As the heading indicates, Sima Urale is no longer a doongy. Not, you’d suspect, that she was ever anything less than “bright as”. But the way she tells her story, when she first set off to school in Wellington 40 years ago, she didn’t take to, or thrive on, her class-work.
The thriving didn’t come until she tried drama school. Then film school in Australia. And then a variety of roles in the arts — as an actor, writer, director, and maker of films, documentaries, commercials and videos.
Some of it has been of such high quality that, for years, she’s been gathering awards not just in New Zealand but overseas as well, against any amount of international competition — starting with her first film, O Tamaiti (The Children), which won the Silver Lion for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1996.
Her CV is already bursting at the seams, so one single interview, like this one with Dale, can’t come close to covering the projects she’s done. But this conversation does give a glimpse of Sima and her style.
Tēnā koe Sima. Now, right at the start, I better make sure that I’m pronouncing your surname correctly. I suppose that Urale is pronounced oo-rah-le.
Yeah. That’s it. But the funny thing about that name is that, in Samoan, we don’t have an R. We have an L instead. And, originally, the name was Ulale. But then, when Mum and Dad got married, an uncle, who married them, misspelled their name. He put an R in there. And all the paperwork went through like that. So we got stuck with this very unusual name. And our line of the family is the only one with that R.
The story of Aotearoa is largely a story of parents heading this way so as to give their kids a better shot. I understand that, in your case, it was your mother who was keen to set out from Samoa.
Yeah. The village was far too small for Mum. She’s just too big for a village. She’s too big for an island. In fact, she’s really too big for here too. She is Pusi Urale and she’s from Matavai in Savai’i. And my dad, Fatu, comes from the Gafo’i clan in Fagamalo. That’s in Savai’i as well. They were two beautiful villages that we grew up in.
We were born there in grass huts. I think there was only one western house in the whole village — and just the school buildings. But, basically everything else was traditional fale, all made with the traditional niu. The poles, the roofs and everything.
That’s all still really vivid in my mind. We’d swim with the turtles. There was no electricity so we’d cook on the fire. And all the food was fresh. You had to go and fish for your food — or into the plantations.
And, of course, you’re not feeding one little nuclear family. You’re feeding families of like 50 or 60. Just like on a marae. Big extended families. And that’s still the case today.
Those memories are fresh because we still go back home. We’re still close to our relatives and the village life. We love it and, of course, when we take the grandkids back, and the nieces and the nephews, they’re told to get out the back and do the work. You know, with our lot, you’re only a guest for one day and then you better go wash the dishes.
So we make sure they go off into the plantations, and do the chores. Help out with the whānau. We all dig in. We’re actually a part of it. We take care of one another.
Now, back to your mum for a moment.
She’s amazing. She’s broad-minded. Very liberal. Always forward-thinking. Wanting to see the world. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that, just because we’re traditional in a number of ways, we don’t want to look outside the box. Well, she was very curious about foreigners. She wanted to know what was happening in the world — and she wanted us kids to see the world and not just be stuck in a plantation, even though she loved and respected our traditions and culture.
So I have to give her a lot of credit for thinking outside the box and bringing the whānau over here. It was a massive sacrifice though. Massive sacrifice, because Dad was the opposite. Dad was very rooted in the Samoan ways. But he sacrificed the lifestyle he was used to back in the islands to do what Mum wanted — and to do so for the sake of us kids. His was a huge sacrifice. And we used to cry because we knew he was sad being here.
He had to go and work in the factories. Shoe factory. Carpet factories. To support the whānau and to see the dream through, whatever that dream was. He supported us all the way. But he was really an island man.
Mum wasn’t. She was just a complete opposite. Totally in love, but they were complete opposites. So it was amazing for us to grow up with parents who had such opposing views. You know, one would say: “Don’t hit.” And the other one would say: “Hit them in the head.” All types of things. It was fascinating.
Have you thought much about why she was such a free spirit? Māori and Pasifika people have grown up hearing the myths and legends about Maui and his mischief and trickery. Do you think there was something of Maui in her?
Yeah. But that Maui spirit is in all of us, isn’t it? The mischief — and the urge to explore and discover. I love the Maui legends because I think they actually do capture the naughty, cheeky aspect of our culture. Hercules, and heroes from other cultures, didn’t behave the way Maui did. It’s his spirit that helps explain why we’re so adventurous and adaptable as people — and why we’ve been survivors.
When other New Zealanders witnessed the Pacific migration to Aotearoa for several decades in the last century, they were very much inclined to undervalue those migrant families — and underestimate their sacrifices, their courage and their resilience. And, because the newcomers were struggling with English and having to settle for factory and cleaning jobs, they weren’t given the respect or admiration they were due. Your parents would’ve copped those attitudes, wouldn’t they? Perhaps your dad especially, with his limited English.
Yeah. But our dad was beautiful with his Samoan oratory and all the stories that he’d recall for us kids. So there was a wisdom and a knowledge he carried that my mum didn’t. Or she kind of knew but she couldn’t be bothered with it. So they carried different knowledge that we could access. Actually, we were quite thankful, us kids, that Dad couldn’t speak English —even after all these years here.
We were grateful because it meant that we had to keep our Samoan language. We could easily have lost it like so many families do when they get too used to speaking English. So we were fortunate we had to respond to Dad in Samoan. It meant that we kept our language and we could understand him and his stories — and some of the beautiful proverbs.
I’m not the one in the family, though, who’s good at remembering those sayings and things. My eldest sister, Natasha, is the one who’s good with the genealogy and oratory. She’s amazing. She’s got the memory of an elephant. But not only that. She also understands and can explain the context. It’s beautiful. I can sit there and listen to her for ages. She reminds me of our dad. Yeah, it gets me all teary. It’s a bit like listening to a chief.
Where do you fit in the family?
There are six of us kids — and I’m the fourth. And, you know, I was a real doongy at school.
And I still consider myself a doongy. I wasn’t very smart at all. I was terrible. I was even called autistic at times, because I couldn’t comprehend what they were teaching. And I hated the English language.
So, it was a real struggle for me — and I became more and more depressed and introverted.
And it wasn’t until I was a film-maker, and had to write my stories, that I started to appreciate the English language.
When I look back now at why I didn’t really gel with English or understand why we were doing maths, I can see that it’s because they were too busy telling us where to put the full stops and the commas. They’re too busy doing that instead of getting us to talk about the content and our ideas.
You know. Like: “Do you have a story to tell? Do you have something to say?” Rather than worrying about the frickin’ capital letter and the full stop and the comma. I would’ve embraced the English language and a lot of the learning a whole lot better, if people had just gone straight to the point of why we write in the first place.
Fortunately, though, you survived that school experience — and went off to study drama.
Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, I ended up on an access course doing a drama module. And I met this amazing man who was running this six-month drama module. It was Rangimoana Taylor. An exceptional man with really artistic siblings — Apirana Taylor and Riwia Brown.
Writers. Poets. Performers. Directors. Really brilliant.
And I was this little ratbag. Just 18 years old. But I did this course and absolutely loved it. And for the first time I was learning something. Probably because it was an art form — and a way of expressing yourself.
Then, at the end of the course, Rangimoana tells me something crazy. He says: “Sima.” He’s got this really beautiful, theatrical voice. “Sima, you should audition for the New Zealand Drama School.”
So I learned two pieces, auditioned — and got in. That’s where my career in the arts got started. And I loved it. But I had so many amazing Māori practitioners, Pākehā as well, looking after me along the way. I didn’t ask for it. They just did it. There were no Pacific people around then.
So it was Māori and Pākehā taking me under their wing. Like Colin McColl. He’s a good friend now. And Merata Mita, who was like an aunty. Don Selwyn. Barry Barclay. They all knew that I was naughty, but they knew I was the only Pacific person out there, so they just took me under their wing. I was very fortunate to hang out with them and learn lots. I had just so much support and aroha. From Rena Owen and Christina Asher and Whetu Fala as well.
It was pretty cool in those days, touring and doing shows. Quite a few Māori plays. Some of them performed on marae. And I was fortunate that they even considered me, because, you know, when you’re brown and you’re Pacific Island and there’s not many of you, or you’re the only one, and you’re a woman. Well, you get a bit worried. You go: “Who the heck is going to cast me?” And: “Who would even consider a brown person in their play?”
It was quite scary, especially at the end of drama school. There were five of us brownies. There was me, Hori Ahipene, Cliff Curtis, Julie Edwards and Toby Mills. Five of us. Four Māori and one Samoan. So at the end of the year we were like: “Who is gonna hire us?” Because we were the biggest brown intake that the drama school had ever taken on.
Then before the year was up, before the graduation, you know, Hori Ahipene and Cliff got roles. Then the other three of us got parts and, for two solid years, I was able to do a lot of acting. Basically at Downstage, Circa and Fortune theatre — and then touring marae. Even doing a sex education show for school kids.
So I got to do all sorts of stuff from Shakespeare to Kiwi plays and Māori plays. But, by the end of the two years, I really wanted to tell my own stories. That’s when I started looking for a film school overseas. And I was lucky to find a good one in Melbourne, so I just went for it.
It feels that Māori and Pacific people have, for some time now, been becoming more confident about valuing our own stories — and about deciding to tell them in our own way. No more waiting for the Pākehā mainstream to say: “Hey. That’s a neat story.” And that process is accelerating because of all the emerging platforms — digital and so on.
Oh, it’s really exciting. It wasn’t this easy in the past. Back in the day, film was a niche little group. Very elite, because making films was so expensive. And it was a real struggle to have your stories told, even in your own language. But now our languages are valued out there because the general public are used to subtitled films after decades of watching Italian, French and Asian films.
And it’s to do with film festivals. Film festivals have made non-English films accessible and, in a way, helped Kiwi to be more comfortable with New Zealand films in te reo Māori. In the past, it was hard for Māori film-makers. They had to get the story right, but then there was the whole thing of whether to translate it into English or have it subtitled. It was a struggle just to get their reo up on the screen because people were going: “Audiences won’t watch that.”
It was really off-putting. Thank God we’re a lot more understanding now. Funders, for instance, are more accepting about having our reo on screen. They realise it can sell — and do really well. And people overseas do want to see our stories.
So the attitudes have changed. Mind you, early on, there weren’t that many Māori writers in the industry. Back in the day, there just weren’t enough. Now, we’ve got the Māori storytellers with the confidence to get writing. And more Pacific people are wanting to tell their stories too.
Back a while, we didn’t have the confidence. It was like: “Well, no one is going to be interested in our stories.” But then once films like Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider came out — bang! That was great affirmation for everyone here that people do love our stories. Here and overseas. They want to see our stories. All types of stories.
And, of our Kiwi films, the biggest box office successes have been Māori and Pacific Island. Not just Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider but Taika’s film Boy — and then you’ve got Sione’s Wedding and Number Two. It just needed film-makers like Lee Tamahori and Taika Waititi to break out and do something different and amazing.
So now we not only have international people wanting to see our films, but our own people here willing to pay at the box office and see our films again and again.
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