Don’t overlook the positives of Disney’s Moana

Below is a piece I wrote – originally published on Stuff.co.nz, 19 September 2016 – about the importance of global representation of Pasifika nations and cultures in the climate change era. I was concerned that that representation would get lost to concerns about cultural appropriation.

Today, my views were vindicated a little more. Opetaia Foa’i and Julie Foa’i of the musical group, Te Vaka, were  interviewed on Radio New Zealand. They contributed to the soundtrack of Moana.

Opetaia and Julie were asked about cultural appropriation, “You think they’ve learnt their lessons with Pocahontas and so on?”

Julie responded, “Oh absolutely. But in saying that, you’re never going to please everybody but they were sincerely moved by their own experiences in the South Pacific and they wanted to reflect the beauty that they discovered for themselves. The producer, and the directors and various other people had toured around the islands for a couple of years before we were on board. They’ve done a lot of development and investigation and all the things that they do to make what you’re going to see shortly.”

The concerns about cultural appropriation are entirely valid. I just hope that those concerns don’t drown out representation of nations that so desperately need to be seen and heard right now.

Here’s my original editorial in full:

To say that Disney’s new film Moana is cultural appropriation is too simplistic.

Most online outrage has a solid basis. However, it’s a blunt tool that can be guilty of over-looking really important, positive aspects to an issue or story.

The claim of cultural appropriation with respect to the film Moana and its merchandise is an example.

The original script was written by New Zealand Maori film-maker, Taika Waititi. Waititi is well-known in New Zealand for his advocacy for Maori and other indigenous peoples, and his advocacy for other progressive issues.

It would be extraordinary to accuse a Polynesian of appropriating Polynesian culture, particularly an individual who is such a strong advocate.

As for the cast, according to the list on IMDB.com, except for the voice of a rooster and another undescribed voice, all other voices are done by people of Pasifika decent: Dwayne Johnson (Samoan), Jermaine Clement (Maori), Nicole Sherzinger (Hawaiian), Temuera Morrison (Maori), Auli’I Cravalho (Hawaiian). Also, Opetaia Fao’i (Tuvaluan and Tokelauan) helped score and perform the music.

In terms of other aspects of making Moana, the film-makers made multiple trips to multiple Pacific Island nations to learn from Pasifika people and get things right. Who knows exactly how many people they spoke to, but surely there were many; dozens, perhaps.

On top of that, and on top of the expertise they would have also from Waititi and the cast, the film-makers employed a council of experts to ensure the film was true and respectful to culture and history, through the story, the names, the dialogue, and the cultural references.

For all of the many Pasifika people involved, try to imagine what they wanted to achieve. One of the elders who was consulted reportedly said to the American film-makers, “We’ve been swallowed by your culture. One time, can you be swallowed by our culture?”

Isn’t it entirely possible that the dozens of Pasifika involved in Moana thought the same? Isn’t it possible that they thought, “Our kids will get to see themselves on screen, in colouring-in books, on lunchboxes and schoolbags; they’ll get to wear hero costumes where the heroes are like them”?

They weren’t thinking, “Hopefully we can help Hollywood treat our cultures disrespectfully”.

I’m not Pasifika myself, but I’m doing a PhD dealing with Pasifika issues. In my dealings with people from Tokelau, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Samoa, the distinct impression I get is that they desperately want the world to know the huge risks and existential threats that climate change poses for entire countries and all they contain: communities, cultures, languages, ancestors, heritage.

To dismiss Moana simply as cultural appropriation would be heart-breaking for the Pasifika people involved in the film and who see it as a golden opportunity to put their cultures in front of the world. Dismissing their involvement and their reasons for being involved is, in fact, profoundly disrespectful.

So, while I respect the concerns and where they come from, it’s an over-simplification.

Just because you can buy merchandise with Pasifika references doesn’t mean it’s not offering the representation that’s so desperately needed and wanted.

Just because people make money from something doesn’t mean it has no other values.

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