‘Fili’ uplifts Samoan coming-of-age story

Two people talking.
Peter Filimaua wrote and directed his graduate thesis film “Fili,” which is based on his own childhood and the pressure to play football often placed on boys in Samoan culture. The film premieres in May. (Courtesy Peter Filimaua)

A father pushes his young son to play football. The son learns powerful lessons and finds friends he can call brothers, but football isn’t his passion. The son struggles to choose between  sticking to the path his dad laid out for him, and following his dream of going into the film industry.

These are scenes from Peter Filimaua’s upcoming graduate thesis film “Fili,” but they are also reminiscent of his own coming-of-age story. Filimaua, who grew up in a Mexican and Samoan family, sees his filmmaking as a way to give his community more on-screen representation. 

“I only had the Rock to look up to growing up on my Samoan side. I love the Rock, but I think we need more stories of our people,” said Filimaua, a master’s student studying cinematic arts, film and television production. “Any chance I get, I try to tell stories about my people and my community.”

When Filimaua began his thesis project, he took inspiration from his own adolescence and the people he grew up around.

“I always want to put pieces of myself into the story. My dad put me into football at a young age, and I loved it. It was super fun, but I never saw it as a career path,” Filimaua said. “I know a lot of people, my cousins and other people that are facing this dilemma of being pigeonholed into a career path that they may not want to do. I think it’s important to show that there are outlets other than football.”

Actor Joshua Leomiti, who plays the titular character Fili in Filimaua’s thesis film, shared similar experiences.

“[Fili] related a lot to my own life. In Samoan culture and Polynesian cultures in general, a lot of it is sports,” Leomiti said. “We always want to honor our parents and make them happy, and usually sports is the way because that’s supposedly the ticket to success.”

In November, Filimaua received a post-production grant for “Fili” from the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, which was presented to him at the inaugural Critics Choice Association Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema and Television. 

“I was mostly looking for the raw talent first and foremost because whenever we are giving an award … we’re very interested in the longevity because we want to invest in people,” said CAPE Executive Director Michelle K. Sugihara. “That was something that really struck me, how as a director, he worked with his actors and he got the performances that he did.”

Sugihara also said that Filimaua’s work on “Fili” upheld CAPE’s mission to champion diversity and empower Asian American and Pacific Islander artists. 

“[Fili] was a personal story, but one about the Samoan community that maybe hasn’t had a lot of air time historically. That was additive to the decision, certainly,” Sugihara said. “His team is also largely API, which we were very excited about, as well.” 

Leomiti agreed that Filimaua and his crew made him feel at home without tokenizing his Samoan identity. 

“I am just thrilled to be a part of something like this. Just the way Peter brought his team together, it was very professional because … it was like everybody was on their A-game,” Leomiti said. “I’m an artist first … and I do love my culture and my background … but I always saw myself as an artist and I want to be represented that way. I would love to work with Peter again. I think he’s going in the right direction.”

Although Filimaua faced a similar dilemma to his protagonist growing up, his parents encouraged him to follow his dreams of becoming a filmmaker. 

“My mother, she’s an educator … and my dad is a businessman. Coming from where they come from, this was a path that is foreign to them, but they still wanted me to pursue my own dreams and goals,” Filimaua said. “I’ve been very grateful for them in my life and my family supporting me. They push me forward and they root for me.”

“Fili” has given Filimaua the opportunity to diversify the narrative about the Pacific Islander community by sharing his own story.

“I always wanted to see stories about people who looked like me, and I don’t think I got a chance to see that. It was always a white male figure, like a superhero, or in westerns,” Filimaua said. “That’s why I’ve gravitated towards telling stories about my people and making sure the culture is at the forefront, telling stories that younger generations can see and hopefully [think], ‘Oh, that’s me,’ or ‘That’s my story,’ and be inspired to go out and make their own films.”

“Fili” will premiere at USC in May.