Vai is an anthology film with a few unique connective threads. Each of the eight segments was written and directed by a female Pacific Islander; each segment consists of only one or two single, continuous shots; and each story is about a girl or woman named “Vai,” though “Vai” is usually short for one of a few longer forms of the name. The stories are arranged chronologically, so we kind of see this girl named “Vai” age from a very young child to an elderly woman, a la Boyhood+sixty years or so, and all the stories are concerned with a woman’s place in the various Pacific Islander cultures each filmmaker represents and the graces and pressures those cultures place upon her. Vai is a lovely film, rich in contextual and communal detail, and remarkable in its vision and envisioning.
A more pop-culture friendly way to describe the film would be to call is Moana without the magic, but that would obscure Vai’s rich spiritual vision, which, while absent giant, talking, jewel-encrusted crabs and shape-shifting demigods, is replete with fascinating examples of syncretistic melding of Polynesian and Christian rituals. These rituals are essential to islander life and Vai’s negotiation of her place within it at all stages of her development. She may not be able to mysteriously control the sea like Disney’s heroine, but Vai makes explicit the near-mystical connection Polynesian people have with the water, quoting a poet in its epigraph who states that the presence of salt in human tears and sweat is evidence that the sea is inside us. So even when a twenty-something Vai, for example, goes to New Zealand to study, she is very much still connected to her people and the place she grew up. Vai can’t escape her people, nor would she want to, because her people and their place is life itself, and all of this is repeatedly confirmed via rituals.
The decision to make these installments in single shots (or nearly single shots in a couple of cases) was strategic, we learned in a Q&A with the filmmakers after the premiere of this film at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. The producers, Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, knew that if they made single-shot stories integral to the film as a whole, would-be distributors couldn’t demand changes that would supposedly make the full film more obviously palatable to a wider audience. Doing so would mean imposing a non-Pacific Islander sensibility on deeply personal and contextual stories. These female, indigenous filmmakers haven’t had the same opportunities as other filmmakers, and their people’s stories have always been told by white filmmakers. They wanted these women to get to tell their stories unfiltered, without interference or “translation.”
Thankfully, these are all clearly talented storytellers. It is never “difficult” to watch this full film. Long takes can sometime distract from the story – I’m looking at you, Birdman – but that is never the case here. Maybe that’s because even though the protagonist is always named some version of “Vai,” she is a new woman each time, and we have to get to know her when each installment begins. That’s fun. You can watch any cinematic story for five minutes as you learn whom it is about and how it is being told. There’s skilled, economic storytelling at work her too though, so it never takes that long to become familiar with each new “Vai.” Each installment feels complete as it also interweaves with the rest.
That is how life is, after all, isn’t it? We are different people at different points in our lives, and yet those past people we were still live inside us. And we have a vision for whom we will become, a “future us” we are hoping to be. That’s at the core of what it means to be human. Without any of those “selves” – due to trauma, illness, poverty, etc. – we feel incomplete. We’re missing part of the story, and we find it difficult to thrive. A movie can be a kind of borrowed story that enables us to imagine how to fill in any of those missing or obscured parts of ourselves.
Imagine then what it’s like to never see your story reflected on-screen, to never see other versions of your story that you can imagine yourself into. That’s the place in which Pacific Islander women have found themselves. Vai rectifies that. It puts one and eight stories on screen for us all to see, but especially for people like the filmmakers. And those of us who are not like them on the surface can see how we are like them deep down. I cry salty tears and sweat salty sweat too. Maybe the sea is inside me. At the very least, I can resonate with and affirm the humanity I see in Vai.