Maea, the central figure in Tusi Tamasese’s movie One Thousand Ropes, is a man haunted by his violent past. He lives in a barren, cramped, dark apartment – typical of 1970s experiments in compact urban housing – in Wellington. It looks as if the apartment has not had much maintenance since it was built. There is an old, sick-looking lemon tree in the shared back yard. Maea raised his family in this apartment after migrating from Samoa many years ago, but now he occupies it alone.
Alone, that is, except for Seipua, the brooding, angry and sometimes violent ghost of a woman, who crouches in a corner, looking grimly out the window. Seipua’s body lies in a grave that Maea passes on his way to work. The ghost Seipua attacks and bites Maea while he sleeps, and threatens to kill him, standing with her full weight on his chest.
Maea’s daughter Ilisa turns up unexpectedly. She is pregnant, and has been violently abused by her partner. Maea speaks to her in Samoan, she replies in English. Trust between father and daughter is not something that can be taken for granted. Maea takes her in, but demands that she tell him the name of the partner, so that he can go and deal to him. He is a former boxer, old now, but still powerful enough to beat up a younger man.
Ilisa can also see the ghost. She asks her father why she is there. “She keeps me company,” he replies. When Ilisa asks the ghost to go back to her grave, the ghost attacks her, too.
Maea senses that his violent past is the cause of his present loneliness. As well as working in a bakery, where he channels his angry and violent impulses into kneading lumps of dough, he practices the traditional Samoan art of massage and midwifery, massaging the distended bellies of pregnant women. All of these are traditionally female arts, healers serving the Samoan community, who continue to function in emigration, filling gaps in the health system. We learn that Maea delivered his own children and, each time, buried the placenta under the lemon tree in the back yard, establishing a permanent link to the place, a place to which his children could return.
As the time nears for Ilisa’s baby to be born, father and daughter wrestle with the question of what kind of world the baby will be delivered into. Maea has learned the identity of Ilisa’s partner, and his friends and workmates consider it a matter of upholding honour – not just Maea’s but theirs too – that he go and beat the guy up. Maea is unafraid of violent confrontations, but he refrains, knowing that in the past he had beaten his own wife, Ilisa’s mother. Maea wants to deliver the baby himself and care for his daughter and grandchild in the apartment, keeping them safe from the violent partner. But the ghost Seipua is becoming ever more active and violent, and threatens to enter Ilisa’s womb.
The apartment holds memories for Ilisa too. The thought of her baby’s placenta being buried under the lemon tree is intolerable to her. She wants the baby to be delivered in hospital. But that would mean revealing her whereabouts to the partner, with whom she is still exchanging text messages on a phone with a shattered screen. Closely bound up with these dilemmas are equally acute questions of dignity and self-respect, and repairing trust that has been betrayed.
This is a thoughtful and moving film. To address these pervasive and destructive forms of violence in capitalist society – violence against women, violence within the sacred circle of closest family members, violence of family authority figures against younger family members, violence against the very people who have the greatest right and expectation to be protected from violence – is not an easy task. To do so convincingly, avoiding all judgmental moralising and clichés, is a rare achievement.
(No one who has also seen the 1994 film Once Were Warriors could fail to notice the contrast between the two films. Although both address similar issues, Once Were Warriors dragged in every imaginable stereotype, sensationalist screen violence, racist caricature, and sentimental cliché, in order to bolster the particular prejudice that locates the source of such violence firmly within the working class.)
Tusi Tamasese manages to avoid such sermonising because his characters are neither heroes nor villains, but ordinary human beings, with their full share of character flaws, weaknesses, and past deeds of which they are ashamed. This makes them not less but more sympathetic.
Out of such human material, and only out of such human material, a real social movement can be built to rid the world of this violence.