23 Jul 2020

The last journey of waka maker and voyager Ema Siope

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 23 July 2020

Eight years ago, as director and producer Anna Marbrook was working on a project in Samoa, she found her path veering towards the waka, and Ema Siope.

Ema was known and respected in the Samoan waka community for her boat building skills, her strength, and for passing her knowledge to younger craftspeople.

As they started to work alongside each other, a friendship grew, and storytelling became part of their journey together.

“I started to see that behind this very quiet at times, giant of a woman, had a really amazing story that really needed to be told.”

It was a journey that would birth the documentary Loimata : The Sweetest Tears, directed and produced by Anna, which reflects on Ema's life, honouring her achievements as a waka maker and monumental figure in the voyaging community.

The waka was the philosophical framework through which Ema viewed the world.

“The waka is very much focused on wholeness.”

Ema passed away last year after a long battle with cancer. The documentary begins with her acknowledging her mortality.

“Ema, she was like a kind of action figure, she’d get knocked down and she’d get back up and keep going and then she’d get knocked down again.”

Anna felt at the time it was now or never to tell Ema’s story. “She felt too that the time was right.”

Once the fanau got on board, it became a family telling a family story.

“She connected us with our ancestors by taking us back to Samoa, she reconnected us and tried to help us secure our identity in who we are,” says Ema’s youngest sister Fetaui Iosefo.

“For Ema, the waka was just like land, the importance of it. Waka for her was a connection between her ancestors as well as with the land in Samoa.”

Ema was the type of person that would sit at the feet of her grandparents and listen all day. “And I was the type of person that would make fun of their feet.”

“She was and still is full of love, she was just a fantastic older sister, she held so much love inside of her and always had lots of love to give to others. She was always full of grace, but she also had such a wicked sense of humour.”

Ema was always about being free from secrets, uncovering silence, says Fetaui.

The film follows Ema as she embarks on a journey of healing and shows the dance between her determination to lift the shame of intergenerational abuse and weaving a pathway of healing that’s accessible to her family.

It’s easier to speak about these things when it’s founded in love, says Fetaui.

“When you know that you won’t be judged for what you’re saying, when you know that there is an equitable conversation happening, it’s OK to speak about these things.”

It was a deeply instinctual journey, says Anna.

“I was amazed at how much those things could live together; the lifting of shame and the ability to truly forgive one’s self,’ she says.

Healing never stops, says Fetaui.

“Humour has been truly key in our healing, lots of love, lots of humour.”

During filming, Anna says Ema had the pain of cancer in her bones, but she was determined and lived each life until the last minute.

She conducted herself with grace and poise.

“That’s where I saw the waka captain, that’s where I saw her ancestors.”