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First-ever Tongan feature film premieres at Cinequest
March 07, 2014, 05:00 AM By Samantha Weigel Daily Journal

Courtesy of Alex Bernstein
Writer, director Alex Bernstein filming ‘When the Man Went South’ in Tonga.

The public will have a unique opportunity for a glimpse into the beautiful geography, culture and language of Tonga during the world premiere of a San Mateo man’s feature film at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose Friday night.

“When the Man Went South” is the brainchild of Alex Bernstein. It’s the first ever Tongan language feature film and the only to be entirely shot on the small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As fascinating as the film is, the production of it is equally intriguing.

The film is set 300 years ago and tells the story of Flying Fox, a young hunter who goes on a journey to better himself and lands in a foreign part of the islands in the midst of two feuding villages.

While confronted with cultural differences, Flying Fox realizes neither tribe remembers why they’re at war and he ends up becoming a mediator, Bernstein said.

Flying Fox eventually returns home and finds trouble afoot, but Bernstein said he didn’t want to spoil the rest.

Although clearly a period-based film, the theme has parallels to modern society and politics, Bernstein said.

“I’m really trying to say some things about human nature and the issues that the protagonist is presented with I think are topical. Because it goes on, for instance, in Washington today, because you have one side dug in and trenched against the other and often it seems one side is more interested in defeating the other side then in achieving whatever their alleged goal is,” Bernstein said. “It’s philosophical … those are things that manifest in politics. But it’s also a comedy, so let’s not forget that, it’s a dry comedy that people have really been enjoying.”

Bernstein grew up in San Mateo with Tongan friends, went on to work in Hollywood for a short period and ending up working as an attorney in Redwood City. But he became extremely curious about Tonga as an adult and he started to read everything he could find about its history, culture and language, Bernstein said.

He spent several months writing the script and, after gathering funds, most of which he contributed himself, set out with his five-man crew and limited equipment to the remote island ‘Eua.

The real catch, they had 30 days to make a movie and no actors.

“It was definitely a unique experience,” Bernstein said. “None of us had been there and we didn’t know what to expect. It [was] a very foreign place to us and we were just dropping in there trying to accomplish a huge task on a schedule.”

They arrived determined. They set aside one week to get their bearings, hire a cast, gather props and set location and three weeks to film, Bernstein said.

The first few days were chaotic, especially after they made an announcement on the radio that they were casting and no one showed. But in true island style, people began to trickle by their bungalow and eventually a cast was formed. None had any acting experience, Bernstein said.

“There was no other way to do it, you had to actually be there,” Bernstein said. “I wanted it to be as authentic as possible and we had [producer] Villiami [Halapua] there keeping an eye out to make sure everything stayed as authentic as possible. He was invaluable.”

Born in Tonga, Halapua came to the mainland in 2003 and works as a court translator. With close ties to the exotic island, Halapua said was thrilled when Bernstein asked him to be part of the film.

“It was an amazing project to be a part of and I’m so happy that Alex and the crew chose Tonga. And I’m very happy with the outcome and I hope it’ll put Tonga on the map for the rest of the world to see; that there’s an island Tonga and it’s a beautiful one,” Halapua said.

Both Halapua and Bernstein are extremely gratified their film was accepted into Cinequest, but said they feel pressure to not let anyone from their cast down.

It’s still very rural, most of those in ‘Eua who were in the film are lucky to be anywhere near an Internet source and have been thrilled to watch even clips of the trailer, Halapua said.

As the first movie of its kind, both Bernstein and Halapua are proud to showcase the lesser-known island in the Pacific.

“It’s something that was occurring to us while we were shooting the movie,” Bernstein said. “Obviously we are trying to tell a story but, at the same time, anything we can do to show people how beautiful and unique Tonga is, all the better.”

“When the Man Went South” will be premiering at the Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose 7 p.m. March 7 and March 10 and 5:15 p.m. March 13. For specific locations and more information about Bernstein’s film visit For more information about the Cinequest Film Festival visit

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106



Tags: bernstein, halapua, tonga, island, there, cinequest,

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