George “Siosi” Samuels is a film-maker and creative entrepreneur, specializing in Cultural Animation. He was voted one of Australia’s 50 “Young Extraordinary” entrepreneurs for 2012; featured at Melbourne’s Viva Victoria Festival; and was recently interviewed by Adobe about his project Tales From Nanumea, an animated series to help preserve the myths and legends of a sinking nation, Tuvalu.
Tales From Nanumea addresses three key problems facing Tuvaluans: dying oral traditions; loss of land due to rising ocean levels; and a disengaged youth. The project addresses each of these by: collaborating with community Elders before a project; raising awareness of global warming during public screenings or promotions; and using animation to re-engage dialogue between the Youth and Elders. The project is both unique and touching, using animation to preserve an oral tradition and an island in danger of extinction. Check out the video below and our interview with George and then you can visit the project’s Pozible Campaign website and show your support.
Oz: Can you tell us a little bit about the background of the project and what made it particularly interesting for you?
GS: Tales From Nanumea is an animated series to help save the myths and legends of a sinking nation, Tuvalu. Each episode is its own short film and pays homage to my maternal homeland. On a personal level, it is an exploration of culture, heritage and identity.
This project was inspired by the stories told growing up. My mother had always said it would be nice for these stories to be written down, but I went the next step – I animated them. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and they have their place, but knowledge is absorbed in very different ways today. Especially for “Digital Natives,” those born in or after the 80s.
Oz: How important is the oral tradition and storytelling in a place like Tuvalu?
GS: Very. Tuvaluan isn’t like Japanese, Mandarin, English or Spanish – common languages that are widely documented and practiced. For a minority group, which is being increasingly influenced by the West (and not to mention sinking due to the effects of global warming), not being able to pass on such traditions means a loss of culture, identity and heritage. In my research and communications, I have found these issues to be shared amongst many other indigenous cultures.
Since many indigenous cultures have rich oral traditions, much of their wisdom is not disseminated due to the increased disinterest of today’s youth. Today’s youth are more tech-savvy and, as a result, absorb knowledge through multimedia. This means that the oral traditions need to be adapted to languages that Digital Natives can understand – through mobiles, computers, etc. This does not mean we discard oral traditions, it just means we need to use multimedia in an innovative way, to re-connect interest in oral traditions.
There is also the importance of such knowledge needing to be preserved for Tuvaluans who have assimilated into Western countries, who may be three or more generations down the line. Kids like myself. Identity becomes an issue later on in life if you aren’t provided with solid foundations. There’s a saying, “You cannot know who you are, without knowing where you came from.” I’m still learning.
Oz: What kind of feedback do you get from the older generation when they see
GS: To be honest, mixed. There’s a paradox that cultures with strong oral traditions face – keep knowledge a secret and run the risk of it dying out, or open it up to be shared so that it may live on. Many times, cultural rules are not explicitly enforced. They’re just followed and accepted without question.
The forward-thinking oldies seem to get me. The ones who are proactive and deeply concerned about the preservation of our culture for future generations. Others – who are more concerned about immediate matters – will understandably raise an eyebrow with my “boldness” to tell some of the stories. This is usually because there are so many different versions in each family, and each family likes to claim their own to be the “true” story. My aim is not to be historically accurate, although I will do my best, but to ignite discussions and curiosity. Frank Miller, who wrote 300, called it “historical evocation” – I think that fits well with my line of work.
I believe that by sharing these stories, the underlying messages may awaken something deep inside of us to go back to the Elders and seek out their wisdom.
Oz: What do you love most about telling those stories through animation?
GS: It provides me with a creative outlet; allows me to experiment; and combines something I appreciate with something higher than myself. A higher purpose. I’ve always had this desire to combine my philosophy and values into the work that I do. If I’m not traveling physically, I’m exploring mentally and spiritually.
Animation is also very well suited to indigenous stories because of its subtlety and creativity. In some cultures, showing the face of a deceased person is considered taboo. However, in animation, you can depict that person however you want, thus respecting the culture yet still being able to tell the story. (I actually go in depth about this in the 5 Elements of Cultural Animation
Oz: Who’s your target market?
Those involved in indigenous rights, social entrepreneurship, multiculturalism and animation.
Oz: How did you go about funding your project?
GS: The first 3 films were all self-funded. I am now working with a few others to bring the fourth film to life through the crowd-funding site, Pozible (you can support the project by visiting http://pozible.com/fromthesea
– we need all we can get).
I had applied for multiple grants, but they all proved to be quite disheartening or unreliable. A lot of effort goes into these applications, plus a lot of waiting time, only to be told “sorry, you came second.” I understand there is a large pool of competition, so I don’t blame them. However, with crowd-funding, you can now use the power of the people to help fund your work, as well as exercise your entrepreneurial skills. Mind you, it’s not meant to be easy – it still requires effort and a well-connected network. Hustlin’ is key.
Oz: Does Tuvalu have an animation scene?
GS: No, they do not! You’ve given me an idea…
Oz: From your perspective – are there any things you would do better / differently today?
GS: Well, life has a way of surprising you. I always knew I wanted to do something with computers, but I never thought I’d be where I am today – developing my own business plus a personal brand. Animation is still a love of mine, but the business side of it was rarely covered at school. I think it’s an important subject if you wish to freelance or be your own boss. Granted, though, it’s not for everyone. I’ve found you need even more discipline when you take the first leap to go solo.
If I could do anything better, I’d establish mentors earlier on and surround myself with people who were where I wanted to be. There’s nothing like learning through osmosis. I’d have attended more events and made more connections, as most kids at the local animation or games studios were hired through private referrals. Very rarely do online applications get you anywhere. If you’re like me, face-to-face is very effective.
Oz: What is the next big thing for you?
GS: Apart from the crowd-funding campaign mentioned above, which ends February 10th, I’m also writing a book called Animated Spirit: Rediscovering The Lost Art of Cultural Animation
. The book highlights the importance of preserving intangible cultural heritage through animation, specifically indigenous myths and legends. It will feature tidbits of my own work; interviews I’ve done with various animators and studios; and insights based on research into indigenous cultures. The animators or studios who are using their craft to preserve indigenous stories are the pioneers, for there is a change coming whereby ancient wisdom will return in the form of new perspectives.
There’s a motto I live by that was passed down by my great grandfather, “tena loa e fanatu,” which means “it will come” in Tuvaluan. With the recent #idlenomore movement kicking off 2013, I believe that time has come. Be on the lookout for increased animations based around ancient indigenous myths and legends!