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The Great Migration: The director of ‘Mercenary’

Game time: Toki Pilioko, as Soane, at US Fumel Libos Timshel Productions

‘Mercenary’ is a movie about a young man from the Pacific territory of Wallis and Futuna, who moves to France to play rugby. Alan Dymock talks with director Sacha Wolff as part of our Great Migration series


Talking about his movie Mercenary over Skype, French director Sacha Wolff considers the issue of rumours and urban myths clouding discussions about exploitation of players from the Pacific Islands. After a quick think, he puts forward his view.

“When you talk about rumours, what is a story and what is not a story, I guess on the money side it’s not as bad as I say in my movie but what is very interesting to me is the physical part of it. Why do European teams look for those guys? I guess the exploitation is, to me, mainly physical.”

Last year Wolff unleashed Mercenary – known as Mercenaire in France, where it was originally released – a film he had written and directed. The movie centres around Soane Tokelau, played by Toki Pilioko who is a prop for ProD2 side Dax in real life. Soane is a young man from the French territories of Wallis and Futuna who is scouted in New Caledonia and brought over to France to play rugby. The story follows his lows and eventual highs as he is ditched at the arrivals gate by a big French club, finds himself playing further down the divisions, discovers and loses love, and eventually challenges the tyranny of his father and the ‘agent’ who picked him out. It is a tale of an outsider getting by in a field that can chew up and spit out those who don’t strike it lucky.

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Conflict: In the movie Soane confronts his father, Leone Timshel Productions

So what prompted the making of this film? “I really love boxing movies and I thought to myself, ‘There are not so many movies about rugby,’” Wolff says.

“I had no special idea about how to do it. Then one day I read an article in Le Monde about a small rugby team in the east of France who were in Fedérale 3, which is like the fifth division. They had players from all around the world who came in to help them grow. I thought this was a very interesting subject.”

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The director talked to athletes, coaches and administrators around France, trying to get a handle on the world he hoped to illustrate. But there was never an easy in with players and the overarching theme of the movie was at that point a mystery, even to him. But everything changed when he met one veteran athlete.

Wolff says: “I met a guy from Wallis and Futuna. This was much more interesting, to talk about this French identity which is not so well known in France. If you ask somebody in the street, ‘Do you know Wallis and Futuna?’ They will not know that it is French.

“So when I met this guy, Laurent Pakihivatau, who plays Abraham in the movie, he was playing in Lyon. There were a lot of Pacific Island players in Lyon and when I met him I realised I had to make a movie with this guy because he was very powerful, visually, very interesting. I spent a lot of time talking with him, and a lot with players from Wallis, but also with people from Samoa, Tonga, then also from New Zealand.

“When I met Paki, he told me: ‘When I am in France, nobody knows where I come from. They all look at me as a beast. And when I go back to New Caledonia they all look at me like a French guy. My identity is stuck somewhere in the sky. When I took my first flight to France I lost something, and I’ll never get it back.’ So I was saying to myself, this is probably a good story to tell. That was the beginning.”

Tender moment: Soane with Coralie, played by Iliana Zabeth Timshel Productions

Wolff’s eyes were opened to a new community; a little pocket of the rugby world that few appreciated as he now does. You know of players of Tongan, Samoan or Fijian extraction, but how about those with ties to the lesser-known French territories of the Pacific? Looking through French squads of the past few years, you realise that you know nothing of the culture and heritage of players like Jocelino Suta, Sebastien Vahaamahina, the Taofifénua brothers or new kid on the block Christopher Tolofua.

Some believe that these regions are just a ripe patch to be ploughed by French sporting authorities. At one point on the call, Wolff gets very animated as he talks about the colonial attitude he believes many in modern rugby still cling to. He feels that there is a conveyor belt of ready-made replacements from the islands, that broken-down bodies can be swapped for younger models. This is the reason why one of the very first lines of the movie comes from Abraham, who, surveying a field of young Pacific Islands talent in New Caledonia, utters to a fellow scout: “They only want the youngest, the tallest and the biggest.”

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The movie took Wolff four years to write. He needed to ingratiate himself with Pacific players, so they would open up and he could hear their stories. He admits that the younger players who are still in the throes of burgeoning playing careers tend to remain quiet. But older players – the ones he describe as scarred, unable to climb stairs, physically broken – would tell of their past troubles, their struggle for identity beyond being beasts of burden.

It was also after these discussions that Wolff decided to focus on the lower reaches of French rugby, beyond the elite levels. He explains: “I wanted to place the story at a very, very small team. We always talk about what’s going on at the big teams with the big dreams, but there are a lot, lot, lot of small teams where the players who don’t make it go to, where there are no rules basically.”

In 2016 the movie was aired at Cannes, where it won the Europa Cinemas Label award. You can see Mercenary on Netflix UK & Ireland now.