Lia Dubuana: Tongan Short Film About Language Moves Audience to Tears at Sundance

Lia-Bubu_Anga mother tongue
Photo: Lia-Bubu_Anga mother tongue

A Tongan story has landed at Sundance, one of the world's biggest film festivals.

Two Tongan-New Zealand filmmakers are behind the short film Mother tongue of Lia DubuThe story explores a young woman's journey to reconnect with her Tongan heritage, helping people grapple with cultural identity and language trauma.

The film was selected out of 17,000 submissions for Sundance, which has launched the careers of some of the world's greatest directors, such as Christopher Nolan.

Leah Dupu's Mother Tongue premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the US on Monday (NZT).

„We thought we'd give it a gamble and we struck it lucky,” said director Way Mafilio, explaining that this was the first film festival they'd applied to.

„Language is the theme of the whole short film…it's a code,” said writer and actor Lucian Buchanan.

Buchanan is best known for his starring role in the Netflix hit show, Night Agent.

Lucian Buchanan

Lucian Buchanan
Photo: Netflix

Although the Tongan language is heard on the big screen, Buchanan said the story is accessible to a wider audience as it explores „we are the people without the language”.

Both Mafile'o and Buchanan struggle to speak the Tongan language, which was a driving force in telling the story.

„Writing this was really weird for me. I've come to a place of acceptance that this is a lifelong journey. It's not going to be fixed in a year,” Buchanan said.

„Whether it's Te Rio or Tongan, everyone is on their own journey. There are many factors as to why we don't have that language ability.”

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The language is universal and has already resonated with many of the film's audiences, they said.

„This film transcends cultures. A black American came up to me crying and echoed it. An Iranian was crying and told me this is my story. It's a global dilemma,” said Mafile'o.

Director Vea Mafile'o

Director Vea Mafile'o
Photo: Loading documents

A rare voice

Pacific films in particular are lacking in America.

There was another Pacific film at Sundance, and it was Hawaii.

„We are a minority of minorities in America,” he said.

„Pacific Islanders are under the same category as Asians. So basically we're lumped into the same basket. It's definitely a rare voice in this place.”

Spotlight on Pacific creations

Mafile'o said he also wants to join the Pacifica film industry.

„I'm really excited about how this film can highlight the place that the Pacific belongs to.”

He explained, „It's not just the actor director.”

There are other roles in the film industry like editor, camera barber, set builder, coffee maker.

„There are many jobs [in film] I think our people don't realize it yet.”

The pair hope to bring the film to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

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