14 Oct 2018

Marks of Mana: the first film dedicated to female tattooing in the Pacific

From Standing Room Only, 12:30 pm on 14 October 2018

Across most of the Pacific, tattoo was a women's art before it was a men's art, says Lisa Taouma. Her documentary Marks of Mana is the first feature film dedicated to Pacific female tattooing.

Taouma is a Samoan Kiwi filmmaker, academic and co-founder of theCoconet.tv – an online hub for Pasifika moving image content.

For Marks of Mana, she interviewed women across the Pacific about how female tatau asserts their mana and community status.

In pre-Christian Fiji, women both did the tattooing and wore the tattoo before men took over the practice, Taouma says.

The traditional song O le Vi'i o le Tatau Samoa tells of how this happened.

"The legend is that these women swam from Samoa to Fiji to learn the art of the skin, to learn the art of the skin, the art of the tau. They learnt it for women, they swam back, and when they swam back they dived up to get this giant clam … when they came up with they were seasick and confused. So when they arrived back in Samoa they mistakenly told everyone that the tatau was for men and not for women. They bought the gift of tatau … and then it was taken over by men. Which is a really interesting metaphor for what actually did happen – men took over this process and it became a very male-dominated practice to this day in the Pacific."

The "very big and very visible" nature of male Pacific tattooing has contributed to its dominance over the female form, Taouma says.

"What we're trying to reiterate in the documentary is that these marks for women had a really specific meaning, a specific place.

"These marks were hugely significant – the rite of passage and becoming a woman, but also they're literally women's marks of mana – the symbol that you've reached the time in your life where you have this mana and you display it, you signify it with this tattoo. It's a very strong symbol of your role in the community and your role in protecting your family and service to your family."

New generations of migrant Pasifika are using traditional tattoo to affirm their cultural identity and self-esteem, she says.

"Tatau is one of the most effective signposts in telling the world who you are and who you identify with."

Marks of Mana is premiering this week in Wellington as part of Siapo Cinema and will screen at the indigenous film festival imagineNATIVE in Toronto next week.

It will be online at theCoconet.tv from November.

Lisa is part of a group of 'creative natives' who founded theCoconet.tv back in 2014.

It was created for a Pacific audience but gets a lot of attention around the world because of its uniquely Pacific content, she says.

"We put it together because we felt we weren't being served well on the telly. Networks put you on at such difficult time slots for the community to watch, etc. but also to amazement, when I went online there wasn't one home for Pacific content online, so we created it to be the virtual village if you like. When you make something that there's a really hungry audience for, it just explodes.

"It's like creating the bones of a universe that the audience helps to fill in because people upload their own content. You create this awesome dynamic conversation."