Westminster alum finds a career in filmmaking and premieres at Sundance Film Festival
January 10, 2022
A first-generation student, Tony Vainuku (’08), grew up in Salt Lake City. His parents were both immigrants: his mother from Holland, and his father from the islands of Tonga. Tony grew up in a community that was no stranger to hardship. His friendships comprised peers who played football, and football became a way to feel good about something.
“We all played football, but we didn’t really have much to look up to. All of our families were kind of broken. It was just a rougher neighborhood. When we started seeing players like our cousins do well in football, whether little league or high school, that ended up being something that totally motivated us,” said Tony.
For the Polynesian culture that Tony was raised in, football is more than a sport to watch and cheer about: it is perceived as the only way out of bad conditions into a chance at life.
“Because we have been successful in football, we are 28 times more likely to make it into the NFL than any other ethnic group,” Tony said.
Tony recalls the days of his youth when he began playing football. A child who was more interested in art and film than in sports, he was quick to notice the way in which his Polynesian peers excelled at the sport.
“We were more than good at it: we were better than most of the kids at the time because we were bigger and faster. It was natural for us to find the sport fun because we succeeded at it. We all dreamed of being in the NFL,” said Tony.
Though playing football was not a priority for him, Tony experienced first-hand the pressure that exceling in the sport places on young Polynesians. He watched as his younger uncle was catapulted into the local spotlight: a rising star who was often referred to as the next Junior Seau (former NFL player). Recruited by big football schools such as Michigan State and Nebraska, he was the All-State leading linebacker. But his uncle’s dreams for the NFL crumbled around him as he embarked down a drug-ridden path that eventually landed him in prison.
Tony experienced the grief that overcomes a family when one of their own succumbs to a vice. But for Tony’s family, the incarceration of his uncle meant more than the fear of a loved one being locked up: it meant their hope of success was lost to iron bars that drowned the talent of a once-rising star.
It was the tragedy of his uncle’s experience that led Tony to want to educate the world on the Polynesian culture. He wanted to showcase their strength, tenacity, and relentless love for one another. He knew he had a story to tell, and he wanted to do it through film.
Thought to Action
A first-generation student, Tony transferred to Westminster College in his mid-twenties. He was a business marketing major with a sales background and a flair for the arts. Returning to college as an older student, Tony says that he was more of a loner on campus: he came to class and usually left right after. Though he was not super-involved with campus life while a student at Westminster, Tony reflects on his time at the college with fondness, saying that he loved the college and loved learning.
He notes that he had great professors, and some names stick out in his mind as having influenced his business decisions when he eventually started his own multimedia company after graduating. “Georgia White was my advisor and was always ready to answers my questions. Professor Tong in economics taught me a great deal about economical decisions and impacts. Of course Nancy Panos Schmidt was a massive influence.,” says Tony.
It was the experience he had with Georgia White that really sticks out to him. “She’s the only one I had a conversation with about life that had nothing to do with what she was teaching—it was just us talking. I think that’s what a real mentor is: one that can talk to you about applying real things to your life,” says Tony.
One of the core values of Westminster College, real-life application is especially relevant to someone like Tony, who would eventually go on to make a documentary based on very real issues.
In 2007, Tony met Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite in his Salt Lake City neighborhood. Their friendship began after a chance encounter while Hess was riding his bike in the neighborhood and ended with the two hanging out and watching movies together. Hess and Tony formed a friendship over being the only two people in their neighborhood involved and interested in film. It was Hess who later introduced Tony to a friend who would eventually film the first interview for his documentary.
A couple of years after meeting Jared Hess, Tony, through his multimedia company Soul Profile Production, incorporated various ways of filming for clients. Soul Profile Production eventually extended to Soulpro clothing company, and it was through renting film equipment to Alice Elliott of New York University that Tony began talking openly about his idea to shoot a documentary.
Elliott introduced Tony to Geralyn Dreyfous, a Utah-based producer who founded the Salt Lake City Film Center, co-founded Impact Partners, and has been involved in several films, some of which have won Academy Awards. Dreyfous loved Tony’s idea so much that she introduced him to Erika Cohn, who would come on as a producer. The road to making a film was a long one, but despite challenges along the way, there was always one constant: people believed in the story Tony wanted to tell.
From the Camera to the Silver Screen
Many Kickstarter campaigns, connections, interviews, footage, and emotional ups and downs later, Tony and his team had a documentary: In Football We Trust. It was a five-year process that had Tony working with different Polynesian families while telling the stories of four Utah-based youth (two of them brothers) who excelled in football. The documentary followed them through their everyday life experience, allowing viewers to get a glimpse into their personal lives. Their relationships with their families, religious views, and struggles to be good students, athletes, and sons are juxtaposed with their more rebellious sides. The film also features interviews with four Polynesian NFL athletes who help set up the story, giving context to what the young athletes are up against. By the end of the long journey, Tony and his team had a film that needed to be made, and a story about a culture that needed to be told.
“The message of the story is that there is so much to our culture. Football should be an option as long as it is not the only option. I hope this film shows you that football should be used very carefully and that it will leave you hanging if you don’t take care of number one while you’re using football as number two,” says Tony.
Tony’s concerns hark back to the pressure that many young Polynesian boys feel from their families and community to excel in football. If they do well, they have the chance of getting a scholarship to college. Beyond that, they have the possibility of making it to the NFL, which means that they will be able to help bring their families out of poverty. While Tony agrees that football is an option for these boys, he believes in the importance of education and notes that many of these young athletes do not value their education as much as their sport. Not taking their schooling seriously in high school can lead to a smaller chance of success if football does not work out.
“In high school you’re supposed to take seven classes. Of my uncle’s seven classes, about four to six of them were with his coaches. His father died at a young age, and he didn’t have anybody to really push him anymore. He had a choice on whether he wanted to play football and he just tailspinned. When I looked for answers in that, I started looking at his coaches. Nobody cared about his education. All they cared about was keeping him eligible to play football,” explains Tony.
While Tony and his crew completed In Football We Trust in 2012, it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It had generated such a huge buzz before the premiere that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson called Tony before the festival began to tell him he wanted to come on as an executive producer.
“The Sundance experience was overwhelming at first. It was exciting and a great way for us to end our journey with the film—and begin it at the same time. It really launched us and helped position us to the world,” says Tony.
When Tony talks about his experience at Sundance, he is humble—and perhaps still in a bit of disbelief. Tony became the first Tongan director to premiere a film at Sundance.
“It was good that I was validated at Sundance, which was right up the street from where I grew up. Sundance was always so untouchable. To become a voice of the Polynesian culture there was heartening and motivational,” Tony says.
Being a director at Sundance meant attending many events, raising money for high school scholarships, bowling with celebrities, and being the first film to sell out at Sundance. The memories light up Tony’s face, and he admits to not really knowing how to handle all of the good news that was thrown his way after five years of trying to make his dream a reality.
“It’s weird because you get really excited about something one time, and then something gets stacked on that. All of this good news at one time, you almost hit a natural high, and you can’t get any drunker. It’s like drinking cocktails on the beach. You don’t get drunk; you’re just happy the whole time,” laughs Tony.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
Since the 2015 Sundance experience, Tony has enjoyed local screenings of his film and, with the help of The Rock, is currently pursuing an international release for viewers to enjoy at home. Tony still maintains a very close relationship with the boys in the film, all of whom Tony watched grow from teenagers to men throughout the filming process.
“I play a mentor role with them. They’re just like little brothers who I have tremendous respect for. I have all the gratitude in the world for them for laying their lives out there for our culture, the story, and for me. It’s a lot to ask to stick a camera in somebody’s face for four years,” says Tony.
As he looks toward the future, Tony hopes that In Football We Trust will continue to generate interest and, inevitably, awareness of the Tongan and Samoan cultures.
He hopes to inspire young men of his culture by helping them understand that there are options for them outside of football, and if they apply themselves, education is a choice they will never regret.
Follow Tony’s journey at the In Football We Trust website.