‘Beautiful, hilarious’ journey brings te ao Māori to the big screen

When Te Kohe Tuhaka first became an actor, it was rare to see anything to do with te ao Māori behind the scenes.

“There was no karakia, there was no cultural sensitivities around anything. It was a gig. We were paid to do a gig,” Tuhaka (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou) tells Stuff.

This approach to story-telling was a change for the acclaimed actor, who was raised in a reo-speaking household, and is closely connected to his culture.

“I didn’t know any other way. I was raised by the old people. Te reo Māori is my first language,” says Tuhaka. “It wasn’t until I came to the urban centres and entered the industry, that I realised it wasn’t the norm.”

Over the last 20 years, Tuhaka says he has watched the industry become more inclusive and collaborative.

However, he says there is still a lot of hesitancy when it comes to engaging with local iwi and hapū - something he sought to change in his first role as a producer for the film The Convert, directed by Lee Tamahori.

The film, a historical drama, follows a lay preacher who arrives at a British settlement in Aotearoa in the 1830s, and finds himself caught in the middle of a bloody war between Māori tribes.

Tuhaka says he was drawn to the project because it was a story that felt familiar, and he welcomed the responsibility of being able to bring it to life as a producer in a way that was inclusive.

“I kind of looked at the project like, I know these spaces, I know these worlds that we’re trying to create. For me, the thing that drew me in, was being given the responsibility of a producer, to look after all of that, to create all of that.”

In order to film in the greater Auckland region, production companies have to obtain consent from different tribal entities, Tuhaka says.

“It was a new experience for me to take on board and I had to do it the way that I knew how. I made connections with those tribal entities and those hapū and that made it easier because I included them all on the journey,” he says.

“When you talk about engagement from a Māori perspective, it’s not about email, it’s not about phoning, it’s about showing up. Rather than saying ‘I’ve got an opportunity,’ it was more of a ‘Here’s our project. Would you like to partner with us to help make it?’

“Because we’re shooting on your lands. We’re shooting in your region. With that in mind, from a very Māori perspective, you will hold us in those spaces. So opening karakia will be done by you. We’ll have as many of your people as you can give us to be a part of the project, and you will be the first people to see it when it’s done.”

Tuhaka says having that lens from a cultural perspective, “regardless of the gig, is hugely important”.

“We had a screening with all of the hapū we engaged with, and it was beautiful. It was hilarious. My people, Māori people, watch things very differently. We’re not quiet. So to see these communities see themselves for the first time on a big screen was life-changing,” he says.

“It builds capacity within our people in this industry. It’s giving them the little moment to go ‘Oh, maybe I could do this.’ Because it’s not just about being in front of the camera, there’s so many roles to film behind the scenes as well.

“For me, as someone who’s being doing this for so long, I also think about my three boys. For them to be able to have something that they can say ‘My dad was in this’ is everything.”

The Convert will be showing in cinemas from March 14.