So first off, where's Tonga?
The Tongan Islands, culturally, are part of Polynesia. Tonga is, in fact, on the western edge of Polynesia, because Fiji to its immediate west is considered part of Melanesia. But we must keep in mind that Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia are Western-oriented terms that, while still useful today, hide the fact that long-term exchanges of people, resources, and ideas have taken place between Tonga and Fiji for thousands of years.
Tongan cultural history, however, does not appear as important in The Other Side of Heaven as the fact that, simply, Tongans are Pacific peoples living quite differently than the white Americans of the same time. In the movie Christopher Gorham plays a white American, a young Mormon teenager from Idaho, and Anne Hathaway plays his girlfriend. Gorham is sent on assignment by the Church of LDS for a two and a half year stint teaching Mormonism on one of the most remote and most northern of the Tonga Islands.
Pretty much off the bat, we are told that this particular island has no white people currently living on it, and Gorham will be the only foreigner there. No mention is made of the longer histories of Christian missions in Tonga and throughout the Pacific. At least in the case of Hawaiʻi, Christian missionaries arrived as early as 1820 and had a major impact on Hawaiian society throughout the nineteenth century. Was Tongan history similar or different?
Hints of a history of interactions with Christian missionaries are evident, however, if you look close enough: in the rival Christian leader on the island (a Tongan) who Gorham competes with for the Tongans' allegiance; in the prevalence of the English language on the island; in the Tongan fashions, where traditional tapa (kapa) cloths do make their appearance, but Western-looking materials prevail.
But are these the manifestations of historic missionary activity? or rather the legacies of relationships with foreign traders, merchants, markets? what about legacies of colonialism? Knowing so little about Tongan history, it is nearly impossible for me to watch this movie and understand why the Tonga of the 1950s is the way it is presented in the movie.
An excellent cast of New Zealanders play the Tongan roles, including Joe Folau (who according to IMDB is apparently of Tongan descent), and Miriama Smith. Sometimes Smith as well as others in the New Zealander cast revealed a bit of a British-tinged accent in their speech, and I wondered if it was their New Zealand accent coming through. This made me wonder whether the director of this film was trying to coach the Polynesian actors to speak un-colonially? When I heard a little British-tinged English coming through, it made me consider what about Tongan history this movie was not telling us: under what circumstances did these Tongans learn English? from whom? again, back to those questions about previous Christian missionary activity, engagement with transoceanic traders and merchants, and what else?
In the end, knowing so little about Tonga specifically, this film left me wondering whether the Tonga I saw on the screen was an effort at showing true 1950s Tongan history, or whether these were just stereotypes reflecting what Western audiences would like to think 1950s Tonga was like...
That the movie ends with the uplifting, penetrating feeling that Mormonism was nothing but a good thing for these Tongans, some of whom we are reassured even migrated to California in the 1970s and found prosperity, as if their exposure to Mormonism was their ticket from "barbarism" to "civilization," makes me think that this movie's tale is, perhaps (even though it is based on a true story) just a reassurance of the age-old Pacific stereotypes that Westerners want to believe in.....
Nevertheless, despite Gorham and Hathaway's performances, I applaud the Polynesian actors and actresses who lent their talents to this film and served as ambassadors for Polynesian culture. Because while it is true that VERY FEW Western movies tell us anything useful about Oceanian peoples and places, this movie at least catches our attention, and makes us want to learn more about Tonga, its people, its places, its culture, and its (unexplained) history.