Tearepa Kahi has already made a mark in the theatre as a reo-speaking Shakespearean actor, and as a writer and director of the documentary on Dalvanius and Patea’s Poi E anthem. A doco on Herbs as well.
Along the way, there’s also been his Mt. Zion movie, a fictional story entwining Pukekohe spud-picking as well as Stan Walker and his voice. And somehow there’s been room for making some short films, too, and lending a hand to a bunch of other TV and movie projects. Like Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
More recently, though, his energy and skills have gone into Muru, a movie (starring Cliff Curtis) which could have been a re-enactment of the police raids on Ngāi Tūhoe but which went down another path and became an “action-drama”. Muru, still showing in cinemas around the country, has now been chosen as New Zealand’s official Oscar submission for Best International Picture.
Here Tearepa and Dale are talking about what led him into all this storytelling.
Kia ora, Tearepa. I understand that you have strong connections to Christchurch and to Pukekohe. But let’s hear a little more detail about your background.
Well, Tearepa is a Rātana name. It was the name of Rātana’s eldest son. But I should start with my grandmother. Her name was Rahera Kahupua Kahi — she was a Wikiriwhi Tamihana from Kaiaua, Ngāti Pāoa.
Her brother was healed by Rātana and so all the whānau became followers. My father, George Tearoha Kahi, was what we call a jazz fusion drummer. He met Jimi Hendrix and the Mahavishnu Orchestra on vinyl at the local record store and left Pukekohe, hitting the road as a drummer with his jazz fusion band and Billy TK Sr.
Naming me Te Arepa as his firstborn was a way of sending a mihi out to his mother. Even though literally it means “the beginning”, what it really says is: “Mum, I miss you. Mum, I love you.”
It gave me an incredible connection to my kuia and Pukekohe even though I mainly grew up in Papanui, Christchurch.
The family of my mother, Rachel Watson, came from Yorkshire. And her father, Roger, was a doctor who spent a good amount of time delivering babies in Yaldhurst, Hornby, Riccarton and throughout Canterbury. He delivered over 5,000 babies.
So I have these two big strands running through my blood. There’s the Christchurch connection, and also a strong Waikato, Pukekohe and Tāmaki Makaurau link.
I hear that there was artistic talent, too, on the Pākehā side of your family.
My Pākehā grandmother, Olivia Watson, was a beautiful painter. My grandfather was a GP who wished he was a dancer but spent all his spare time playing golf. I grew up on the golf course, ball-spotting for him. I became good at yardages. I knew whether he should be hitting a wedge, an 8 or a 9 iron. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They made a deep impression on me.
In terms of artistry and music, I guess the main trait coming from both sides of my family was the ability to work hard, beyond whatever talent you had. To not rely on talent. They were all old-school hardworking souls.
One of your talents, so I’m told, is that you’re a saxophonist.
Kinda. I grew up playing the trumpet. But when I joined up with the theatre company, they needed someone to play the saxophone. I tried my best. But I wouldn’t ever call myself a saxophonist, although I managed to make some sounds on cue.
You still got one?
Yeah. A Yamaha soprano sax. But I’ve got too much respect for musicians to pull it out now. I love music. Music is my first love. But my day job is actually being a coach for my kids’ rugby and basketball teams.
What’s been the story of you and te reo Māori?
I remember the first time I heard Nana speaking Māori. We’d go for a trip “up the road” at the drop of a hat. That was driving from Papanui where we lived, all the way up to Pukekohe. I must’ve been four years old at the time of this trip.
And Nana, being Rātana, had a whakamoemiti at seven every morning, and seven every evening. I remember when we arrived at her place, she tapped on the wall and started whakamoemiti.
I turned to my father and asked: “What’s wrong with Nana?” I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I had no comprehension, no knowledge of our reo Māori. And he just told me to be quiet. Then she finished — and I realised that there was this other world that I knew nothing about.
Later in life, as a university student, I spent two beautiful years with her out in Pukekohe. And that’s where I learned her tongue.
She was an amazing native speaker. People would travel from all over to sit with her in her lounge and listen. In spending all this time with her, sharing these tiny moments and phone calls and visits and tangihanga from Christchurch to Pukekohe, I realised she was most alive when she spoke te reo.
She’d laugh the hardest when she was telling jokes. She’d sing with beautiful harmonies. And all of this was done in her reo. But it was never my decision to learn. It was never based on outside forces. It was just wanting to have a deeper relationship with Nana. So that’s how my reo came about. It was wanting to make her laugh and nail a punchline.
While we’re talking about Pukekohe, we know that there were hard times out there for our Māori people. You touched on some of it in the Mt. Zion movie. But, you know, for many, the town still has its racist undertone.
When you spent time with your nana, were you aware of the hardships our people endured in that rohe and aware of some of the injustice that formed the backdrop of that settlement?
I grew up knowing my father and all my uncles and aunties had suffered at the local movie theatre in Pukekohe, and with the barbers and butchers and just in everyday Pukekohe life. My whānau grew up on a place known as “Red Letter Box”, a rundown, dirt-floor shed which housed the workers — my whānau. We went from landowners to spud pickers in three generations.
I suspect that was a big reason why Dad up and left Pukekohe. And even today there are the after-effects of racism. For instance, one of the things that has struck me is how separate the Pukekohe North streets are from the rest of Pukekohe.
There are Pākehā who’ve spent their whole lives in Pukekohe and yet may never have been down Kayes Rd or Windmill or Birdwood Rd, and the places where all my whānau have been for a very long time. They may not even know that there’s a marae, Ngā Hau e Whā Marae, right there as well. And many of them are happy in their ignorance.
Through the years, the separation and segregation were normalised. Deeply, deeply normalised. And those were the impressions on me as I came in and out of Pukekohe, through my adolescent years.
My wife, Reikura, has just produced a documentary entitled No Māori Allowed for TVNZ. It’s partly based on the book by Robert Bartholomew, which was informed by the Pukekohe experiences of my Aunty Tini Astle, and it features two of my other aunties, Phillis and Pare.
I suspect that Christchurch and its movie theatres made a more positive impact on you.
That’s where I got to go to the movies with my parents. The Christchurch Square had cinemas at every compass point. The love of movies was about spending time with them. The first film I saw with my father was Kelly’s Heroes and the first film with my mother was The Elves and the Shoemaker.
Another deep impression, so I understand, came from Jim Moriarty and the experience in theatre that he provided for you and others.
I went to Burnside High School in Christchurch to play touch and basketball. I was part of the cool Māori crew (four of us among 2000) who thought we were too cool for school.
Then one day, when I was in the fifth form, Jim Moriarty burst through our school hall doors. He was looking for a dog. I’m standing up, and we’re all looking around for this dog, this imaginary dog, that he’d conjured up. He was like the Pied Piper for the next hour and a half. And I wanted to follow him.
I’d grown up with a musical father and I’ve been exposed to incredible musicians, but I’ve never felt so deeply hypnotised as I was by that performance.
I was transfixed by this man in our school hall. What a crummy theatre and what a tough audience — and yet he had us all in the palm of his hand.
Two years later, Jim’s theatre group, Te Rākau Hua, came back with a different crew, with younger actors, and it was the same magic. Right then, I made the decision to leave touch, leave basketball, leave Christchurch, and join Jim’s circus. I was laser-focused on my pursuit. I wanted to learn from him. I wanted to be a part of his theatre troupe.
And I was persistent enough — not skilled or talented enough — but I was persistent enough that he put a tono, a request, to my father.
So, after graduating from Burnside, I spent two beautiful years on the road in Te Rākau Hua o Te Wao Tapu.
We were playing to two different high schools every day all over the land. One Friday we performed at Ōpōtiki High School, and on Sunday afternoon we were setting up at Ōtakou Marae in Dunedin.
We saw the country that way, and shared stories as Māori with these different audiences every day. It was the ultimate education in how to tell stories, in stagecraft, in energy and focus — and it’s gone on to inform so much of my artistic decision-making and personal kaupapa.
Kia ora, bro. I know you’ve performed in prisons and I wonder how that experience affected you.
I had my 20th birthday in the Christchurch Women’s Prison and there were nine lifers in New Zealand at the time — and six of them sang me “Happy Birthday”.
These were all incredible women and I realised that all these women were there serving life sentences inside a very tough prison because of what men in their lives had done to them or to their children.
Being at this tender age and having these experiences definitely widened my perspectives and personal horizon — and also my moral compass. We were there to bring their stories to life in a performance piece for the Christchurch Arts Festival, and they had a huge puna to draw on.
It ended up being an incredibly liberating experience for me and the audience who were lucky to hear their stories.
You studied history as a university student. How come you chose to do that?
A good friend of my father said you shouldn’t study New Zealand history because it will only make you angry. Or more angry.
But I was lucky that I’d had this experience on the road, and I just wanted to start building the theoretical base, to examine the methodologies and building blocks for our oral traditions, and maybe even a whare for our stories.
I had great lecturers at university. Rawiri Taonui, Margaret Mutu, Ranginui Walker and Anne Salmond. I had a big imagination and pursued cultural theory, but the acting bug hadn’t left me.
And while I was studying at the university, I also did a little bit of acting in the Merchant of Venice — and that brought me into the solar system of Don Selwyn.
Don played a pivotal role in your filmmaking development, didn’t he? And also, strangely enough, in your love life! You and your future wife, Reikura, were cast opposite each other in the Merchant of Venice, weren’t you?
Yeah, The Don was a great conductor, who knew how to play the full orchestra!
Reikura played Jessica and I played Lorenzo. It was an amazing experience.
Part of university education is learning how to write essays and being able to sit down and churn out 3,000 to 5,000 words before the deadline on Monday. And that experience was pivotal for me in developing my screenwriting skills. With Don’s encouragement, I wrote a tiny film, 10 pages, called A Gift to Zion.
Don gave me great advice about how it should be shaped — and it eventually grew, years later, into the Mt. Zion movie.
One of the things I’ve always taken from Mātua Don was the way he spoke with the cast and crew and made sure that everyone understood the kaupapa. He never sat on a fancy throne and was never the centre of attention on set. He would lead by spreading out his arms and propelling you forward from the back.
Many of us have a regular cycle of income that’s not necessarily available to those in the creative and filmmaking sectors. How have you been able to manage that? Has it been feast and famine at times? Or have you been able to ensure that while one thing is wrapping up, something else is on the boil?
I try not to juggle. I try and give everything that I have to the story that needs to be told. There are consequences to that because I’m not a factory worker mass-producing stories.
I’m deeply affected by the telling of a story. Poi E: The Story of Our Song took a long time because I wrestled with the approach and the treatment of the story. I tried to impose my vision on Dalvanius, with the idea of re-enactments. Thankfully, I listened, and realised only Dalvanius could play Dalvanius.
But I was stuck in the edit for a very, very long time. And then I discarded that and let Dalvanius and all the relationships come to the fore. Dalvanius and Ngoi Pewhairangi and all their friends and whānau found their voices, and it ended up being a much more powerful story.
This is a long way of saying that the economic returns from storytelling should always sit second to the stories we want to tell and the way we want to tell them.
The kaupapa is more important than the funding, although it helps.
But, you know, all these projects are building up a body of significant work, with people acknowledging your skillset and your commitment to telling our stories, your commitment to pūrākau Māori.
I have the commitment and I have the support with my wife Reikura. But the skillset has come from great teachers. I’ve been very lucky to have had deeply informing relationships with beautiful teachers.
I take the point that there’s a body of work now, but it has come about only because of these powerful mentorships — my father, Jim, The Don, Whaea Merata Mita, and Pāpā Ted Nia.
Which you will fulfil one day yourself? Can you see that responsibility coming at you later in life?
I have so much to share because so much has been shared with me over this journey. So I have a deep personal commitment to developing the new voices that we desperately need in te ao Māori to tell our stories.
Let’s have a look at Muru for a moment — and celebrate the accomplishment now that it’s been released. But before we delve into some of what makes it unique and very much yours, how have you reacted to the initial responses from people who’ve seen it?
It’s been an emotional ride because of the emotional investment over time, but mainly because of the many relationships that were forged over a long period that allowed for this story to be told this way.
So, it’s a celebration of those relationships. It was about honouring them — and we were privileged to do that. But it was also about being able to share the end product, the story, with them as well.
And we’ve been able to hear their thoughts as the film has moved around and found various Tūhoe communities in Dunedin, Gore, Wellington and Ōtautahi — and to celebrate with them as well. It’s such a personal story for so many people in these communities who were badly treated by our government for over a century.
You chose to re-imagine a story that was unjust, and sad, of course. I was expecting a re-enactment of the events, but I realised that was never your intention.
At one stage, a re-enactment was what I intended. But then we had a meeting where an aunty asked me: “Is this about the events of one day, the 15th of October?”
I said: “Yes.” And she said: “Well, I don’t support it then, because the government have been doing this to us for over 100 years. And, if you want our support, then you need to tell the story in full context.”
I struggled with that because I’d spent so much time doctoring and forming the script. But the worst thing I could do in this wharenui was not listen to her, not receive what she was saying. Like with Dalvanius, was I pushing my idea or was I open to being guided and informed?
So we listened, and we were able to fulfil her wishes — her directive, really — by going beyond the events of this single day. Which meant that this film is not about the events of one day. It’s about ensuring that the events of this day never happen again. Muru is aimed at prevention. It’s a protection mechanism to ensure that there is never another repeat.
I hope that it becomes a defining piece of New Zealand cinema the way that Utu was when I watched it with my parents, at 13.
And I hope that we can come close to achieving something that goes on to inform and inspire my kids and this next generation as well.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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