Tautoga Gausia: A Critical Review

Part II

Who is the Protagonist? Filemoni - not Sam
In typical feature film fashion, the protagonist (hero or main character) is one around whom the plot, storyline and other elements revolve. He/She is also the one who demonstrates and substantiates the character arc based on the three-act structure of prototypical movies. In the character arc, the protagonist experiences change - more specifically, growth - during the course of the movie. The protagonist embarks on a quest facing inordinate and often insurmountable challenges - outer and/or inner.

In the end he overcomes the challenge(s), hence the change and growth.  Death - especially by suicide - is hardly evidence of growth and/or overcoming the challenge(s), unless the death of the protagonist is depicted as sacrifice or martyrdom in which case religious dogma will have been the main push behind the subtext and overall message of the movie. Similarly, in the case of Tautoga, some may elevate and argue Sam’s death as that of a "martyr" for the anti-suicide cause. But despite the convincing role of religion in the storyline, Tautoga is not a movie on religious dogma.

So even though there is not a clear-cut protagonist, we can still dub one, at least for our own penchant and sanity. Most viewers generally agree that Sam and/or Teuila are the main characters, but the lack of change and/or growth in their characters disqualify them in the protagonist search. Filemoni is more qualified as protagonist. He is the one who demonstrates change - though quite late - and therefore adheres to the character arc paradigm. Better late than never, some in the Filemoni-as-protagonist camp may argue. Personally my disappointment lies in the brevity and feebleness of the scene of him as a penitent; the timing also proves more anticlimactic and therefore seems futile and ineffective. But again, Tautoga’s educational story as a docudrama overrides and transcends character struggles and development. And like Cooper says, that in a docudrama "although there are many characters on both sides ... their vividness does not dominate the story, indeed there is no single main character."

Nonetheless, as Samoan viewers, we still always look and pine for a protagonist or hero (tama o le ata/tama autu) regardless of genre. And if there doesn’t seem to be a clear one, we assign our own - as long as he’s not dead in the end. For Samoans, this concept is traditional and proverbial. There’s a familiar story of an old Samoan father who asked his son, who had just come home from the movies, to recount for him the story and plot, but with one condition - to make sure the protagonist is not dead in the end. Though chimerical, the notion is widely adopted and embraced. Yet, it’s not a Samoan concoction either; rather, it’s the conventions of a typical three-act plot of the majority of movies that are being observed and followed. Perhaps this is the reason some viewers are not comfortable with endowing Sam as protagonist - because he dies in the end.

The more we relate to a particular character in a movie, the more we identify with him and the more anxious we are in putting him on a pedestal as our hero. And so we often end up anointing our own protagonist as someone who is brave, strong, funny or who is like us in some ways. We also look for someone who resembles a close relative or someone in real life, a role model character or standout. Filemoni is that standout character in Tautoga. In fact it’s possible that he qualifies for a dual role of protagonist and antagonist based on the nature of his character. Add to that his true-to-life portrayal of a typical belligerent short-tempered, yet hard working Samoan father and Filemoni- both the character and the actor - has a future in Samoan films. Even with his antagonistic tendencies, we seem to relate better to Filemoni than any other character. He is someone’s father, brother, uncle, neighbor or friend. Though harsh and unrepentant in his testimony at his son’s funeral service, Filemoni uses three words which may be termed as "sad and painful truths" to describe the cause(s) of Sam’s death - stubbornness (fiafaali’i), cowardice (pala’ai) and stupidity (faavalevalea).

Again, Filemoni changes and grows - not Sam. Filemoni contemplates suicide but overcomes the urge - not Sam. Filemoni is more realistic and natural in demeanor and dialogue - not Sam. Filemoni displays qualities of a protagonist - even if cast as a "false" one - but not Sam. All in all, Filemoni’s character is easily the most believable one. Even on the emotional and sentimental levels, Filemoni gets my unbiased sympathy.

By contrast, the assumed main characters - Sam and Teuila - are lethargic as far as acting and dialogue are concerned. Though they drive the story, they remain lackluster and dull. Most of the scenes are short brief and bland. Sam and Teuila seem unnatural, contrived and artificial at times. Can we use innocence, inexperience and the lack of sophistication of youth to explain Sam and Teuila’s uninteresting characters? Maybe, maybe not - since both are grown adults. Anyhow, for their first efforts as movie characters, Sam and Teuila should still be congratulated and saluted.

...part iii next

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