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Embracing Polynesian Heritage, in Art and Film

Artists in French Polynesia are embracing their indigenous heritage as they shake the psychological bonds of colonialism; among them is filmmaker Are Raimbault.

Tahiti and other Polynesian islands were long under French colonial rule, their Indigenous Peoples suppressed. But of late this history is emerging as young people increasingly embrace their Native heritage. Are Raimbault, a young filmmaker from Papeete, Tahiti, is among a new generation of French Polynesians who are creating works that explore their Native identity. His latest work: a documentary about Pūtahi, a festival that gathers Native artists from the Pacific in New Zealand and Tahiti (alternating each year), to share their knowledge and exhibit their work.

Last year festival creator Viri Taimana invited Raimbault to New Zealand to film the fourth edition of Pūtahi. The result is a documentary of the same name, highlighting the very thing that Raimbault embodies: a revival of Native identity, through the arts. Raimbault studied filmmaking at Montreal University and today focuses on Polynesian arts and traditions. Current projects include a documentary in progress on women artists from New Caledonia, and a photo exhibition at the Museum of Tahiti. Raimbault sat down with Indian Country Media Network during a screening of Pūtahi Kotahitanga in Paris to share his views on French Polynesia, the Pacific Nations, and emerging Native sensibilities.


What does Pūtahi mean?

Pūtahi, or Kutahitanga in Maori, is a Tahitian word meaning solidarity; it defines the gathering of artists from the Pacific at which young and old learn together.

What can you tell us about artists in French Polynesia?

And art is everywhere in our society: dance, songs, tattoos, sculpture, painting. There are many art galleries, aside from our main art school, Le Centre des Métiers d’Art, and the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands. The government just issued a professional artist card [akin to press credentials, only for artists].

Would you say Pūtahi reflects a revival of Oceanic identity?

The artists come from countries that went through colonization, so the notion of identity reappears through the arts. There is an affirmation of identity, indeed, among artists from New Zealand, Hawaii, Tonga, New Caledonia, Polynesia and the Cook islands. In French Polynesia, the revalorization of identity grew in the context of the Experimentation Center of the Pacific and the nuclear bomb tests. It was also linked to the influence of writers such as Henri Hiro, and Duro Raa-poto, or the singer Bobby Holcomb. And there is today a strong, growing notion of autonomy. The attachment of the people to the Polynesian culture is there, with the reaffirmation of culture, and arts—traditional and contemporary—greatly influenced by the environment—the mountains, the sea, the islands. Many associations work to protect Polynesian identity.

Do you speak Tahitian?

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My mother was a teacher of Tahitian, so I understand it, but I am still learning it. The language is in danger, because the government does not favor it. It is the third language after English, and mandatory. But there is a trend to revive it; and hopefully, soon, all Polynesians will be able to speak it. In Hawaiian immersion schools, students learn in their original language: I hope we will get there.

Mana is fundamental to Tahitian philosophy and way of life. Does that energy drive you as well?

Ah! [laughing] Mana is a sacred concept, a life philosophy. It defines a special energy driving you forward, an art of life that can only be understood by being here: You feel it in everyday life in Tahiti.

Pūtahi Kotahitanga is a new documentary chronicling the rise of indigenous identity among French Polynesian artists.

Pūtahi Kotahitanga is a new documentary chronicling the rise of indigenous identity among French Polynesian artists.

Is there a connection in French Polynesian culture to their ancestors?

Our ancestors are at the heart of Polynesian culture. The elders and the dead are respected. There are similarities with Maori and Hawaiians, such as dancing, which is central to our Oceanic culture. And over the past 20 years, French Polynesians have drawn closer to their Pacific culture and roots and are trying to promote it in their everyday lives.

Polynesians are trying to revive traditional Marae, places of worship. Is that practice related to the ancestors, and is it open to the public?

The Marae represent a place connecting us with our ancestors and our roots. Among the Marae, some are touristic and accessible; others, located in the heart of the forest, are sacred, protected by families. Some were destroyed during the colonization, and are rebuilt today. Marae matter to Polynesians; they are not folkloric.

Do you see similarities between French Polynesian and Native American or First Nations culture?

We see a lot of American movies, fashion, etc. in Tahiti, and American food places have now opened. Also, Marlon Brando’s presence is still alive among Polynesians, since the time he spent on his island of Tetiaroa—today the Brando Resort—where President Barack Obama recently stayed to write his book. I do not know much about Native Americans, but I saw their dances in Canada. It seems to me that we have issues in common. As aboriginals, we too have been victims of colonization. So there is a historical connection. We are the first inhabitants of Polynesia, and Native Americans are the first people of the Americas. And we both share a special relationship to nature. I followed the [Dakota Access] pipeline peaceful protest over the land and the quality of the water. As a Polynesian, I cannot be insensitive to those issues. We too, feel concerned, and are deeply touched by this protest, as our environment issues have been painful. We have had nuclear testing take place here for years. So I see those bridges between our people, and I am sure there are others.