THE LAND HAS EYES

Director: Vilsoni Hereniko
Year: 2004
Country: Fiji

To date, The Land Has Eyes is Fiji’s only locally made feature film. Specifically, the film takes place on the outlying Fijian island of Rotuma – the director’s birthplace. Rotuma has its own customs and a separate language to the rest of Fiji, imbuing the film with an even more unique cultural identity.

The film is set sometime during the 1960s, when Fiji was still under British colonial rule. It follows Viki, a teenage Rotuman girl with a flair for the academic and a deep emotional connection to her island and the natural world. When not in school, she finds spiritual fulfillment by tending to her tropical flower garden, or listening to her father’s stories about Rotuman history and legends.

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Viki is bright and ambitious, but her teachers are strict and conservative.

When Viki’s father is falsely accused of stealing coconuts from their neighbour Koroa, she and her family are shamed by their community. Taking it upon herself to investigate, Viki discovers that Koroa has bribed the Rotuman court interpreter into giving false translations of her father’s testimony to the English-speaking judge. From here the film is largely about Viki’s search for justice and restitution for her father as his health begins to fade, and her family struggles to pay the court’s fine.

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Viki admires her father, and struggles to clear his name.

Throughout the film, Viki finds strength by remembering the legend of the first Rotuman islander. This legend is shown to the audience in the opening scene in a beautifully shot, dialogue-free prologue. In the story, a woman is abandoned on Rotuma by her brothers and learns to survive in isolation – becoming the first of the Rotuman people. Alienated from her community for being the daughter of a supposed criminal, Viki faces similar isolation and draws inspiration from her mythic ancestor’s determination and wisdom.

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Viki’s father tells her stories of the first sailors to reach Rotuma.

I think it’s worth comparing this film to my previous entry, the Comorian documentary Ashes of DreamsAshes of Dreams is also from a small island nation, and draws a contrast between what the director calls the “I come from”, and the “I stay”. In other words: islanders who travel abroad and only return home once they’ve made their fortunes, and islanders who live and work their whole lives on the islands instead. In The Land Has Eyes, Koroa has recently returned from working in Australia, and wants to build Rotuma’s first two storey house for himself as an arrogant display of wealth. His corruption and materialistic greed stand in contrast to Viki and her family, who have maintained their connection to their homeland and kept their Rotuman values of honesty, community, and humility.

There’s also something of an anti-colonial message running through the film, but it is secondary to the theme of community and loyalty. The British judge appointed to oversee Rotuma is ineffective, and his inability to speak Rotuman marks him as an outsider unable to interpret the local customs and philosophies. He is not a cruel or unjust man, but merely a tool of an unjust system, and one that is hopelessly unequipped for the task it has been set. The film’s true villains are Koroa and the court interpreter, Poto, Fijian characters who have betrayed their communities for material gain, and are ultimately punished for it in a karmic fashion. The film’s title comes into play here, as Viki’s father teaches her that “the land has eyes and teeth”. The island is vigilant, and all wrongdoing will be punished eventually.

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Viki faces the judge.

The Land Has Eyes could reasonably be described as a Hollywood courtroom thriller transplanted onto a tiny Pacific island. But it’s more than that too. It’s a recreation of the director’s childhood community, rich with both nostalgic beauty and harsh realism. But at it’s heart, the film is a coming-of-age tale about a young woman who searches for truth and meaning in the world, and finds it through her heritage and the strength of her ancestors.

The Land Has Eyes is available to rent or buy on Vimeo On Demand.

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