Review: Documentary reveals darker side of the sport

The Oceans Apart documentary provides an eye-opening account of the bond between the Pacific Islands and modern rugby, writes ANDRE-PIERRE CRONJE.

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Four years ago, equipped with a single camera and resourced by the goodwill of a handful of volunteers, Dan Leo set out to make a film. The former Samoa captain was driven by a single question: ‘Why, despite providing nearly a quarter of the world’s professional rugby players, do the Pacific Island nations of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji increasingly struggle to compete?’

Oceans Apart (available on Prime Video and Vimeo) is the answer to that question. A striking piece of filmmaking that seamlessly flows between investigative journalism, storytelling and activism. Viewers join Leo as he traverses the island nations interviewing players, administrators and politicians in his search for answers. What he uncovers is a story of greed and betrayal that goes to the heart of rugby.

Though not a monolith, the Pacific Islands share many of the same problems. The old enemies of corruption and mismanagement are chief among them. Rugby is a way of life in the Pacific and is tightly interwoven with politics. Too tightly.

In Fiji, the Prime Minister and chairman of the rugby union are brothers-in-law. In Samoa, they are the same person.

And it is in Samoa where Leo begins his journey; a country where rugby accounts for 20% of the GDP and citizens are 30 times more likely to be rugby players than anywhere else on earth. Oceans Apart gradually exposes how the leaders of this rugby-mad country have misappropriated hundreds of thousands of pounds from rugby accounts (money predominantly raised through donations).

Government greed has left Samoan rugby criminally under-resourced. It’s a revelation as shocking as it is deeply saddening.

For Fijians, political interference is even more pernicious. Ben Ryan, who coached the Fiji sevens team to Olympic gold, chillingly recalls how armed government officials would attend training sessions and dictate team selection. Players not supportive of the ‘right’ political party would receive knocks on their doors in the dead of night. These are the politics of violence deployed by dictators and despots. 

All the while World Rugby decision-makers remain wilfully ignorant of the situation thousands of miles away. Fiji Rugby’s chairman Francis Kean, who was previously convicted for beating a man to death and stands accused of torture, was nominated in April for an executive position in World Rugby. His nomination was seconded by French Rugby (whose president Bernard Laporte, who is also the vice-chairman of World Rugby, coincidentally has since been implicated in corruption).

The explanation for the Pacific rugby’s tribulations, clearly, goes far beyond the quagmire of regional politics and power struggles. Oceans Apart is unflinching in its depiction of a global rugby system designed to favour the elite at the expense of growing the game.

Hushed conversations with administrators reveal the true extent of Pacific rugby’s dependence on World Rugby. Unable to generate enough revenue from the few international sides that tour the Pacific, their rugby unions rely on World Rugby handouts to avoid bankruptcy.

The enduring threat of having funding withdrawn is the sword of Damocles that hangs over the head of Pacific rugby. It’s a model that Leo insists has ‘trapped the islands in a handout mentality’, ensuring they do not step out of line.

Oceans Apart is, however, no mere diatribe. The film has an agenda, and acknowledges this, but endeavours to offer balance by providing World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi opportunity to convey their own perspectives. Viewers never feel condescended to and care is taken to let the facts speak for themselves. Which they do. Deafeningly. 

In the midst of all the intrigue the film never loses sight of what is really important. The players. From tales of busking outside restaurants to pay for meals, to training without balls, it is ultimately their stories that contextualise Oceans Apart and give the film its humanity and emotional resonance.

At times heart-breaking, the film chronicles the experience of those Pacific players for whom the rugby dream has turned to dust.

One such player is legendary Fijian wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca (rated by Jean de Villiers as the best player to ever play Super Rugby). Standing in the remote village of his birth, Caucaunibuca solemnly recounts how he was thrust into international stardom – something for which he was never prepared.

Without a proper support network to guide him Caucaunibuca, who could not even speak English when he arrived in New Zealand, squandered his fortune and his career ended unceremoniously. It’s a story that has played out many times since. Pacific prodigies are elevated to the game’s highest echelons but offered scant guidance and then promptly abandoned to make way for the next rising star.

Rugby’s treatment of Pacific players as little more than raw commodities is a recurring theme the film explores. Scouts from richer rugby nations target children as young as 13 for their academies. We are told that in any year as many as 40 of Tonga’s most talented youngsters may be lured away – some with contracts that prohibit them from playing for the country of their birth.

Leo somberly draws comparisons to historic relationships of colonial exploitation. It’s difficult to disagree. 

Despite a shoestring budget, director Callum Drummond’s cinematography is sleek. Glorious aerial shots slip over jungles and immaculate coastlines but are juxtaposed with honest representations of the poverty of the islands. It is a fitting visual metaphor for that state of Pacific rugby: simultaneously beautiful and destitute. 

At just over an hour in length, there is a sense of urgency to Oceans Apart. Interviews are succinct but impactful. The film does not have time to mince its words. It is to the credit, though, of Tusitala Films, who produced the documentary, that it doesn’t feel rushed. The serious and often complex topics the film explores are done with due respect for their emotional gravity.

While Oceans Apart is not the story of Dan Leo, it is hard to ignore his role in the narrative. Here is a man who sacrificed his international career and reputation by challenging his government in a society that takes a dim view of those who speak truth to power. Never wanting to be seen as a ‘troublemaker’, Leo has nevertheless suffered insults and threats to himself and his family’s safety.

All this Leo has endured because of an undeterred conviction that what he is doing is right. It speaks volumes of his character and bravery.

As the film draws to a close we follow Leo as he treks up the ‘Road of Loving Hearts’ to the summit of Mount Vaea where Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson is buried. The camera pans to show the morning mist slowly rolling through the jungle below. It is a beautifully serene moment in which Leo muses about the author. He tells us how Stevenson (‘Tusitala’ in Samoa), was adored by the Samoan people for his bravery in standing in solidarity with them against European imperialism.

The parallel is clear. The Pacific needs the rugby world to stand with it.

The rugby fraternity, that so readily espouses its virtues of equality, fairness and sportsmanship, has failed Pacific rugby in all these facets. This ought to be a source of deep shame but rather than scold or assign blame, Oceans Apart, in that quiet moment in the jungle, offers the rugby world the chance to be part of the solution.

Oceans Apart is a triumph. A moving and thought-provoking experience helmed by a man whose passion and love for his people is plain to see. It shines a sorely needed light on the plight of Pacific nations rugby but remains at its core a story of hope. A tribute to the remarkable men and women of the Pacific who each day inspire, entertain and enthral the rugby world.

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Craig Lewis