Between 1864 and 1904, an estimated 60,000 Pacific islanders were abducted, deceived, and forced into working in Queensland’s sugar plantations and in cotton farming. As an Australian Solomon Islander, is this history personal?

This history still very much remains under-acknowledged, yet it is a history that has had a ripple effect throughout the Pacific, Australia, and the world.  

My heritage lies in the Solomon Islands, specifically Malaita Province. Estimates state that around 10,000 islanders came to Australia from that region alone. This had an impact of not only depopulating the islands, it also contributed to a severe loss of family, connection, and culture. Others were taken to island nations such as Fiji.  

Most definitely this history is personal, especially because I have ancestors who were blackbirded and never seen or heard from again.  

You produce Australian South Sea Islander Stories, a repository of family histories, photos, and sources on the legacy of “blackbirding”, i.e. the enslavement of Pacific islanders in Australia. How did this project begin?

Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) Stories started as a one-off project funded through the Australia Council for the Arts in 2014. I was the creative producer working in collaboration with the Australian South Sea Islanders Secretariat Inc. in Brisbane.  

Throughout the year-long project, ASSI community members participated in filmmaking workshops and were supported to write, direct, and edit their own short films to present at a public screening. It was such a nourishing process of sharing, laughing, and learning together along the way. When the project ended, I voluntarily kept the website and socials¹ running because the response online has been amazing.²

Every August, I share archival materials, official documents, articles, ship records, name search indexes, videos, and photographs as part of the ASSI Stories project initiative, ASSI History Month. A lot of the information is in the public domain already, but the idea is to make it more accessible to our communities. People from around Australia and the Pacific follow along, comment, and connect.  

Sharing these histories is a reclamation of these stories, connecting them back to the community when they have previously been held by institutions for decades or in some instances over 100 years. It’s an attempt to shed some light on a dark part of our collective history.  

You have also been involved with Pacific Community Partnerships Inc. (PCP), an association set up to connect Pacific Islander communities and which has facilitated projects in Solomon Islands. What does PCP do?

Initially we set up PCP with a small group of friends to embark on community projects in my village. Since 2009, we’ve supported projects around small gardens, disaster management, health and nutrition training, water tanks, sanitation projects as well as solar power training.  

We’re now a registered incorporated association and this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Solomons really hard, we were able to fundraise for some emergency food and medical supplies to help those in need. We work with local groups in the village to make sure the projects are community-driven.  

At the moment, we’re developing projects to address the rising high tides and issues caused by the effects of climate change.  

In 2010, you released Tide of Change. Filmed in Malaita, Solomon Islands, it is a documentary about climate change on this island. Climate change has become such a central issue in the Pacific. What inspired you to film this?

I made Tide of Change when I went back to my village to visit my Koko Geli (grandmother) who was very ill. It was a time when the high tides were ever-present, literally lapping at our feet.  

After her passing and through our mourning, I was compelled to film what was happening in my village. It became a personal documentation of my family but also showed the effects of climate change.  

Since then, the film has travelled around the world and I’m so grateful that we were able to connect with audiences and encourage dialogue around climate change in the Pacific.  

You directed the award-winning Blackbird (2015), which was screened in 40 regional countries and at 17 festivals such as the 69th Berlinale International Film Festival. How has this moving film shaped discussion of blackbirding?  

There are so many wonderful ASSI community members and organisations who have put in the hard yards to fight for recognition and respect here in Australia. I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to collaborate with various ASSI and Pacific Islander communities as well as my own family in order to acknowledge the history of blackbirding through community projects.  

The impact of Blackbird is difficult to measure. But I can say that for a short film of 13 minutes made 7 years ago, the film continues to screen around the world. Our next festival screening is in Greece this year. When I’ve been present at screenings, people come up to me and say: ‘I didn’t know.’  

When I took the film back to the village people asked to watch it over and over again. There is a curiosity around this subject matter and there is a hunger from the community to see themselves represented on screen.  

I think that Blackbird is one story in a sea of so many to be told. Moving forward it’s important that we, the community, are given the opportunity to tell the story from our own perspectives because for so long the narrative has been held by others.  

In 2017, you co-directed Ka Puta, Ko Au with fellow Indigenous filmmakers Renae Maihi and Kelton Stepanowich for the Māoriland Film Festival. What was it like to work on this film set in pre-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand?

We made Ka Puta, Ko Au as part of a 72-hour film challenge for the festival. So, we wrote the story, had consultations, filmed, and edited the whole thing extremely fast. It definitely was a challenge but for me it was an honour to be working with Renae, Kelton, and the team.  

The timing was just after I had received the Sundance Merata Mita Fellowship for that year. Merata Mita was the first Indigenous woman to solo direct a feature film in New Zealand, so it was so special to be there on the ground in Aotearoa because she clearly left a legacy, one that has impacted me as well.  

Synkrētic features the stories and philosophies of Pacific cultures, which often take the form of oral history. Can readers access resources on the oral history that South Sea islanders brought to Australia in the 19th century?

In my experience, oral histories have been accessed through my own curiosity sitting with my elders, drinking bora (tea) in the islands. Through my project work in Australia, I’ve been honoured to be included in conversations that are safe spaces to share.  

In terms of the archives, if you dig deep our stories are there between the lines and behind the black and white images. The research process can be quite an emotional journey, particularly when this history is embedded in racist government policies. But it can also be enlightening at times because, truly, knowledge is power.  

I created a Resource page on the ASSI Stories website and when people contact me wanting to search for ancestors that’s where I send them.³

How do Australian South Sea Islander stories continue to inspire your work?

I’m constantly inspired by our Australian South Sea Islander and Pacific Islander communities. Our stories, past and present, empower us. They demonstrate our resilience. That’s what keeps me going.