Director Himiona Grace is part of a literary legacy responsible for some of the most moving accounts of Maori life in New Zealand history; his mother is renowned writer Patricia Grace and his wife, multi-talented authoress Briar Grace-Smith. The father of four contributes his own take on Maori traditions with his debut feature, the musical drama The Pa Boys (pictured, below; the director, right, with star Matariki Whatarau), which launches this week in limited release on this side of ‘The Ditch’. He spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the origins of the story, its themes of mateship and spirituality and of his desire to reflect the true nature of young male Maori culture...
What inspired the story?
The inspiration for the story came from several sources over many years. As a kid, I was fascinated by the traditional journey of the spirit and the many other concepts behind this journey. We have a very metaphoric view of life, which translates well to the big screen.
I also played in bands for decades, touring several times a year, including all of the places in this movie. ‘The Road Trip’ is such a huge part of my life and our culture here in New Zealand. When I first started writing the script I knew two things. 'No one will give me a lot of money to make this film,' but 'everyone loves a good road movie'. I knew I had a chance.
Are these young men and their journey of self-discovery familiar to you both in particular and Maori audiences in general?
I grew up at my Pa (my mother's tribal community) and my Father was staunchly Ngati Porou (East Coast tribe) so I didn't have the same identity crisis that the character Danny has. But there are countless people within my culture who weren't as lucky as I was. Genealogical lines and history is crucial within our culture and sadly, for many the lines have been severed. That is partly what drove me to tell this story.
Another driving force was that history, education, media and the system in general have always given an outsider's negative perspective on our people, especially of our men. I wanted to tell a story from the inside. I grew up at the Pa and experienced first hand what our fathers, uncles and grandfathers were like. They weren't the people I read about, or heard about, or learned about.
Once Were Warriors was a powerful film. But it wasn't how I grew up and I couldn't relate to it. I was shocked and also angered by the film because it portrayed us in the same old stereotypical way, but worse. Whale Rider, again, a beautiful film. But I had never met a grandfather who treated his grandchild like that because she was a girl. That's just fantasy and not even historically correct. We weren't a patriarchal society in pre-European times. Your lineage is your lineage regardless of what sex you are. That is still true today.
So I wanted to tell a story about some young Maori men who are just feeling their way through life and death. Just like many other young men around the world. They're not losers, or violent. They're not perfect either. They are passionate, have talent to burn and are living life to the only way they know how.
Francis, Matariki and Tola have a very natural way of interacting on screen. Tell me about the casting of the film; of finding these three extraordinary actor/musicians. And how did that wonderful chemistry between all three happen?
Casting the boys and girls was mostly instinctive. I met Matariki many years ago. He was fresh out of drama school. I said, 'do you know how to play the bass bro?' He said, 'yeah I've got a gig tomorrow.' I didn't make his gig but when it looked like we were actually going to make the film I sent him a script. He was 'in'.
I didn't really audition Francis either (pictured, left; behind mic). I knew of his rep as a musician, had seen him perform with his band Kora a few times. I also knew he had trained as an actor. We had an opportunity to workshop the script and shoot a few scenes. He auditioned for Cityboy and gave the character a really interesting energy, different to what I had written. But as time wore on and we got to know each other really well I came to realise I wanted him for the lead role. It was just gut/heart instinct. I knew he'd nail it. He is a generous man and an amazing talent.
Tola did audition but for another part. Again it was instinct. I knew he was Cityboy as soon as I met him. The dynamics are crucial. The boys and girls did know each other through work and networks before we hit the road. We had several workshops, readings and a couple of weeks of rehearsals to bring them all together. Before we hit the road we were a tight knit family.
Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider and Boy have all been very successful in foreign markets. Why do these films, intrinsically indigenous in their storytelling, find such favour with a broad audience?
Stories that are specific to a culture can also be universal, so that's not really an issue. I have been asked if I am isolating my audience by telling such a 'Maori' story. Of course I don't think so and wonder if that would be asked of a Spanish director telling a Spanish story.
I think outside of New Zealand the Maori culture is quite exotic. It doesn't come with the baggage or insular perspectives that we often face here in our own country. People are interested in us and our perspectives. Culturally we are strong in story telling, music and the visual arts. Which is why I think we are particularly good in this medium.
Did the shooting of the film reflect the actual road trip the band went on? It appears you covered many miles through some of NZs most beautiful countryside.
It was just like being on tour with a band except we ate well and didn't have to pay for the gas (laughs). And the fun and beautiful landscapes captured on film were only a small percentage of fun and beauty we actually experienced. It was the best shoot I've ever been on (pictured, below; Grace, right, with Warren Maxwell, his music composer).
The story was always a road trip around the East Coast to Northland. I have traveled this road all my life. With a small budget in mind we knew shooting in places where we have family connections was going to make sense. "Puti's Mum's house" was actually my Aunty's place where I hung out as a kid. Wharekaahu, the beautiful land where the bulk of the second act was set is actually where my Father's is from. We shot on his land and at his cousin's beach house. We have family connections in Tolaga Bay and Tokomaru Bay, where the first pub scenes were shot. Ainsley (Gardner, producer) grew up in Whakatane and has ties to the Bay of Plenty. We spent quite a bit of time there, including the shoot at Te Teko pub, all the motel scenes etc. So the whole shoot was run like a family outing, visiting long but not so lost relations.
The film portrays a very spiritual essence, of needing to be in touch with family, friends, heaven and earth to be whole. Is the value in learning of the past still relevant to young Maori men?
It's absolutely relevant today but our youth have much more to deal with. They are part of the junk generation. That's not dissing our kids but the crap they are bombarded with every day. The fight for any culture to survive against the shallow, dominant 'globalised digital' culture is a battle we all face. It could be compared to a small budget independent film going up against the Hollywood blockbuster (pictured, left; star Francis Kora, right, with actor Calvin Tuteao as Uncle Toa).
But I do feel positive about our future. Amongst us there are still many very proud youth who, like the characters in the film, are 'feeling their way through life'. More and more people dismiss the hype and are choosing to watch more independent films.
The Pa Boys is currently screening in Australia at Event Cinemas Pacific Fair with additional dates to follow. Further information can be found on the films website here.