‘Eating Up Easter’: A fresh and welcome filmic portrait of Rapa Nui
Mahani (in white feathery halter) walking beside Enrique in ‘Eating Up Easter.’

LOS ANGELES—The 35th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, running through May 10 mostly at downtown L.A. venues, focuses on features, shorts and documentaries from and about Asia and the Pacific Islands. LAAPFF is presented by Visual Communications, which is, according to its mission statement “the first non-profit organization in the nation dedicated to the honest and accurate portrayals of the Asian Pacific American peoples, communities, and heritage through the media arts…. Our mission is to develop and support the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists who empower communities and challenge perspectives.”

Since I specialize in the screen image of Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesians and have co-authored three movie history books about Pacific Islanders in the cinema and on TV, my LAAPFF coverage zooms in on productions made by and/or about Oceania and its people.

When he introduced his 70-minute documentary Eating Up Easter at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum in L.A.’s Little Tokyo, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) director Sergio Mata’u Rapu asserted: “Other people were telling our stories so we wanted to tell our own story.” In doing so, Rapu has created one of the best, most compelling contemporary portraits of a Pacific isle by a Native filmmaker in the history of South Seas Cinema, a major contribution to the “Tidal Wave” of indigenous cinematic storytelling.

Rapa Nui has long been defined for the outside world by its mysterious Moai, Polynesia’s largest stone statues, which have mystified and enchanted explorers, filmmakers and tourists for centuries. Indeed, from Norwegian archeologist and ocean drifter Thor Heyerdahl’s 1960 film Aku-Aku to Kevin Costner’s 1993 Rapa Nui feature (and how the on-location making of it impacted the isle and its economy) to the recent Sixty Minutes Easter Island segment aired on CBS-TV, outsiders have set the parameters for how the rest of the world perceives the planet’s most isolated island, located roughly 2100 miles west of continental Chile, which has administered the Polynesian outlier since the late 19th century.

Although the Moai are part of Rapu’s production, having been born and raised there, this native son goes far beyond the celluloid stereotypes. There is no lunacy about space aliens creating Rapa Nui’s iconic tiki statues, but viewers do learn other astounding facts in Eating Up Easter. For instance: It is common for Pacific Islanders to live on the subsistence level or have a Western-style standard of living that is largely dependent on the metropole (Paris, Washington, Santiago, etc.) subsidizing and propping up island economies (often in exchange for militarism). But I was completely astonished to learn that the residents of Rapa Nui have the highest per capita income of any district in Chile.

This is due to the huge number of tourists who make the long trips to the remote Pacific outpost in order to see the Moai. Local laws allow Islanders to profit off of the hospitality industry in numerous ways, by building rental units (called “cabins” in the film), acting as tour guides, presenting festivals with traditional dances and rites for visitors, etc.

But, as Eating Up Easter exposes, tourism also brings with it many problems. V.I. Lenin wrote that “imperialism is the export of capital,” and while this is true for larger countries with resources, for small Pacific isles minus natural resources such as, say, oil, imperialism can be defined as “the import of capital.” As a case in point, Rapu’s nonfiction film focuses on the role garbage plays in Rapa Nui, where every plastic or glass bottle has to be transported to the island and then recycled or shipped/flown away from this tiny speck in the vast Pacific.

Although Rapu paints a collective portrait of Easter Island, he concentrates on a quartet of indigenous Islanders, including the ecologist Mama Piru, a quirky character who wages a relentless battle against the isle’s waste products and what to do with them. An attractive young couple of musicians, Enrique and Mahani, are also in the limelight, as they strive to create a sustainably built cultural center and spread consciousness about a viable Rapa Nui way of life.

The fourth figure is the other Sergio Rapu, the director’s dad, who rose to fame as an archeologist explaining the origins of the Moai, pointing out that they used to have eyes, and served as the island’s first Indigenous governor. Rapu Senior’s role today seems to be symptomatic of the consumer society Rapa Nui has evolved into since Costner’s movie was shot there, inflating the local economy: Today, the elder Sergio has built Easter Island’s first mall.

Some may be disappointed to find out that the once-promising archeologist has “devolved” into an entrepreneur, just another capitalist, but having grown up poor (by Western standards) Rapu Sr. defends himself by pointing out that his mall has given 50 Islanders new jobs. (The young sons of Sergio Jr. and his American wife, Elena Rapu, an anthropologist who co-produced and wrote the doc, are also recurring characters in the film, representatives of the future generation.)

Non-native Chileans now somewhat outnumber the Indigenous population on Rapa Nui while tourists greatly outnumber locals. Eating Up Easter ponders the Islanders’ fate. Considering how lucrative tourism is thanks to their ancestors’ Moais, the aboriginal people have the economic means to become independent (a more daunting proposition on other islands where most economic largesse comes from the metropoles). As the Rapa Nui people’s ancestors knew, the sweetest thing in the whole wide world is to paddle one’s own canoe and to set one’s course. Could political independence be the solution to Rapa Nui’s conundrums, as for the rest of Oceania, the Caribbean and elsewhere?

Eating Up Easter is an extremely thoughtful and well-made documentary, with some stunning cinematography, including great aerial shots of the Moai, and of Enrique riding the wild surf. The film includes some partial nudity and it’s wonderful to see Islanders who still have a sense of naturalness that the missionaries haven’t beaten out of them with their clinically insane shaming.

Eating Up Easter was co-made by Pacific Islanders in Communications, the venerable Honolulu-based national non-profit media arts organization that is part of the National Minority Consortia, funded largely by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in order to “support, advance, and develop Pacific Island media content and talent that results in a deeper understanding of Pacific Island history, culture, and contemporary challenges.”

The documentary was co-presented by Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), an advocacy organization, and by the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum or PIEAM, in Long Beach. On May 10 Eating Up Easter will be screened by the Center for Asian American Media at CAAMFEST in San Francisco.  If you get a chance to see this film don’t miss it—Eating Up Easter is good until the last bite!

For more info see the film website here. The trailer can be viewed here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.