shot, Sam's drink gets the cu (close up) shot. Likewise, Tafu'e's bowl of kava, a drink that is generally known for its drugging effects. Here, Sam - and not Teuila - is present and even serves the kava drink, though he ironically declines the offer by Tafu’e.  Sam's predictable suicidal fate is alluded to in these images of drinking poison from the very beginning. Although drowning is believed to cause Sam's death, technically, ingesting and drinking of salt water is the real killer.

Last but not least, the movie title and explicit lyrics of the soundtracks also connote and proclaim predictable and untimely death. If the subtext of the film isn't suicide, Sam will have made a good prodigal son prototype based on his rocky relationship and seeming resentment for his father.

...part ii coming soon.

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