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From the Labs: Kerry Warkia on Centering Indigenous Values and Decolonizing Her Storytelling

We’ve been conditioned to think that storytelling is a solo journey — the brooding writer, the singular genius director, etc — but it doesn’t need to be. Filmmaker and producer Kerry Warkia has been cracking this myth (and internalized colonization of film) wide open through her arresting work over the last two decades. When the Papua New Guinean/Scottish filmmaker sat down with fellows during the 2021 Ignite labs for a long conversation, she dove deep into the ideation, production, and distribution of her sophomore feature VAI.

The film, which follows the life of Vai through individual segments written and directed by nine separate Pacific Va’ine, highlights the shared culture and unique aspects of life on seven Pacific islands. Collaboration and communication were essential to the ideation and production of VAI. “It’s a conversation for everyone to have because the decisions you make create ripple effects,” Warkia says via Zoom. “Things affect others and, so having as many perspectives at the table, bringing their ideas and bringing their solutions to things makes everything richer. It might take a little bit longer, but it just makes everything better.”

Warkia’s dedication to the communal storytelling process is palpable through the Labs conversation. Below, learn more about Warkia’s ideation and production process surrounding VAI in her own words and watch the full conversation for free here.

The inspiration for VAI came on a long drive and a shared history

In terms of the exact moment of coming up with the idea and the creative framework [for the film], we’re actually driving. My husband and I and our children… were driving home and we were talking about the journey of leaving Papua New Guinea — leaving one island to travel to another island and New Zealand. 

And all the reasons for leaving life at home in the village, the importance of that, the connection to tell language or to culture to water and the idea that for Pacific people the Ocean is a vital connector: it isn’t something that separates us from our worldview, it’s something that connects us. So we started talking about this woman that we hadn’t named yet, but all of her different lives and how she had to be representative of so many journeys. She had to be a woman that many filmmakers could pick her up; they could access her, they could make her their own and yet she had to be someone we could all connect to. 

Then we started talking about the commonalities that we have: the word for water in five of the languages in the film it’s also understood across the Pacific. For water, we wanted to kind of create this fluid idea of this woman, Vai, who could cross over to many different cultures. That’s the kernel of how that was created and then in terms of the framework.

The nine filmmakers brought their own perspectives to the film, but were still telling one cohesive story

I was looking at what would hold us all together in the same space, because we didn’t want to make films that were short films that were all just connected. We wanted to really have a cohesive, connective tissue, but also cohesive through the journey of this woman. So we [created] these sort of creative frameworks that did become sort of non-negotiable: a team at one shot having one day to shoot [the section of the film] and having a female lead, who had to be the same ethnic background, and our writers are directors incorporating the image system of water, incorporating the theme of cultural or traditional empowerment for women, [and] the name of it being the same name across all of the Vai characters. [For the film we wanted Vai to] grow, so having her start as a little girl and [then] as an older woman.  So each vignette had to show why that was, maybe 8–12 years apart and then one of the things that came about, so that was our creative.

Getting the team in a room together bred creativity and VAI’s communal direction

[Interviewing 69 Pacific women writer-directors to work on VAI] was the first instance of pulling that [creative] together, and then the development process was a five day writer’s retreat. We called it a retreat, but to be honest it was a boot camp! We got to the end of that with… everyone’s first draft of the feature, and that retreat requires work and a lot of exploration and talking to one another. Out of that retreat came the next sort of creative principle, which was that Vai needed to have a shared history, in order for us to kind of connect all of those women. Also what came out of that was the word “Vai” — her name in different languages and what that looked like.

The circular culture of Pacific island life was integral to VAI’s plot and process.

One of the principles of Pacific cultures is the circle, and how we design and live within a circular structure of the past, the present, and the future. The connectedness of all of those things. They don’t exist individually, they exist together, and I think that’s very real, for us. That’s something that we live day to day within our different cultures and that was something that was common to all of us that we could all understand. You don’t have to explain that, you just understand it and you live it. 

So, having all of those women at the table, was a natural way for them to investigate storytelling [through] something that was familiar and authentic to them. When you have a circle structure…every member of the team is equal, every member of the team is seen [and] every member of the team is listening or valued. Whenever we came together…[in] a boardroom and it’s like a rectangle, and we would change the structure of everything to make sure that every time we’re stepping into anything it’s a circle… It was creating [a safe space] that so, even when we challenge one another, because we should challenge each other, that’s the safe space to do it when we go out into the world and we put the film out into the world. And we’ll all have to stand together and say we investigated all of our decisions, we robustly challenged ourselves and talked about them, we have to take this film back to our communities. 

The authentic work will help others grow and learn as well

Every member of our crew on one island or another had a big moment. I think more of our Western crew, you know, our crew who this wasn’t necessarily their culture or their understanding of [the world], had a very big, deep moment about life. It was beautiful to watch this growth happening within people.

To view the entire Collab video with Kerry Warkia, click here. For information on a virtual course on Film Producing: How to Develop, Finance & Distribute Your Film, click here.

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Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program Stands By Navajo Code Talkers and The Art of Native Storytelling

Sundance Institute and the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program looked with sadness and dismay at yesterday’s White House ceremony meant to commemorate the unprecedented contributions of America’s Navajo Code Talkers. The event unfolded in a disrespectful tone that bears attention.
The hundreds of Native American Code Talkers who served in World War I and II deserve our undying gratitude and respect, and today we offer that to them and all veterans from the far reaches of America, including Indian Country, where Native people have served this country in every war in its history.

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NEA Proposed Cuts

Sundance Institute vigorously supports the National Endowment for the Arts, and calls upon our country’s leadership to do the same. NEA support played a crucial role in launching Sundance Institute in 1981 and has helped thousands of museums, arts programs and organizations. The NEA plays a critical role in building a culture that values artists and understands the important economic benefits of investing in the arts.

Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program Stands By Navajo Code Talkers and The Art of Native Storytelling

Sundance Institute and the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program looked with sadness and dismay at yesterday’s White House ceremony meant to commemorate the unprecedented contributions of America’s Navajo Code Talkers. The event unfolded in a disrespectful tone that bears attention.
The hundreds of Native American Code Talkers who served in World War I and II deserve our undying gratitude and respect, and today we offer that to them and all veterans from the far reaches of America, including Indian Country, where Native people have served this country in every war in its history.

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