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Last week-end, on Saturday evening, Moana, the acclaimed cartoon about old-time Polynesian seafarers from Disney was screened in the public park of Paofai, in Papeete (Tahiti). Families came from all over the island. The place was perfect to watch the motion picture: the same spot, only decades ago, must have looked like the home island of Moana. Now it looks like a neat urban tropical park with homogeneous grass and plants. It is nice though. But it now lacks the wild natural touch it once had. Just behind the audience, there is the sea, and the bay of Papeete. But the big event that evening was that, for the first time, the movie was shown in the original langage of the Tahitian people.
The song “We know the way” in Tahitian :
I was born in Papeete, in the island of Tahiti, in French Polynesia, of a European father and a Polynesian mother. Like most of my folks, I grew up feeling isolated on that small piece of land lost in the middle of nowhere. When we watched movies or TV, we would see so much different cultures, so different and far from ou day to day experience, that sometimes it would almost feel like we were totally outside of “it”. Outside of the world and forgotten. As a child, I remember watching a lot of Disneys, which were, long before Miyazaki came to our reach, the must in terms of cinematographic animated entertainment. On the TV side, we were nurtured by Japanese animes. Stretched between two cultures, between east and west. But we never saw our own culture in any good production, except a few movies like the Bounty. But in these, Polynesians were only second role players: like they didn’t make any historical difference & were there only to illustrate the background, obviously.
It didn’t help us searching for our roots. It almost ended up, at least for myself, with a little taste of despair. When you are convinced that nobody in the rest of the world knows the existence of your culture, let alone your island, then you begin to have that feeling that you might not really exist at all. Then, Lilo and Stich came out. Even though it didn’t really feel like day to day life in Polynesia, at least one of the principal characters, Lilo, was a young Hawaiian girl. At the time, it already felt really cool.
The song “How far I’ll go” in Tahitian :
In the same period, one of our “close” neighbors, New-Zealand, suddenly gained international recognition in the cinema industry with the Lord Of the Rings masterpieces. Even though they didn’t include any element of Polynesian culture, they did show the magnificence of Aotearoa, the splendid panoramas of New-Zealand, the country of the long white cloud, which ancient Polynesian seafarers populated centuries ago. We could imagine being in their place, discovering these gorgeous landscapes.
When I first heard of Moana, two years before its release, I was quite skeptical at the time. I thought Disney wouldn’t do much to represent our culture, let alone translate it in Tahitian. What for ? Was there any substantial profit here ? I kept my skepticism for myself until the day I saw it. I must say that I saw it like my dreams as a little boy had finally become reality. As an adult, I realized that the scenario had to be adapted to large international audiences, and that some concessions were unavoidable. However, the characters had something that was much more familiar than ever before. The facial expressions, the moves and the way of talking of some of the Polynesian people I know: my cousins on my mom’ side for instance. The recklessness, the anger, the longing for adventure, the stubbornness and boldness of the main characters did feel like almost intimate. With a bit of Hollywood sauce.
My surprise was total when I heard about the Tahitian version dubbed by local artists. Even though it couldn’t be absolutely perfect in an imperfect world, Moana has been a real inspiration for older folks like me, and much more for younger generations. I recall my students humming the songs of Tamatoa & Maui in the university halls these past months, let alone my own kids.
I never thought I would ever have to say that one day but… thank you Disney !