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Interview with Vilsoni Hereniko
Writer/Director of THE LAND HAS EYES

What inspired you to make The Land Has Eyes?

My father was a storyteller, so I grew up listening to stories of the island, its so-called myths and legends. Since film is the most powerful medium for storytellers today, I wanted to use it to tell a story, in much the same way my father did, except for the medium that is of course different. I believe a powerful story has the potential to transform other people’s lives, and I think The Land Has Eyes has the potential to make people more aware of our spiritual and enduring relationship with the land and to see the land as a living human being. This is a view of the land held by many native people around the world. In today’s climate, this is an important message for all of us.

What films, courses or books have most influenced your work?
When I was younger, I was very much influenced by Greek mythology and stories from the bible. As a young playwright, I was in awe of the playwrights Ibsen and Shakespeare. In recent years, I’ve been influenced a great deal by Pacific writers such as Albert Wendt, Patricia Grace, and Epeli Hau’ofa. Filmmakers whose work I adore are mainly from Asia – Moshen Mahmalbaf, Buddadeb Dusgupta, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Zang Yimou, and many others.

Are many of the incidents in The Land Has Eyes similar to incidents in your life?
Yes, The Land Has Eyes has many events or incidences that are similar to my own experiences growing up on the island. For example, my father died when I was fourteen, about the age of the protagonist, and that had a profound impact on me as a young boy. My father too was falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit. And like the protagonist, I too excelled in school because I saw education as the only way out for me. But I didn’t want the film to be strictly autobiographical, so I made the protagonist a girl so that I would have more creative choices and have more freedom as an artist creating a work of fiction.

What is it about being Rotuman that influenced the way you wrote and directed The Land Has Eyes?
As a Rotuman going back to the island of my birth to make a movie, I had obligations and responsibilities to my own people. For example, it was important to me not to misrepresent or create stereotypes about the Rotuman people. I had a responsibility to create characters that are recognizably Rotuman in the way they react to situations and events. I wanted the characters to speak in their own language because this is what they would do in real life. Because the court and the school on the island employed English as the medium of communication, then English was used. But I didn’t want to use English simply because that’s the preferred language of mainstream society. I wanted to make a film that would speak to the Rotuman experience – this mattered more to me than anything else. This meant that before the screenplay was completed, I went around the island telling the story to several different audiences to get their feedback, I also had to get permission from all the chiefs on the island to film there, and I also wanted to use Rotuman actors, except for the warrior woman who migrated to the island and the district commissioner who was a representative of the Queen of England.

How has your experience as a professor of film, literature, theater and cultural identity prepared you to be a filmmaker?
My academic and intellectual work has made me extremely sensitive to the power of images and how they can be dangerous to a people or a culture if they are not handled with compassion. My awareness of the negative and stereotypical representations of Pacific Islanders in early films, literature and theater has meant that I’m committed to creating works of art that treat Pacific Islanders with respect and dignity. This doesn’t mean that all my characters are wonderful and perfect human beings; it simply means that the characters are fully human, and come across as people we recognize as believable, with great potential to do good as well as evil.

You are a playwright with more than a dozen plays to your credit. How do you decide what story is better presented as live theater as compared to feature films?
Theater depends a lot on dialog. A film depends primarily on its visuals. The Land Has Eyes is very visual, and I believe film is a better medium for it. I think it’s possible to follow a lot of the story by merely watching the visuals because dialog is only used when necessary. Most of the time one can follow the story by observing people’s actions, their facial expressions, the context itself. The Land Has Eyes is an original script, written specifically for a visual medium.

What is your next feature film project?
I am writing a romantic comedy with Jeannette called "Welcome To My Island." It is about a Pacific Islander filmmaker and his American producer whose efforts to make an indie film on a remote South Seas island are derailed by a military coup, a modern-day Jesus, a self-appointed Queen and a drug addict.