Completely compelling

Still from the film, Loimata. Supplied.
Still from the film, Loimata. Supplied.
When Anna Marbrook met the outspoken boundary crosser Ema Siope she knew her journey was one that would inspire others.


Six months ago, The Big Idea was invited to a screening for the trailer of a feature-length documentary LOIMATA. The film is about Ema Siope, a Samoan woman who carves and captains waka. The group who gathered together in a lounge room was an eclectic assortment of professions. Amongst others, there was a Buddhist nun, a property investor, a retired psychologist,  a nurse, a pair of filmmaking siblings and two abnormally affectionate cats. It was like the making of a bad bar joke. But now I know that’s the power of Ema Siope - bringing people together. It’s what she does.

Who is Ema?

Ema Siope is not just a Samoan woman who carves and captains waka. That very quickly became apparent as director-producer Anna Marbrook spoke of her strength and generosity. Even more so as we watched just a few minutes of the journey that Anna followed Ema on. Those in the room discussed how could we help to deliver on Ema’s dying wish to waken her family.

Anna describes said journey in the synopsis for the documentary:

"Ema Siope is six feet tall, incredibly strong, gender fluid and is one of the few women in the world who can captain and build ocean-going waka hourua – traditional twin-hulled sailing canoes. She has traversed oceans to revive a voyaging past obliterated and silenced by colonisation. 

Ema is sick. A year ago, she was told to get her affairs in order, but she has one very important thing to do. Before she dies, she wants to rekindle her family’s fractured connection to their homeland Samoa."

Ema Siope, still from LOIMATA. Supplied.

Dying wish

When Anna shared the trailer with us, Ema was in a hospice in South Auckland, had hoped to come but was unable to attend the screening. The power of her presence on that little television screen in that cottage filled with that curious collection of people is something I will never forget. Ema’s smile, her calm nature, her incredible stature and her relentless yet gentle resolve to confront the pain that she and her family experienced touched every single person in the room.

A still from LOIMATA, supplied.

One month ago, at the age of 52, Ema Siope passed away. Hundreds of people honoured her over a three-day tangi at Umupuia Marae and hundreds more from their own homes across the Pacific. But Ema’s story does not end there. And Ema’s story is not just about her. The impact of her sharing her life, so openly, is far greater than just one family. It extends to all of those burdened by the taboo of confronting their past, their abuse and their pain. It extends to multiple nations and countless communities. Ema’s courage has the power to free people, to start a healing process for others as it did for her. And her story needs to be told.

A still from LOIMATA, supplied.

One evening last week many of Ema’s family and the crew behind the film gathered at what Jim Marbrook called 'the sacred shoreline' on Auckland’s waterfront. It was fitting that the very waters Ema sailed her last waka journey from was the launching place of a campaign to finish this work, to complete this film of a journey of courage.   

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Written by

The Big Idea Editor

2 Oct 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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