When you hear of what Michael Bennett has done over the last 20 years or so as a writer and filmmaker, you can’t help but be impressed by the wide-ranging talents of this Te Arawa man.
Early on he came up with Cow,a short film that he described as an “aquatic bovine musical comedy”. The stars (actually, the whole cast) were ”one cow and two elderly guitarists”. So the signs were there of his imagination and enterprise.
Since then, there’ve been his major roles in TV and film projects including Skitz, Kaitangata Twitch, Whare Māori, Matariki, Jubilee, Mercy Peak, Mataku, Outrageous Fortune, Vegas.
And then there’s been the real-life part that he’s played in the battle to clear Teina Pora’s wrongful conviction for a 1992 rape and murder. Michael made the 2013 documentary (The Confessions of Prisoner T) that helped uncover new evidence which became a key part of the case to exonerate Teina (the Privy Council quashed the conviction in 2015). He followed that up with an award-winning 2016 non-fiction book and then a made-for-TV dramatisation of Teina’s story (In Dark Places).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael has now branched into crime fiction with Better the Blood, his first crime novel, which he describes as “a Trojan horse carrying big, complex, difficult issues”. Like colonisation, for example. And it already has translations in nine languages. Here’s Michael chatting with Dale.
Kia ora, Michael. I get a little bit intimidated talking with creative people, especially writers, because over the years I’ve harboured an aspiration to be a writer like yourself — a commentator. I do most of my work in audio, with radio and current affairs, so I’m comfortable talking to people, but I lack confidence in writing my thoughts down.
Isn‘t that funny, because I‘m the exact opposite. I feel confident in front of a keyboard, but this process of actually talking to someone or being interviewed terrifies me because I don‘t feel like I have the same ability to edit myself and figure out if I‘m saying the right thing. I could never do your job.
Okay, well, I could never do yours. So we‘ve got two terrified Māori having a conversation. Now let’s start with that famous surname of yours and with some details about the Bennett family.
I‘m the youngest of seven. My mum and dad gave us a Pākehā name and a Māori name, but I was the last, and Mum and Dad threw everything at me. So my full name is Michael Frederick Augustus Te Arawa Bennett. I carry the honour of having my grandfather‘s name in there, Frederick Augustus Bennett, who was the first Māori bishop of New Zealand. My dad was one of 18 children of the first bishop. It‘s an extraordinary legacy, and Frederick Augustus was an extraordinary man.
I’m a bit of an oddity amongst my immediate siblings in that I’m the only one who’s pursued an artistic career, and the only writer. Some of that has come from my mum (Elaine Jocelyn Bennett nee Westerman), who was a terrific writer.
She met my dad (Edward “Ted” Bennett) when he had just come back from World War Two. He was a decorated Spitfire fighter pilot, and she met him when she was interviewing his dad, my grandfather, Frederick Augustus the bishop, to do her thesis on his life.
I find that a wonderful whakapapa: my mum’s love of words and my dad‘s commitment to fighting the good fight.
A story that I heard just recently about my grandfather which unlocked a whole lot of things for me was that he was the producer and director of a famous stage show that toured the country called Hinemoa — the Hinemoa and Tūtānekai story. I have no idea how he found the time to do this as well as being a pastor, too.
I think it’s beautiful that he had this creative side to him that I didn’t really know about before. But the part of the story that I really love is that at half-time, he would come out on stage and do a little party political broadcast for the Young Māori Party. He had the audience there, he had them gripped with the show, and then he came out to raise funds for the Young Māori Party. So he was both creative and politically active at the same time.
I don‘t know too many guys whose dads were Spitfire pilots. Tell us a little more about your pāpā.
Ted was one of five brothers who went to war. Five of the 18 siblings — actually seven in all because two of them were in non-serving roles in the medical corps and in the chaplaincy. So altogether seven brothers went to World War Two.
Dad was the only brother who was in the air force. He flew Spitfires from 1941 through to the end of the war. He did crash once during training and spent some time hospitalised under Archie McIndoe, the famous skin surgeon from New Zealand who fixed up so many of our pilots over there.
One uncle was in the navy, and then five brothers, including, of course, Uncle Charles, were in the 28th Battalion. They had this absolute sense of service handed down from their father, but it was also an opportunity to see the world and fight alongside your mates in a way that you might not ever do for the rest of your life.
He was like so many of our whānau who came back from the war: he didn’t talk about it very much.
I was in London a wee while ago and went to an exhibition on the Spitfire. They had an amazing display where they had one of the original Spitfires that they cut vertically down the middle, so you could see what the inside looked like.
And it‘s basically like being on a motorbike with six V8s out the front — this massive engine and just a thin layer of metal to protect the pilots. It looked like tinfoil, but it had to be so thin because of the power-to-weight ratio.
So, you know, you’re flying through the sky, being shot at by enemy machine guns and you‘ve got virtually no bulletproof metal surrounding you at all. It boggles me.
When he went to war, he was younger than any of my children are now, and to go away to the other side of the world, with a really decent expectation you’re probably not coming home again — I just lay down my hat, really.
But the truly amazing part of the story is that seven brothers went away and seven brothers came home. As we know from most Māori whānau in World War Two, that wasn‘t the usual case at all. So we have to feel blessed.
Thanks for that very rich kōrero that you’ve shared. Now tell us a little bit about your mum.
She’s Pākehā. She comes from the Westerman family in Hawke’s Bay. Her dad owned a large haberdashery store. He was a free-thinking man who deeply admired my grandfather, Frederick Augustus, and what he had achieved for the country, which is one of the reasons that Mum decided to study him.
I was the youngest of seven, and there was a bit of a gap between me and my next oldest brother, so I had the benefit of Mum being able to nurture me intellectually and reading-wise in a way that maybe she didn‘t get to do with the other kids, because they all popped out on top of each other, so to speak.
I’m a really slow reader. I’m lucky if I finish a book a month, but she would go through a book every two days. Dad was a teacher, and he taught in a lot of rural areas, mostly around the South Island. I grew up in Ngātimoti, a tiny town up the river from Motueka.
We didn‘t have much money, so Mum would design all these things like flash cards, and I remember when I was about three or four we had a game for me to go through a dictionary and try and find a word that she didn’t know, and vice versa.
It was all about words, and she absolutely gave me a gift of the awe and beauty of words, but also the power of words being able to perhaps make people think, and even to change.
Did you start writing when you were in your teens, or was it later?
Well, it’s interesting. I always knew that I loved writing, the process of turning words into meaning, but when I was growing up I had no idea that there was a creative writing industry. What I knew was that there are people out there who did things with words and made a career out of it, and those people were lawyers and journalists and people like that.
So I had no frame of reference about going on a more creative path. I did study a bit of law and a bit of journalism, but I quickly figured out that law wasn‘t for me, and journalism — operating from existing facts and finding a way to communicate them — that wasn‘t the kind of writing I wanted to do.
So I did psychology, and that feels closest to the kind of writing I do: a deep dive into why we as human beings do the wonderful, extraordinary things that we do, but also sometimes the terrible things that we do.
So, although I did a degree in psychology, I realised that as a profession that wasn‘t what I was destined for. It wasn‘t until I happened to be at a bit of loose end that I tried a short-term media course where I had the opportunity to do photography and journalism. And then there was one paper that was an introduction to scriptwriting, and it was one of those light-bulb moments, sitting there listening to a screenwriter talking about what their job was, and then showing films. It changed my life completely.
I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, because I think visually and I’m quite a visual writer. It was exciting to think that you could have a career where your job is creating these beautiful things, film and television shows, and there‘s a job for someone in that profession that involves writing.
I‘ve been really blessed that I‘ve been doing that sort of writing maybe for 25 years. It‘s only recently that I’ve started to write books and prose. I feel like, quite late in my career, I’ve found a whole new way of expressing myself.
Were there some books, films or people who inspired you?
Like every young writer and every young filmmaker, there is the thought that “I want to be the next whoever.” For me, it was people like Martin Scorsese — Taxi Driver is probably my favourite film of all time. He and David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino were the entry point for me. You emulate these people, because you‘re learning your skills, you‘ve got your training wheels on, and you‘re trying to do something.
So, to begin with, it’s emulation. But I quickly discovered that you need to move beyond that. Then it becomes about finding your own voice.
One thing I always tell my students in any of the courses I‘m doing is that your goal shouldn’t be to be the next Taika or the next Tarantino. Your goal has to be to be the next you. Because what makes any film that you will ever watch absolutely unique and absolutely extraordinary is that it has come from the truth of the filmmaker or the writer or the director. It‘s come from their own unique experience.
I do a lot of teaching with an organisation called Script to Screen, where we go to different marae in Northland and hold a two-day course where we sit down with rangatahi who may not ever have thought about telling their stories for film or television or books or anything.
And the first day, it’s all about us, a bunch of storytellers, and we’ll talk a little bit about what we‘ve done and show films that we‘ve made, and each of those films is really personal, and we’ll talk about how those stories relate to our lives.
Then we set the rangatahi the challenge of coming back the next day and telling us one of their stories — a story that only they can tell. And you see all these kids freezing and going: “I‘m not going to do that.”
But the next morning it‘s always such an extraordinary session, because some of the kids will be brave enough to tell this really personal story that only they could tell, about a formative experience in their life, and we find a way to work with them to develop that into a story that could be a film or a screenplay.
Being a mentor must be hugely rewarding, maybe even nourishing, bringing out a little confidence where previously none existed.
It‘s just an honour. Not every one of those people who attend our courses are going to become filmmakers by any means, but some do. We‘ve had some amazing stories of people who have gone through our courses and have ended up studying film.
We helped one young woman take her story and turn it into a short film which had tremendous success. Qianna Titore was 16 at the time, and she was the youngest director ever chosen for the New Zealand International Film Festival. Her film went to ImagineNATIVE, which is the biggest Indigenous film festival in the world, in Toronto, and she‘s going to have an extraordinary career in the film and television industry.
So it‘s beyond fulfilling, but, you know, I have to be really honest that the other side of that is that every time you teach, it helps your own work, being able to enunciate the principles of how you do the things that you do.
It‘s definitely two-way traffic for me. I hope I‘m some kind of help to the people I‘m working with, but I know I get so much out of hearing their ideas and hearing the idealism of new creators.
It‘s something that you drag back into your own life and go: “Yeah, that‘s why I‘m doing this. We can change the world.”
Well, we‘re certainly putting content into the global mix that has something different about it. We‘re well placed, don‘t you think — Māori writers, creatives, filmmakers, musicians, artists — to take a side of ourselves and share it with the international community.
It‘s an exhilarating time across absolutely every medium. Obviously, as Māori, we‘re storytellers from day one, and the fact is that there‘s now so many different ways to tell stories. I don‘t know if you saw Lisa Reihana’s video installation In Pursuit of Venus, which explores the colonisation of New Zealand, in a most extraordinary, unexpected way.
We‘ve always told stories through whaikōrero or through whakairo, and now there’s all these other extraordinary mediums to take our stories to the world.
My daughter is a performance poet. She works with three other young Māori wāhine, and they‘re all fully bilingual, and they have revolutionised spoken word poetry in New Zealand because, half way through their poem, they‘ll break into a waiata or they‘ll break into karanga. They‘re using te reo in a way that hasn‘t been used before in their art form.
They were New Zealand champions in spoken word, then they became Australasian champions and they were the first New Zealand or Australian team to compete in the world championships in Las Vegas. And the response that they got really told me that the uniqueness of using te reo within the spoken word, rather than making it less accessible for audiences, it‘s the opposite.
It‘s not that they had to provide translations. It’s that the pure emotion of what they’re talking about, whatever language they’re talking in, absolutely communicates to the audience.
And I think that‘s really important. We shouldn‘t feel like we‘re marginalising ourselves by using our language. If you‘re telling a unique story that only you can tell, it‘s almost like that becomes universal.
You‘ve had numerous awards. Are there one or two that stand out for you?
The proudest moment of my life, apart from the birth of my three children, would be in 2015. I‘m sitting in my dining room right now, and this is where it happened in 2015. We had a big television sitting up on a chest of drawers in the dining room, and we had Teina Pora and his family here with us and a bunch of other people who’d been involved for many years to fight for justice for Teina — and to fight for compensation and his exoneration.
I‘d been to the Privy Council the year before, to the hearing for Teina. Teina wasn‘t there because he wasn‘t allowed to travel. He couldn‘t get a passport because he was a convicted murderer. So I went to the Privy Council hearing in London, with five of the most extraordinary legal minds I‘ve ever seen.
And within half an hour of the hearing starting, it was so clear that each of those judges was saying: “This young man should never have been arrested. He should never have been questioned. He should never have spent 21 years in prison. This is craziness.”
I was sitting in the court, and Teina was back in New Zealand, and I sent him the odd text just to say: “It feels like it‘s going okay.” I didn‘t want to get his hopes up too much, but I wanted to reassure him that he had the best legal team possible and he was getting the judges on his side.
Anyway, fast forward a year, and this night in our house in the room I‘m sitting in now, there‘s a whole bunch of people gathered, including Teina, his daughter and his grandson — and the judge from the UK is being livestreamed to New Zealand.
Teina’s sitting out in our yard, having a beer with his daughter, and this was the moment in my life where I could truly say to myself: “There‘s a reason for me to have the skills that I have. There‘s a reason that I was put on this earth and found the job that I wanted to do.
“And tonight is as good as it gets, being part of a fight that led to a young, innocent Māori man being exonerated and compensated for the injustice that had happened to him. There could be no greater reward.”
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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