When, in the course of reading this kōrero with Dale, you see Kerry’s explanation of her Papua New Guinean surname, you may reflect on how well it suits a filmmaker who’s responsible for so much change — especially in seeing that Pasifika and Māori, and women in particular, can succeed in bringing their stories and their perspectives to our screens. And in having more and more say in the industry. The award-winning films Waru and Vai have been a natural outcome of her fearless, collaborative approach. And, and as she outlines to Dale, there’s much more to come.
Kia ora, Kerry. I see that you whakapapa to Scotland and to Papua New Guinea, which has me wondering how that combination came about.
Well, my dad is from Papua New Guinea. He grew up in Raluana, a village in Kokopo, on the island of East New Britain. His people are Tolai. I’m from the Tolai clan. And that’s where I grew up.
But my mother, Robyn, was Scottish. She was a Paterson from Glasgow. But she left Scotland when she was 11 years old with her whānau. They went to South Africa and she grew up there fighting apartheid and working for free, pretty much all her life.
She was a volunteer in lots of places. And, when she saw that there was a volunteer job going in Papua New Guinea, teaching teachers, she thought: “That’s for me.” So she set off from South Africa to Papua New Guinea and arrived in Rabaul.
One of her first memories was coming in on the boat and all the little children of the island rowing out in their canoes. They were really excited because this ship was bringing them pencils. And she stayed on there, married my dad, and had us three children. She died there, a Papua New Guinean.
Tell us a little bit about your dad.
My dad was whangai’d. His mother had eight children. Her sister, Rabonni, wasn’t able to have children. So my dad was given to her. He was the lucky one because he got to have two mums. My Bubu Rabonni raised him but, in the holidays, he’d travel back to his mother’s village and work there with her. So he got the benefit of having two whānau, which was great for us because we had two grandmothers. That was really lovely.
In Tolai culture, you’re given only one name. And his name is Warkia. That means “a change”. His mother had already had two children who’d died. When she was pregnant with him, she decided to call him Warkia in order to invoke a change, I guess, in her life. There were many children after him.
He grew up there but then went on to study agriculture at the university through the YMCA in Melbourne. Then he came home to Papua New Guinea and worked in agriculture and with youth. That’s how he met my mum, who’d got her job through the YMCA. Then they started a family and their whole life was in service to young Papua New Guineans.
I’m familiar with Rabaul having travelled there as a young guy. I used to sing in a cabaret group with my family. We were lucky enough to head up there in the early ‘80s and performed at Bougainville, Kieta, Rabaul, Lae, and down in Moresby as well. And I was fascinated by the country — partly by the way it’s resisted colonisation.
PNG has had the advantage of being such a difficult terrain, geographically, that the colonisers have found it too hard. We have over 800 different languages. And they’re actual languages, not dialects. And, through all the different tribes and provinces, we have such differing belief systems. It’s very difficult to try and change beliefs that are so ingrained.
I feel like Tonga is hugely similar. The times that I’ve been there, I’ve adored it because, when you get together for a big Tongan event, it’s so Tongan and they’re celebrating themselves. It’s the same in Papua New Guinea. We have all kinds of celebrations that we call “sing sing” and festivals celebrating all of our rich and diverse culture. And our independence. We don’t celebrate western markers in history like Guy Fawkes because we haven’t been colonised in that way.
And what about your Tolai clan? Tolai have a language of their own, do they, Kerry?
Yeah, the language is Kuanua. Of course, there’s the language of pidgin English, too, which you can speak pretty much anywhere you go in Papua New Guinea. That’s a language that started through trade with the Chinese, English, Japanese and Germans, and so on.
In most places, everyone speaks pidgin. And we have English in most places, too. I think Hiri Motu is the other official language. But Kuanua is the language of my father and his people. That’s what they speak.
And you can speak and understand Kuanua?
Unfortunately, I don’t speak Kuanua fluently. I understand bits and pieces, especially when my family are talking to me. But pidgin is my first language. And English is my second.
Where did you do your schooling?
I went to school in the city, in Lae. My parents worked really hard to pay the fees for us to go to an international school.
Can we talk about West Papua for a mo? That’s a PNG province which is now administered politically by Indonesia. It’s a touchy subject, isn’t it? And there’s a campaign to rid West Papua of Indonesian control.
Most Papua New Guineans are standing in solidarity with the West Papuans, who are being subjected to what really is genocide. I have lots of friends who’ve come over the border from West Papua, and who’ve lived and worked with my family. It’s such a devastating thing that’s going on there. It’s an awful situation.
People with cameras can be the eyes and ears of a society. These days, even more so than ever before. And film can be used as a great tool to bring about social change. Is that what led you into your mahi as a filmmaker?
Well, I was always interested in performing when I was at school in Papua New Guinea. I think performance and art is in every culture around the world. It’s a natural and important part of being human. All of our stories and our knowledge are passed on to the next generation through art of one form or another, whether it’s carving, painting or performance art or whatever.
When I was at school, I was in love with theatre and acting and I got a scholarship to come to Unitec’s drama school in Auckland. But when I came out of drama school, there weren’t any roles for me. The content that I was seeing on the screen didn’t reflect the Aotearoa that I was part of.
So, Kiel McNaughton — who’s both my life partner and my business partner — and I just started telling stories that reflected us and our interests. The first film we made was a documentary about our son, Apeal, called Family Ties.
Apeal (Api for short) is Māori, Chinese, and Pākehā through Kiel, whose father is a fourth-generation Kiwi from Scotland. And, through me, he’s also a Tolai Papua New Guinean and Scottish.
He was this next generation of New Zealand children who are a mixture of all kinds of cultures. We weren’t seeing that on the screen. So, we made this documentary which traced our son’s heritage and which also focused on what Kiel was going to pass on to him.
And TVNZ picked it up and commissioned it. They realised that there was a space for these kinds of films. That was an eye-opener for us, so we started telling more of these under-represented stories.
Just while we’re at it, you and Kiel have an interesting name for your production company, Brown Sugar Apple Grunt. I wonder what’s behind that.
Brown Sugar Apple Grunt is a dessert that we like to eat a lot of. But we also felt it kind of was us as well. Brown celebrates our ethnicity. Sugar symbolises the fun we like to have. Apple is a reminder to be natural and authentic. And Grunt is getting the work done.
No doubt, when you were learning the trade, initially as an 18-year-old at Unitec, you had some influential teachers and role models.
My mother, my grandmothers, and aunties were my first role models. Grounding me in my culture and family.
During that study period, we had teachers who made sure that we were authentic and that our culture was a strength for us, not a weakness. And there were students who were coming into their own and who mostly went on to work in the theatre.
Miriama McDowell is someone I really looked up to when I was at drama school and who’s an incredible actress. I’ve been especially lucky to work with her. Cohen Holloway, who’s an amazing actor, and Madeleine Sami was someone else coming through at that time. Then there was Taika, who’d started picking up momentum. And Roseanne Liang and Toa Fraser. These are all people that I could identify with and look up to. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jennifer Ward-Lealand, too.
In a way, these and others were peers, but they were also ahead in their own careers. So they were shining the light in areas that we could start moving to and working in.
And, inevitably I’ve been influenced by strong women who came before us, like Merata Mita and Gaylene Preston who, in different ways, laid the foundations for us and our work. And in terms of the Pasifika realm, I’d say that Sima Urale has done that as a director. Roseanne Liang with Banana in a Nutshell and My Wedding and Other Secrets is another of those inspiring women.
I’d say that there are many different inspirations for us from the past and now in the present who are walking ahead into the future and allowing us to see what we can apply to the work that we do.
I can’t help but note your collaborations with other indigenous women. It’s important that the stories and perspectives of our wāhine from this part of the world are put on screen. But I’m assuming that women filmmakers are particularly important because they have a different touch.
In filmmaking, the essence is collaboration. For something to be really good, there needs to be different perspectives, techniques and skills from lots of different people. That’s essential to get a film from the seed, right through to the screen.
And collaboration is absolutely my jam. It’s a place where I love to be. When a whole team starts working in synergy, incredible things happen. As they did with Waru. And with Vai.
And I do think that women definitely have a different touch and perspective. The way we view the world is different and so are our life experiences. And we bring those differences to our work when we’re making films.
I find that, when it’s a collaboration of women, it’s exciting and it’s been life-changing for me. And, while it’s an inherently indigenous way to work, it takes a lot to get everyone together, to keep them together, and to hold on to the kaupapa. There’s a lot of work that goes into that.
But I also think that having women on set is really important. Having them in places of decision making, and of power, is also important to the whole dynamic of making a film. So, I’ve tried to exercise that, to have diversity of sex and of culture, so that we can enrich our work by having many different perspectives.
Unfortunately, there’s still talk in the industry about “these people” — women or people of colour — not being skilled enough. Or not being able to hold a kaupapa. Or that the market will not support them.
We can find a million excuses every day for not hiring women or people of colour in certain areas. But it’s the producer’s job to make the space for setting up everyone for success. If those people need extra help to get them to a point where they can succeed, then organise that help.
For me, it’s about doing that, rather than putting it off until they go and get the experience somewhere else. They’re not going to get the experience until we give them the opportunity for the experience.
I’m passionate about creating opportunities and I’m sick of the old song sheet that some people still continue to sing from in this industry, which is that we don’t have diverse writers who can write well enough. Or we don’t have writers from different cultures who can write a mainstream drama series.
I believe those people exist. If they’re lacking in some area, we find the fix for that. We find a solution for that. And, yes, it’s more work. Yes, it’s a budget cost. But we can do it. We can either make the excuses not to do it, or we can just do it.
In this process, you’re building confidence in other indigenous wāhine filmmakers. And you’re helping to develop a global network by sharing our stories and films. You’re building the foundations of a wonderful platform. Do you ever think that you’re part of a really valuable advance guard?
You flatter me. But I do feel privileged to be able to contribute to that space and, like you say, to help build that confidence. Not just in the people making the films, but also in the people who’re buying and distributing them.
I think that’s really important. And it’s also important that we’re building audiences. We are conditioned, and have been conditioned, by what we’ve seen on television and in the movies over the years. We’ve assumed that there’s a limited range of people who make films. But now we’re seeing that there are many talented people from all cultures who can do the same thing.
And these new films are joining the likes of The Orator, Mahana and Once Were Warriors and Taika’s film Boy in taking their place among great New Zealand films. I’d say Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa is in this new space as well, with his Three Wise Cousins, Hibiscus, Ruthless, and now Take Home Pay.
Also female-written and directed films like Waru, Vai, The Breaker Upperers — these films are building audiences and showing how different perspectives and cultures can be entertaining or comedic or dramatic, or whatever it is that you’re looking for on a small screen or in a cinema.
It’s whanaungatanga, isn’t it, when there’s this sharing of resources and credits. Waru and Vai are examples of this and provide a contrast with the conventional filmmaking scene which can be quite dictatorial and where the directors and producers have all the say. But, here, the approach is collaborative. There’s the term “sister-films” which you say proudly, I assume. But it’s also a decent enough description of your approach.
Yeah. Definitely. There’s the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats”. And yeah, I am proud that these are sister-films because of how we’ve designed them. We create a framework so that each writer-director has individual merit, as well as sharing a collective merit. And the voices together can speak louder and make more impact.
Also, being able to uplift and support the careers of many women with one film is fantastic. It’s great that both Waru and Vai have been to A-list festivals and those writer-directors with them. That’s been fantastic.
It’s like a Sing-sing, isn’t it? Where everyone brings their skill sets.
There’s another element in this world of Pasifika filmmaking because there are voices from various directions. From Polynesians, from Melanesians, and from Micronesians. What do you make of that?
I’ve been having discussions about the kind of cinema coming from indigenous people on this side of the world. Talking at times about whether it’s Oceanic cinema or Moana cinema, or what exactly it is. But what makes our work unique is our specificity.
The stories from, say, the Solomon Islands, the Cook Islands, or Sāmoa, are quite distinct. The storytelling, the language, and the actors from all the Pacific nations are all individual. But our voices together, from this part of the world, is a beautiful chorus of individuality as well as this kind of togetherness, and solidarity. And it’s such a beautiful part of the world to speak from.
I think so, too. And there are so many stories to tell. You and Kiel must have a whole lot in mind, swirling around in your heads
Yes, we do. We usually have a good plate of development projects. At the moment, we’ve just produced a film called The Legend of Baron To’a. It’s set in a cul-de-sac in Mt Roskill, an Auckland suburb. It’s an action-comedy. This is Kiel’s film-directing debut. It’s starring Uli Latukefu, Nathaniel Lees, Jay Laga’aia, Shavaughn Ruakere, John Tui, Xavier Horan, and Fasitua Amosa. It’s a really fun piece. We’re in post-production on that one now.
We also have Kāinga which will be made by pan-Asian New Zealand women and is exploring migration and the themes of unsettling and settling in a new home and interacting with the tangata whenua. We’re producing this with Shuchi Kothari.
And then we’re also talking with Australia about working with the Aboriginal women on a similar kaupapa to Waru and Vai. That’s an awesome project. There are television projects as well — and we’ve just applied for a second season of The Feijoa Club which is set in south Taranaki and is on the HEIHEI platform. That’s for kids. It’s a fun, very diverse series about a group of mystery-solving kids here in Taranaki.
Your enthusiasm is infectious. And I want to congratulate you for your mahi and for achieving what you’ve already achieved.
Well, there has been hard work, but it’s been fun, too. And life-changing at times with projects like Waru and Vai. For instance, with Vai, we travelled to eight different islands to shoot. That was incredible. In each place, we had some kind of cultural welcome. That stuff really feeds the soul.
Then we get to make something like The Legend of Baron To’a, which is a whole heap of fun, where there was next-level action sequences with some of our incredible stunt coordinators and performers, like Augie Davis, Tim Wong and Andy Stehlin, who are world-class and usually work on the massive films overseas.
In fact, they’re overseas now, working on big international films that can afford them. But they all came home and brought it together for us, for this local film. One of the beautiful things about the collaborative nature of New Zealand crews is that they do come home and muck in on projects. I think that’s fantastic.
Thank you, Kerry, for joining us for this kōrero. Is there anything interesting you’d like to add?
Well, I don’t know how interesting it is, but I adore gardening. I have this massive garden down here in Hawera, where we live. Our plan is to create a food forest for the community. Gardening is kind of parallel to working in a collaborative space in the film industry. Growing things from seed and then seeing them right through to the kitchen table.
I’ve just put down my potatoes for the next season. But we grow lots of pumpkin, too, and we give them to the school for fundraisers, for hangi. We’ve got a bit of an orchard as well. A feijoa grove, and peach and plum trees too. We grow enough so that there’s extra produce for any whānau who need it.
The other thing I love is travelling. Especially travelling locally with the kids so they can come to understand Aotearoa. I believe it’s important to teach them history that they may not be learning at school, whether it’s about Māori and the land and the different types of farming, or birds — or anything that they’re not getting at school. We feel it’s our job to be teaching them that.
And teaching them about different cultures. They’ve been home to Papua New Guinea a few times. We went to Canada for Waru and we took all three children. And we were all learning about the First Nations people — not stuff you get at school, but important life learning.
Heoi anō. Wishing you the very best with the films you have on the horizon.
(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
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