Monday, May 08, 2017

One thousand ropes: a theological review

ticket-1543115-640x480 Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for May 2017.

One thousand ropes
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

In February, I urged Touchstone readers watching Moana to keep watching Pacific pictures. One Thousand Ropes by Samoan New Zealander film director, Tusi Tamasese, provides a perfect opportunity. In 2011, Tamasese gave us The Orator, set in Samoa, with a Samoan cast speaking Samoan. Tamasese returns with One Thousand Ropes, again a Samoan cast, again speaking Samoa, but this time set in New Zealand.

Often narrative drives plot. In One Thousand Ropes the linearity of plot is displaced by time. Maea (Uelese Petaia) is a male midwife. Skilled at birthing the future, he needs deliverance from an ever-present past.

Instead, momentum is generated through Leon Narbey’s cinematography. The focus on small detail – lemons, hands, bodies and buildings – allows the plot to move. The movement of time is marked, not by changing seasons but by an apartment block being painted. Or through lemons, which in the beginning are offered by way of thanks. Placed on Maea’s kitchen table, they become an object of contemplation, before becoming liniment, rubbed on the belly of a pregnant woman. These visual details provide strands for continuity.

The reality of domestic violence haunts One Thousand Ropes. It is examined not by moralistic messaging, but in the interplay of symbol and the absence of certain sounds. Symbolically, the camera focuses on hands. They tenderly massage a placenta from a womb and beat dough into bread. They can also bruise the pregnant body of Maea’s daughter (Frankie Adams).

Then there is sound. A cake mixer pounds dough while men chose the violence of actions over the empathy that comes from words. Is it that men don’t talk? Or is it that these particular men from this particular culture, don’t talk? One Thousand Ropes seems to suggest that the actions of human hands are related to the absence of human words.

Controversially, there is the presence of the spirit of a dead woman (Sima Urale). She lives in the corner of Maea’s living room. Cinematically, the character provides a past presence that haunts Maea’s present. But what does her presence communicate about Samoan culture? And what should a Christian viewer make of this ghostly presence? Watching One Thousand Ropes, I wondered what to make of the Christian Scriptures. Old and New Testaments offer stories from life beyond the grave, including the Easter story of walking dead.

The church is absent in One Thousand Ropes. There is plenty of tradition, in the form of traditional medicine and cultural practice. But there is no trace of religion, whether as healing presence, caring community or moral judge. In this sense, the films fail to capture a dimension of culture essential to Samoan life.

Yet redemption is present, located in the actions of Maea’s daughter, Ilisa. Her midwiving father will not help her. Yet in giving birth alone, she finds courage. By her actions, she steps beyond the hands that have beaten her. She weaves instead, for herself and her father, a new future.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: 2016) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.

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