South By Southwest 2019 Interview – The Filmmakers of VAI!

“A film about female empowerment that spans the breadth of the Pacific, telling the story of one woman’s life in eight separate moments from the perspective of eight different pacific island cultures.” Marina McCartney and Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, two of the directors behind VAI at SxSW 2019 Film.

Congratulations on your film playing in at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Marina McCartney: First time and I will be attending our screening on 8 and 10 March. Unfortunately, I can’t make it to the 13 March screening.

Ofa Gutte‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: Yes first time!  I am planning to attend my screenings.

So how did you get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: I studied film at University but when I moved to Tonga straight after graduating (19 years ago) there was no film industry in Tonga or access to filmmaking opportunities. So I GOT involved in ‘other’ various media projects in the namely TV, radio, online media and CET advocacy materials and resources.   I finally got into the film industry for the first time 2 years ago with my short film The Black Pen under a Commonwealth Foundation initiative in collaboration with Brown Sugar Apple Grunt Productions. VAI is my second project in the film industry and it won’t be my last!

Marina McCartney: I studied filmmaking at University after just over a decade in the fashion industry.  Prior to VAI, I wrote, directed, edited and produced short films Granda and Milk & Honey which travelled to festivals, including Palm Springs, ImagineNATIVE, The Hawai’i International Film Festival and the New Zealand International Film Festival.  I also co-directed a six-episode documentary series Ser un Ser Humano which travelled the festival circuit and I have produced two short films for other directors.

How did this project come together for you? Give me a rundown from the preparation, to shooting, to post-production to now!

Marina McCartney: We were fortunate enough to be invited by producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton to submit an idea based on the theme and title of the film, Vai in May 2018.. Vai in its many forms throughout Oceania means water.  I was selected to direct the Samoan vignette and here we are!

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki:

1.  Invited to submit an Expression of Interest to producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton as Writer/Directors
2.  Selected
3.  Took part in a 5 day writers retreat on Waiheke Island in Aotearoa New Zealand with the other writer/directors selected
4.  Built relationship amongst writers/directors and producers
5.  discussed in detailed what we wanted to portray in the film as indigenous women and thereafter discussed who would write which part of the feature film script – in terms of the different ages of VAI.
6.  Wrote first script draft and received feedback from fellow writer/directors, producers
7.  Finalised scripts
8.  Began location scouting including talking with community leaders of location selected with Location Manager and searching for possible talent to audition for parts
9. Continuous communication with producers and other writer/producers over SLACK
10.  Production schedules set in stone
11.  Met with community leaders and members of community the film will be shot in – gave them an update on the happenings and what to expect
11.  Welcome production team to Tonga
12.  One-day camera rehearsal with actors and crew.   
13.  One-day shoot with actors and crew.
14.  Straight into post-production via editing, subtitling, sound and colour grading
15.  Writers/directors invited by producers to watch initial rough cut – met with key personnel NZ Film Commission, Vendetta
16.  Attended a test screening and focus group discussion
17.  Informed about film festivals rough cut will be sent to while post production continues
18.  Wrapped on Film
19.  Film festival selection announcements from producers
20.  Travel to Berlinale 2019 for world premier
21.  Travel to SxSW for North American premier

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: Fresh Coconut.

Marina McCartney: My own venture into filmmaking has always been driven by my desire to present a different cinematic reality to the children in my family and of my culture.  I want to tell my Mother’s stories, my daughter’s stories, my stories. I also used to be called “Motormouth” because I couldn’t stop talking and telling stories when I was younger. I guess filmmaking is an extension of this!

I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

Marina McCartney: We came to the film with an existing framework and creative approach in place; capturing each vignette in a single continuous shot.  VAI is the second film by the producers using this framework, and the cinematographer, Drew Sturge, and his crew, who shot the first film came along for the second.  As VAI is a collaborative feature it meant that while we had autonomy over our individual pieces, it needed to work as a cohesive overall feature length story. This required a lot of give and take and collaboration with the producers who worked hard to ensure the overall narrative was nurtured and protected.

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: Working with a 13-year old talent and supporting actors, extras who had never acted before in their lives.  Most rewarding: seeing them succeed and complete the task in 4.5 hour rehearsal and 8.5 hour shoot. There a 8 vignettes – each roughly 10+ minutes each.  Each vignette had a goal of using the one-shot. The Tonga vignette achieved the one-shot within the 8.5 hour shoot, about 12 takes with only 8 full takes achieved in the end.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

Marina McCartney: I am looking forward to presenting an alternative representation of the Oceanic female and life.
‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: Bringing the voice of the underdogs who never make it on the big screen to this side of the world, our voices, our stories from the Pacific by Pacific women.
Being amongst a cross-section of creatives (especially music artists / blues and rock)

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: Maoriland Film Festival with theatrical release in New Zealand cinemas April 4.

Marina McCartney: The film will come back to Aotearoa New Zealand for its national premiere at Maoriland, the biggest indigenous festival in the Southern Hemisphere, followed by its theatrical release in New Zealand.  It will continue to travel internationally to other festivals so follow us on Facebook!

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

Marina McCartney: It is so important that the films are taken back to the nations they were filmed in.   For too long our image has been captured by others and for others. VAI was made by us and for us, and we are fortunate enough that others are enjoying this perspective as well.
‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: In all Pacific countries, so our people can celebrate our lives, our stories on the big screen written and directed by Pacific people, 99% of films on big screens across the Pacific, those who do have theatres, are foreign films.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie, like talking or texting?

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: I would use my super powers to freeze them and then I would, hide their phone under their seat, stuff pop-corn in their mouth and fill it to the brim & pour my drink on their bottom clothes so that when they come out of their frozen state they can’t talk anymore or they’ll look like they left the theatre because they wet their pants…

Marina McCartney: You do realize you are asking a Samoan woman this question, don’t you?  

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Marina McCartney: Treat everyone from your actors to your crew how you would like to be treated.  You don’t need to step on people to get a film made.

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: Believe that you can do it. Never waver from this.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki: I don’t grade things by ‘greatest’ or ‘all-time favourite’ otherwise I would limit myself to a box.  Just like how I have four children, not one of them is greater than the other or my favourite, but they all do have unique characteristics.  This is how I experience films. I have different experiences with a whole variety of films. But for the purposes of answering this question, I’ll go from the most recent film festival I attended, the Berlinale 2019. I really enjoyed MERATA How Mum Decolonised The Screen. It was just what I needed as an indigenous female filmmaker during this time in my life.  The film brought home so many truths for me – it was a real transformative experience.


This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to!

Leave a Reply