Michiana Chronicles: Oceans Apart
Anne Magnan-Park interviews Axel Haudiquet, a French filmmaker and producer based in Scotland. They discuss Haudiquet’s provocative 2020 documentary Oceans Apart: Greed, Betrayal, and Pacific Ocean Rugby, narrated by former Rugby Captain Dan Leo.
Anne: Good morning, Axel. You and your family have been touring the world for several months. Are you back home now?
Axel: Good morning, Anne. We’re home now. We just settled in Scotland after eleven months on the road, in a very small village near Aberdeen. Anne: You and I met in December 2022 at Rochefort-Pacifique, a film and literature festival located in France where your documentary Oceans Apart celebrated its French premiere in a face-to-face format. The British daily newspaper The Guardian calls your documentary “a must-see” to understand the devastating effects in rugby of “protectionism and self-interest in high places” on the Pacific nations of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. Can you tell us how central the contribution of Pacific Island nations is to rugby and how important the culture of rugby is in the Pacific?
Alex: In the Pacific, rugby is the national sport. It's everywhere! Players have their faces on billboards, on cereal packets. People wear jerseys on the streets. It is literally everywhere. The country comes to a stop when a national team plays a game - and when they win, the whole country is often granted an extra public holiday to celebrate!
Although the Pacific islands are home to only two million people, they account for 20% of professional rugby players worldwide. There are athletes from the Pacific in most of the big teams now. For example, the championship teams in France, England, Australia, and New Zealand all feature Pacific players and they even play in smaller leagues like the Romanian one for instance. They also play for national teams, since many players have decided to play for their adoptive countries.
Unfortunately, there's also a political element when a sport is that popular, politics tend to interfere. Most board members are elected politicians who use the sport for personal gain. Rugby plays a large part in the economy of the islands. Little money is kept by the players, most of their salary is sent back home. Personal remittances account for a huge part of these poor nations GDP (6% for Samoa, 20% for Fiji and 40% for Tonga!). Rugby is important for the Pacific nations, but the Pacific nations are also very important to the modern rugby game.
Anne: Dan Leo, the legendary Samoan former professional rugby player and narrator of the film, calls for urgent and crucial changes to impact the rampant corruption that affects rugby world-wide. He states that he wants to “find out whether rugby is intentionally exploiting the Pacific Islands or whether [political interference and corruption in the Pacific] is in fact what holds [Pacific nations] back.” He adds that, “The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power, and the people who stand to gain from change have none of the power. This sums up the game of rugby today.” Can you summarize the heart of the documentary for us based on the major changes that Dan Leo and many other players want to see happen?
Axel: The issue is quite complex. There is an old colonial legacy to rugby according to which some nations are somehow superior and that things should stay that way. There is an obscure tier system in place that doesn’t reflect the world rankings or performance. It is holding smaller teams back.
The big nations have the money, the resources, and they have more voting power too at the World Rugby Council! So, they make the rules, they get to decide on the allocation of the funds This doesn't affect professional athletes only, it affects the whole system, all the way down to grassroot rugby!
Kids in the Pacific are scouted very early. They can be offered professional contracts abroad when they’re very young, sometimes as early as 13-year-olds. The contract comes with funding for education and often a new passport, but sometimes, it states that the kids shouldn't go back and play for their native country!
In this situation, most kids decide to leave the islands because it is often the only way they can support their families. Samoa, Tonga and Fiji are poor countries, and the salary of a person abroad often helps whole villages.
Anne: How has the film been received and what changes have happened since the release of the film?
Axel: The film has been received very well by the rugby fans. Most of them knew there was corruption or mismanagement, but had no idea about the depth of it or didn’t have the full picture. The film was shown in many festivals around the world. Its universal element attracted the attention of rugby fans. I like to say that Oceans Apart is not a film about rugby. It is a film about people, about love, greed, and power. Since we released the film, the CEO of World Rugby has been replaced. World Rugby, the governing body, changed the eligibility rule, which means that players with two passports can now play for their second country after a thee-year break. So, players can bring their experience back to the islands.
Anne: Where can we watch your film?
Axel: The film is available on Amazon Prime and on Vimeo. We’re giving the film away for free to rugby clubs and academies, and we’re always happy to chat with people who want to reach out to us!
Anne: Thank you so much, Axel!
Axel: For Michiana Chronicles, this is Axel Haudiquet and Anne Magnan-Park.
Music: “Lotu Fa’afetai”