Misadventures of a Pacific Professional (NZL) centres around Alofa Williams, a young Pasifika woman climbing the corporate ladder. Alofa is constantly bumping up against unconscious bias in the workplace and must find an authentic way of dealing with it. This prompts an internal struggle between the part of Alofa that was raised to be humble (Faletua) and the part of her that descended from warriors (Nafanua).

Melbourne WebFest spoke to creator, producer and writer Tupe Solomon-Tanoa’i about the series.

How did you decide on the plot and theme of your series? Was there something specific that inspired your series?

Misadventures of a Pacific Professional tackles the themes of unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  The main character, Alofa Williams (played by rising star Lagi Farani), is a successful Pacific woman climbing the corporate ladder who is constantly bumping up against the incorrect assumptions that others make about her place in the world – she doesn’t quite fit the expectations of where people expect a young, Pacific woman to be.

The series is loosely based on the experiences I’ve had in my career. As a first time writer and producer, this was a scary move (fear of rejection is real!). But I felt emboldened by the belief that this was a story that needed to be told. Much like Alofa, I’ve constantly had to prove that I deserve to be where I am.

Throughout my career, I’ve held a number of senior roles in various organisations, and while holding those roles I’ve been mistaken for my boss’s housekeeper, my boss’s daughter, and on several occasions, people assumed I was working for a white male colleague, when, in fact, I was in charge.

More often than not, these awkward situations would end in laughter — somehow I always felt it was my responsibility to put other people at ease. Like my character Alofa, I was never fazed by these interactions, and part of me enjoyed challenging perceptions of where a young Pacific woman is supposed to be in this day and age.

When I was in the thick of these experiences which emphasised my “otherness”, I often felt isolated. But conversations with my friends confirmed that I was not alone.  Since we’ve released the series, many people have contacted me to say the message resonates, and it has encouraged them to share their own story. To me, that connection, and that space for conversation, has been the most rewarding part of speaking up and speaking out.

How important is the theme in your series?  

The theme is everything.  I probably wouldn’t have overcome my fear of sharing my creation if I hadn’t felt so strongly about the message.  Interestingly, I felt the most fear before I had even shown one person, and as I built my team, I built my confidence.  By the time we premiered the series to 300 people, and then released it online I no longer felt fear. I felt liberated. 

Misadventures of a Pacific Professional Trailer

Why choose the web format for your series?

We chose the web format for the series because I thought it would be a great way to hold a mirror up to New Zealand society.  For a long time, I wasn’t sure I could or should call out this unconscious bias. After all, none of the offending parties ever meant to be offensive. As you’ll see in the series, the antagonist of Misadventures, John From Accounting (played by established actor Gerald Urquhart) is not a bad guy. He’s just unaware. But, as the series progresses, he starts to become more aware of his words and actions.

It’s been important to me that this process doesn’t become a finger-pointing exercise. Unconscious bias isn’t limited to any particular ethnicity, gender, or age group. It’s something we all have, and we all have the potential to do it to each other. It’s how our brains are wired. But once we become aware, it’s our responsibility to retrain our brains to think in a different way.

What was your greatest challenge creating the series?

As a first time writer and producer, the greatest challenge was having the courage to step out of my comfort zone.  In my previous career, I was a diplomat and policymaker, and I was perfectly comfortable debating policy ideas in that space.  But sharing creative work, that was so personal to me, was a different story – especially since no one knew that I had a creative bone in my body. 

Before my husband Esera Tanoa’i and I formed our production company, Poporazzi Productions, to make the web series, we had been completely focused on raising our two beautiful daughters and making sure we had a roof over our heads.  But over the years of experiencing micro-aggressions, and not knowing how to respond I started to feel that I had something I needed to say.  That’s when I began to write. Firstly, just for myself – to process what I was experiencing at work and eventually, I felt compelled to share.

What was the development process like for your series?

As first time producers, Esera and I were blessed with the support of a wonderful cast and crew, including Reina Va’ai as director and Abe Mora as director of photography, who brought the story to life.  We are also grateful that we had the support of a number of organisations who jumped on board because they believed in the message of the show.

What inspired the characters and their story development?

One of the features of the show is Alofa’s internal struggle between two guiding forces in her life – the part of her that was raised to be humble (Faletua) and the part of her that descended from warriors (Nafanua).  These guiding forces were inspired by characters familiar to the Samoan community – the formidable Church-going woman, and Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war.

Misadventures of a Pacific Professional (NZL)

What was the most important aspect of your series?

The most important aspect of the series was undoubtedly the message – as a young Pacific woman you might be the youngest, the brownest, or the only woman in the room, but you absolutely deserve to be there!

How did you come up with the comedic tone for your series?   

Some people describe the series as a comedy, but I didn’t deliberately set out to be funny. For me, and many others, this is just real life! 

Do you have any advice for aspiring film makers out there who want to create a web series?

It’s a wonderful medium to get started on your creative journey.  There is a wealth of information available online – everything from script writing classes to pitching and production 101.  Surround yourself with a great team, be coachable, and have fun.

What’s next for your series, and where would you like it to progress in the near future?

There will definitely be a season 2.  We’ve got lots more to say on this topic.  The feedback received from audiences was firstly that they loved seeing representation of Pacific people in professional roles on screen, and that they found the experiences of Alofa very relatable.  For me, that was the most rewarding thing about finding my voice and speaking my truth – it was the connection with so many other Pacific people who said, yes, that is my story too!