Sons for the Return Home

English Title: Sons for the Return Home

Country of Origin: New Zealand

Studio: Pacific Films Productions Limited

Director: Paul Maunder

Producer(s): Don Blakeney

Screenplay: Paul Maunder

Cinematographer: Alun Bollinger

Art Director: Vincent Ward

Editor: Christine Lancaster

Runtime: 117 minutes

Genre: Drama

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Anne Flannery, Alan Jervis, Fiona Lindsay, Uelese Petaia, Lani John Tupu, Moira Walker

Year: 1979

Volume: Australasian

Sione, a young Samoan man studying at university in Wellington, meets and falls in love with Sarah, a young Palagi (European) woman also studying there. The film’s plot follows the troubled evolution of their relationship. It also traces the previous life history of Sione from his arrival in New Zealand as a small child accompanying his parents who have migrated from Samoa. All these events in New Zealand are remembered in flashback by the adult Sione who has reluctantly returned with his parents to Samoa after breaking up with Sarah. He recalls meeting her, their relationship blossoming, and the rather fraught occasions when they meet each other’s parents and experience prejudice and closed-mindedness. The young couple embark on a road trip through the North Island of New Zealand where they encounter Maori culture and also quarrel. Pressures mount on them and they split up before Sione’s return to Samoa. He discovers that he feels just as out of place and alienated in the Samoan environment as he had in Wellington and, after having a bitter confrontation with his mother, he flies back to New Zealand from Apia. Sarah is last seen looking wistful while visiting London.

Sons for the Return Home is unique in being the first feature film to take as its subject matter the experience of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Now, 30 years later, it is fascinating to compare its depiction of this topic with more current releases such as Sione’s Wedding or No.2. The young couple at the foreground of Sons for the Return Home would now be the age of the parents of the young people of the latter two films. In effect, the new films show a new generation of Pacific Island New Zealanders who have progressed beyond the bleak situation of Sione and Sarah. The 1979 film dramatizes troubled race relations personified in a tale of a doomed romance whereas the more recent films are able to have their conflicts take place entirely within the Polynesian segment of the New Zealand population. Sione in Sons for the Return Home feels out of place and alienated in both Samoa and New Zealand while the Pasifika characters in the twenty-first-century films feel comfortable, confident and very much at home in their adopted country.

The novel Sons for the Return Home was the first ever published in English by a Samoan, and Albert Wendt was the first fiction writer to look at New Zealand life from the perspective of a Pacific Islander. The film had a mixed Samoan and New Zealand cast but all members of the principal crew were Palagis (white New Zealanders). Wendt’s book was thus filtered through the sensibilities of scriptwriter/director Paul Maunder and others so that it became a Samoan-New Zealand story told by Europeans. Maunder did, however, try to construct the film so that a strong post-colonial message came through, one which would compare the experience of Samoan migrants to New Zealand with that of Maoris since white settlement.

He also rearranged the novel’s order so that Sione’s adult experiences in Samoa now follow his relationship with Sarah (both characters are unnamed in the book) to bring in the Samoan sections much earlier, partly for their exotic nature. Therefore, in the film we first see Sione in Apia or his parents’ village and he then remembers earlier events in New Zealand. This results in a tremendous number of flashbacks and of time-shuffling that eventually becomes confusing. The infamous police dawn raids of the 1970s, aimed at catching Island overstayers, were added as plot items by Maunder – an appropriate and successful piece of updating. These scenes, along with those showing Sarah in a London pub, make the film more understandable to an international, particularly British, audience as a universal story of oppression.

Maunder and his collaborators, such as art director Vincent Ward, create a clever visual contrast between the film’s two settings: Wellington dominated by cold blues and greys which make even the love scenes seem passionless, while Samoa’s warm colours in vegetation, sky, ocean, islets, flowers and firelight speak of a more welcoming land.

Maunder claimed that he had cut out the sociological strand of the novel’s Apia sequences in favour of the personal story. Nonetheless, what was described as the didactic, Marxist side of his aesthetic upset veteran producer John O’Shea and he had his name taken off the film’s credits, saying that the heart and warmth had been cut from the story.

The resulting film combines a personal love story with a political film depicting the deleterious effects of colonialism and this causes an awkward mix of tone, despite generally fine performances. In 1990 another of Wendt’s Samoan fictions Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree was made into a film by Martyn Sanderson.

Author of this review: Brian McDonnell