Festival omnibus films are always a dicey proposition. Collections of films from various directors are inevitably going to be uneven in quality, tone, and style, even if they’re linked around some central thematic idea. We Are Still Here is billed as “a sweeping tale that spans 1000 years and multiple generations — from the distant past to the 19th century, the present day and a strange, dystopian future — this landmark collection traces the collective histories of Indigenous peoples across Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. Diverse in perspective, content and form, traversing the terrain of grief, love and dispossession, they each bear witness to these cultures’ ongoing struggles against patriarchy, colonialism and racism.” I suppose it is technically all that, but if, like me, you’re expecting something like James Michener’s Hawaii, with stories spanning the whole history of Oceania from the distant past of heroic exploration through encounters with the West and the complicated histories of colonization and resistance that began there and continue today, you’d be, like me, a bit disappointed.
We Are Still Here nods slightly toward the distant past, with one of its eight component shorts being a rotoscope animation of a mother and daughter fishing, a mythological image that ultimately gets extended into the future, linking the mother of the distant past with the daughter of the urban present. The animation has a weird charm, but the metaphor is clunky and bears little relation to the other shorts in the film, which are almost all about violent Indigenous encounters with Westerners. There’s little sense here of a world absent colonialism. Even the one live-action short that doesn’t involve the West, set in a Maori village as a leading family debates whether or not to go to war, features the leads wearing Western clothes (it’s about the 1864 Battle of Ōrākau, fought between the Maori and the British, but we only see the homefront perspective). The one short that’s not about a Polynesian is about a Samoan fighting in the trenches of Gallipoli in World War I. So, rather than a collective history of Indigenous people across the South Pacific, what we really have are a collection of encounters between the British and their colonized subjects in Australia and New Zealand.
It’s a more limited subject matter, to be sure, but the narrowness does have the benefit of focusing the film’s political argument, which is a powerful one. Ghost stories of colonial murder in the Outback linked neatly to the arbitrary violence of a present-day cop harassing a worker who’s just trying to flirt with a cashier; protests in the form of graffiti art bleed into the brutality of a police roundup and torture of street demonstrators. The lack of a real sense of the past, or of much connection to the story set in the distant future, makes the violence of colonization all the more palpable: it erases the past, and makes the future incomprehensible. Rather than play each short sequentially, as in most omnibus films, the shorts of We Are Still Here are seamlessly woven together, cutting backward and forward in time while maintaining a logical momentum toward the present. The fact that they share an editor and composers and a pair of cinematographers gives it all a stylistic coherence, more a film made collectively than a collection of films.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 4.