Actor Eds Eramiha and director Kiel McNaughton, on the set of Vegas. (Photo: Greenstone TV)

The new TV drama series Vegas has reignited debate about Māori representation on our screens and the “sovereignty” of Māori stories. Filmmaker Tainui Stephens looks at the challenge for Māori filmmakers.


Thanks to a well-funded new Māori drama series on prime time television, there’s a fuss in some quarters about whether it should have been made. The white elephant in the room is Pākehā participation in the production. Pākehā interests and influences are seen as a threat to story sovereignty — or Māori control over Māori stories. 

Vegas is carefully crafted television entertainment about gang life and a search for redemption. It has ignited comment between thoughtful critics who deplore yet another story about Māori violence, and thoughtful filmmakers who claim the responsibility to tell stories that offer solutions to the trauma. Both sides are right. 

Commercial media interests often latch on to stereotypes to drum up interest for a story. Whether the project perpetuates or destroys the stereotypes is almost irrelevant. The main thing is to have an idea that’s quickly recognisable and attracts attention. In such a creative industry, this sad fact is mostly a failure of imagination. 

Talented Māori filmmakers will take those rare mainstream opportunities to entertain and, hopefully, inspire audiences. In the process, a large number of Māori get valuable experience in an industry, which, so far, has curtailed our growth. Māori are usually the hired crew or cast, rather than producers or employers. That is changing because of ambitious new funding strategies, but it takes time. 

Vegas is a co-production between the long established Pākehā production house Greenstone TV, and two Māori companies with deep Te Arawa roots in Rotorua: 10,000 Company and the Steambox Film Collective. 

It was in Rotorua where I first encountered what I understand to be story sovereignty. 

In March 1984, I was acting in a production of Rowley Habib’s play Death Of The Land at a church hall in Ohinemutu. After the show, I received a message to ring the television producer Ernie Leonard. I had applied for a position as a reporter/researcher for the weekly television programme Koha. 

I walked down to a tatty old red phone box by the Rotorua lakefront and tapped out the number in the not-so-secret manner that bypassed the need to pay for the call. After congratulating me for getting the job, Ernie offered me a piece of advice:

“Your ultimate responsibility is to the people, not the producer.”

Ernie was the producer, and my new boss, so I thought it was a brave thing to say. I know now that it was the right thing to say. 

It is the people who offer us the material and inspiration for our stories. We shoot, shape, and show the stories to the people. It is the people who let us know if our work is any good or not. The people, through their tax dollars, their koha, and the choices of their representatives, pay for what we do. The people are the ultimate sovereign power. Story sovereignty belongs with the people we serve. 

Early in my career, I learned the truth of that. I was making a documentary on the Ringatū faith and had been to three of their monthly hui to ask permission to film one of their services. Each time, I had stayed the night and presented my request to the whare. Each time, I received permission from church elders to make the programme. It was agreed that we would film an upcoming service in Rūātoki. 

At the appointed hui, my cameraman Matt Bowkett was setting up the lights in the meeting house when the influential Tūhoe elder and church leader Te Kari Waaka put a stop to it all. 

I was confused and fearful for my story. I wondered what could have gone wrong. Kari had been at the previous hui and knew about the plan. The way he was speaking, I could tell the project was in danger. Then local kaumātua and pou of the faith Rangi Puke rose and spoke on our behalf. He was a gentle and diplomatic soul and we got permission to continue. 

That experience is one among many, showing me the unique vulnerability that faces Māori filmmakers. The stories don’t belong to us. We make them but don’t feel their impact. We have a duty of respect to all others who are part of the Māori world we inhabit. One that we ourselves make even smaller by being happily related to as many people as possible. 

The film poster for Once Were Warriors.

The intelligent and conflicting discourse over Vegas took me back 30 years to the time I realised that a Pākehā company, Communicado, was to make a film of Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors. I was outraged at the apparent ease by which Pākehā could tell yet another story about Māori gang life and domestic violence. 

On the other hand, I was thrilled by the thought that such a talented cast and crew, led by Lee Tamahori, would do a fine job — and, if they got it right, subvert stereotypical expectations of the Pākehā audiences. They did. They created cinema art. 

And like any great art, it drew extreme reactions. On one side, people saw it as an honest expose of deplorable male violence. True. On the other, people felt its hyper-masculine style made deplorable male violence appear cool. True. 

Not long after Warriors was released and stunned audiences everywhere, Ernie asked me to be the director of a television documentary series, The New Zealand Wars. It was a Pākehā production, and Pākehā historian Jamie Belich was to be the writer and presenter. I was pissed off yet again. What was it about Pākehā and their fetish for stories about natives fighting each other? 

I was grumpy about it and told Ernie I wasn’t interested. He insisted I meet with Jamie and the producer, Colin McRae. We did so at the TVNZ marae, and any misgivings I had about the project were washed away. It wasn’t just that Colin and Jamie were expert at their jobs. They’re also smart, loving human beings. Sincerely humble in a Māori space. I wanted to work with them. 

For the entire project, Jamie and I functioned as tuakana and teina. Easily. Joyously. 

The prof was the man, and clearly my tuakana in terms of the intellectual rigour and historicity of the series. When we ventured into Māori territory — either in the script or on location — I became his tuakana and he, teina to me. It was a partnership where tikanga showed us a way to respect each other. It was very simple. 

The New Zealand Wars production team on location in the Chatham Islands/Wharekauri in 1997. From left: Mark Potter, Eugene Arts, Richard Long, Stephen Ellis, Tainui Stephens, Trudy Steele, James Belich, Colin McRae. (Photo supplied)

To achieve the things we strive for, there’s a place for being proud of what we know, and humble before all that we do not. Don Selwyn was a stage icon who trained generations of Māori actors and crews for pioneering productions like Once Were Warriors. He was an indomitable presence with an actor’s relish for language, and for projecting it with force. Many times, in private and in hui, Don told us: 

“Ko te kaupapa kei mua. It’s not about you.” 

When the Māori makers of Vegas partnered with Pākehā to develop the series, they created a story with roots in painful truths. It was the core of a kaupapa they could all believe in. They acknowledged the pains around the issues and devised a way to get on with the job, safely. And they stuck to their kaupapa despite the naysayers and some vacuous attempts to sabotage the production. 

I am saddened when a few bitter colleagues choose to convince actors not to apply for a coveted role because of the involvement of Pākehā, or the nature of the story being told. Our industry is sometimes riven by competing interests in a system that can be brutal as it disperses funds for what it hopes are sound reasons. 

When a production has a kaupapa that is apparent and acceptable to all, it becomes a focus for everyone’s efforts. It deserves to be out front. The needs of every individual, from the executive to the runner, are always in a supportive role. To serve the kaupapa requires a humble heart. To fulfil the kaupapa requires the strength that comes from mana motuhake. 

Mana motuhake refers to self-determination and control over our destiny. Most of all, it is an attitude, a determined frame of mind that enables us to be in charge of ourselves with excellence, efficiency, and empathy. Our tikanga are the tools we routinely use to define and guide our mana motuhake. 

I think to assert our “mana motuhake” is a better use of language than to assert “story sovereignty”. 

To deal to all matters of ownership, rights, and the competent execution of a script on Māori terms, with the use of tikanga as and when we wish, is better than seeking a sovereignty that cannot belong to filmmakers. And for me, I will work with Pākehā if they understand and embrace their teina position. 

As we Māori filmmakers increase our presence in the mainstream, we will work with whoever we wish, and however we wish, to protect the integrity and control of our own stories. 

Ko tāku e mea ana: Waiho mā te iwi te rangatiratanga o te kōrero. Māku te mana motuhake hei waha ake.

The sovereignty of the story lies with the people. Mine is the power to give it voice. 


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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