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Taika Waititi and Jaiyah Saelua on the ‘Ridiculous, Stunning, and Beautiful’ Story Behind Next Goal Wins

5 minute read

Since long before colonization, four genders have flourished in Samoan culture: female, male, fa’afafine, and fa’afatama. The last two translate to “in the manner of a woman” and “in the manner of a man,” respectively, and they mean what they sound like: A fa’afafine person is assigned male at birth, but expresses feminine characteristics, and vice versa. Both move comfortably along the gender spectrum.

“Being fa’afafine means to understand and accept that our identity is closely related to the fact that we're assigned the male gender at birth,” fa’afafine soccer player Jaiyah Saelua tells TIME. “And unlike a lot of trans folk who don't want anything to do with that fact, we as fa’afafine embrace it.”

Jaiyah (Kaimana) and Samson (Hio Pelesasa), along with the rest of the team, perform the Siva Tau war dance before they play.Hilary Bronwyn Gayle—Searchlight Pictures

But the two are not mutually exclusive: In 2011, Saelua became both the first fa’afafine and the first openly transgender woman to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match for men. FIFA has recognized her as the first transgender international soccer player to play in the World Cup. She was also the first transgender player to start a World Cup qualifying game. 

Saelua, a center back defender, was one of the subjects of the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins. And now the fa’afafine actor Kaimana is playing her in a film with the same name, directed by Taika Waititi, and out in theaters on Nov. 17. Both movies tell the tale of the American Samoan national soccer team. 

By 2001, the team had lost every official match they had ever played, and that year, they suffered the worst loss in the history of international soccer: 31-0 at the hands of Australia. A decade later, the team strives to redeem itself and qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Enter Thomas Rongen (played by Michael Fassbender in the new film), a Dutch-born American coach who aims to whip the team into shape. Waititi’s version is loosely based on the true story, and heavily embellished along the way. 

But that’s besides the point: Waititi set out to tell a funny, warm story that showcases a slice of the Pacific. His movie re-introduces a ragtag of lovable characters, glossed with a comedic sheen: Tavita Taumua (Oscar Kightley), president of the Football Federation American Samoa; Iofi “Ace” Lalogafuafua (David Fane), the team’s coach before Thomas; and Tavita’s son Daru (Beulah Koale), a player on the team; among others.

When people watch Next Goal Wins, “I just want them to experience a little bit of a different culture that they probably never think about,” Waititi, who is of Māori descent, tells TIME. “That there are funny parts to us, that we laugh at ourselves. And that we are also ridiculous—as well as stunning and beautiful.”

In his acceptance speech at the 2019 Oscars, for the film Jojo Rabbit, Waititi told the audience, “I dedicate this to all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories: We are the original storytellers.”

Since then, Waititi has consistently championed Indigenous artists: He co-created Reservation Dogs with Sterlin Harjo, brought Indigenous interns onto set for Thor: Love and Thunder, and executive produced Billy Luther’s Frybread Face and Me, which comes to Netflix on Nov. 24.

Director Taika Waititi on the set of 'Next Goal Wins.'Hilary Bronwyn Gayle—Searchlight Pictures

He’s known for quirky oddball comedies, and Next Goal Wins is his least cynical film yet.

If Saelua’s character was something of the heart of the original documentary, she becomes the lifeblood of the team in the new movie—and the coach’s right-hand fa’afafine. “You look at Jaiyah, and she encapsulates what I think American Samoa is all about: A culture and environment where everything is fairly pure and healthy,” coach Thomas Rongen says in the documentary. “And the sport is really played for the joy and the love of it, and then gender, race doesn’t really matter.”

Pacific cultures often tend to be more accepting of gender nonconformity. Kaimana, for instance, considers herself transgender, fa’afafine (Samoan), fakafefine (Tongan), māhū (Hawaiian/Tahitian), and whakawahine (Māori). While each identity belongs distinctly to its own society, they share a sense of fluidity.

Waititi thinks that perhaps Polynesians simply realized there were bigger fish to fry than debating distinctions. “At some point, someone would have been like, 'Well, you know what? It might be more important that we just accept that someone identifies a different way, and we should concentrate more on getting food and surviving,’” he says. “Which is the big thing that I think can be learned from a lot of Native cultures: I think people got over their hang-ups a lot earlier than Western civilizations did.” In both the new movie and the documentary, fa’afafine are explained as an integral and beloved part of Samoan culture.

Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) and Jaiyah (Kaimana) share lunch on the beach.Hilary Bronwyn Gayle—Searchlight Pictures

Saelua just left the American Samoan national soccer team, which is currently playing in the Pacific Games, so she can participate in the press tour for Next Goal Wins. But she hopes to be back for the World Cup qualifiers next year. And eventually, by the time she steps off the pitch as a player, she hopes to coach a women's or youth national team. She’s also a FIFA ambassador for LGBTQ+ athletes.

Next Goal Wins transports sports fans like her back to when they first started playing as a kid, Saelua says. (For her, that was at age 11, coached by the national team’s own goalkeeper, Nicky Salapu.) “You're reminded of the fact that you played the sport in the very beginning because you loved the sport,” Saelua says. “And it's not always about winning.”

No matter what specific sport, and regardless of religion or culture or race, Waititi says, people set aside their differences for a game. Just like they might for a film.

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