According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead. Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.
This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children. One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry. Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men. Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.
Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans. The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.
The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five). Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.
Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.