Telling our Māori and Pasifika stories has, thankfully, become more and more the work of writers from these worlds — just as there’s been a growing recognition that that should be a much bigger part of the news media, too. The talent, of course, has always been there, but the pathways and the encouragement, too often, have been missing. And it’s taken a special commitment and confidence from writers and filmmakers like Toa Fraser to ensure Māori and Pasifika storytellers take their place in reflecting and exploring brown lives. Here’s Toa chatting to Dale.
Bula vinaka! Thanks for all the neat work you’ve done over the years, Toa. It’s a privilege to have a kōrero with you about life. To start, can you tell us about your names and your village connections?
My name, Toa, is a word common across the Pacific. In Māori, Sāmoan and Tongan it means the same thing: warrior. But given my dad Eugene Fraser was born in Fiji, whenever I go back, they say: “What? Chicken Fraser?” Because “toa” means chicken in Fijian.
But I was named after a guy named Toa Hutchinson, who was the next-door neighbour of my uncle. He was a cheeky Sāmoan kid who my parents really loved. He’s a builder now, and his sister, Lonnie, is an artist.
My middle name is Anthony, which is my Uncle Tony’s name on my dad’s side. Dad had 12 brothers and sisters. They were an immigrant family from Fiji in the late 1940s or early ‘50s — quite early for Pacific Island families. They lived in Ponsonby originally, but then they moved quite quickly to Mt Roskill. That’s where so much of my imagination has been for most of my life.
You were born in England, right? How did that come about?
My dad had an incredible journey. He came here when he was seven, and his family lived in a four-bedroom Housing Corp house in Mt Roskill. The legend is that he used to hide under the house reading books, because he didn’t want anybody to see him reading. He’d also sneak off to the ballet and concerts. He had high-culture aspirations in that old school, Eurocentric way.
Having only lived in Mt Roskill, he learned to speak English in that old school received pronunciation way, and he became a broadcaster in his late teens, working for NZBC (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation) in New Plymouth.
Then he met an English guy who was also a broadcaster, and they became friends. Dad followed him to London. And he met my mum Linda Jennings through the glass window of the broadcasting studio. She was a sound technician from Essex.
So that’s how I came to be born in London.
I grew up in a very middle-class environment in an English country village, with ducklings waddling across the road and a medieval church. I always felt a kind of displacement, and it was a joy to me when we eventually came back as a family to Auckland in the 1980s.
Having worked for 25 years as a broadcaster for the BBC, Dad ended up working at TVNZ with Tainui Stephens, Whai Ngata, Kingi Ihaka — some of the greats of Māori and Pasifika broadcasting. So, it was my privilege as a teenager to be exposed to the mana of those men.
Did he have one of those rich Fijian voices? I had the luxury of doing stuff with Fiji Radio once, and all the broadcasters had a rich, deep voice.
Yes, definitely. I have a recording of him reading the news during the SAS storming of the Iranian embassy in 1980, and, yes, he has one of those rich voices. He trained as an opera singer in Auckland as well, with the woman who trained Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
That would’ve been Sister Mary Leo.
That’s right. He grew up in a Catholic environment at Sacred Heart College.
Which is where you went?
True. It was a joy for me to go to that school because, when I was a teenager, there was a small but burgeoning group of Māori and Pacific boys at Sacred Heart, and we all were pretty tight and would play touch every lunchtime.
That was a real freedom for me, having grown up in England which felt so stifled. I always say the difference between school in England and here, is shorts. Here, we were encouraged to run around in bare feet and kick the ball around.
Sacred Heart also had a reputation for artistic endeavour, didn’t it?
That’s right. The Finn brothers and Dave Dobbyn went through Sacred Heart, but they were older than me. I wasn’t there at the time. But, since then, I’ve connected with them all, and I’ve been grateful for that connection.
One of my mates at the time was Steve Tofa, an incredible musician and storyteller. On weekends, we’d hang out at his place in GI. We were both big movie fans — and we’d make up futuristic stories about a Sāmoan cop called Niko Thunderbolt.
I always wanted to work in movies. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was six years old with my grandmother, and I was always drawn to that medium. But my dad was a storyteller, too. Used to tell me stories of growing up in Fiji and Mt Roskill in ways that made those stories seem epic.
Part of the honour that I have, doing what I do, is knowing that I’ve come from a tradition of storytellers that goes back through the generations.
Was there a break between school and your first play, which set you on a path to success?
My mother, father, sister Aisa and brother Ben and I all moved back to England after my high school years, but I didn’t much like it. I played rugby, which was awesome because I had learned well at Sacred Heart and enjoyed showing what I’d learned to the locals over there.
I worked for a while in a hotel in Scotland, near Loch Ness. I’d applied for the job just randomly, and then found that the place was on this Fraser tūrangawaewae.
But I didn’t last long in Britain. I wanted to come back to New Zealand. So, I enrolled at Auckland University in the film studies department. It was in its infancy then. I was in the second year. I’d grown up with big blockbusters, such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but at university I got exposed to movies like Do the Right Thing, which has been a key inspiration for me.
At the same time, I was working at Village 8 on Broadway in Newmarket. I held down that job for four years, and it was the most social and wonderful experience. The staff were Māori and Pacific Island people from all over Auckland, and we had a great time rolling ice creams and watching movies.
Films like Casino and Heat and Braveheart and Apollo 13. For a film student, there was no better education. Working in that environment, I was inspired by a lot of the voices around that place, and that’s where I began writing the play Bare, which was an incredible success for me as a 23-year-old.
It was a fringe show, very bare bones, which is why we called it “Bare”. All we had was a stage and two actors: Madeleine Sami and Ian Hughes. Madeleine was very young at that time but just blew everyone away.
It was an interesting script, looking at Fiji and matriarchy, and it was lovely that you were able to weave something close to you into your first piece. How did you handle the acclaim, because it took you around the world, didn’t it?
Yeah, it was crazy. It was real rock’n’roll times back in those days. I can remember sitting in the noodle shop that I used to always go to on Durham Lane, with my $4.50 barbeque pork on rice, the day after it opened.
And I overheard people at the next table saying: “I saw this great show Bare last night, and we’re going to go again tonight.” And I knew at that moment that this would change my life. So, I phoned Village 8 and handed in my resignation.
Bare went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then to the Sydney Opera House, then all around the world. I was enjoying my collaboration with Madeleine, so I quickly followed it up with my play No. 2, in which Madeleine played all the characters in a Fiji family in Mt Roskill. So that was even more personal than Bare.
That was probably the most rock’n’roll time of my life. We went from Edinburgh one day, to Jamaica the next, where we did workshops in Kingston with young people there.
That’s just one example of the crazy things we were able to do around that time.
What would you say about the global appeal of theatre like No. 2, and how people from other countries can warm to an idea that’s been generated far away?
No. 2 is exuberant. It was a celebration of family in the way that my family in Mt Roskill would celebrate. I think exuberance was a big part of the thing that audiences connected with. Madeleine took it to the extra level. It was incredible for such a young person to be commanding the stage in Edinburgh on the other side of the world.
Almost by default you’ve become mentors to others. What sense do you have of the wave of talent that is emerging?
The people who are coming through now are so clued-up compared to what I was when I was starting out. I’m thinking of people such as Hanelle Harris and Matasila Freshwater. They’re so on to it.
I think social media has a big part to play. Back in my day, there was no social media when we were doing these things. The next generation is having these conversations, political and creative — all of these storytelling conversations every day. This next generation is moving fast.
What role do film, television and the creative sectors have in the overall empowerment of Pasifika people?
It’s vital. Someone was talking about Mai Time yesterday. I remember seeing that on TV when I was at university. We’d turn it on religiously every weekend. For our flat, six of us at the time, it was just wonderful to feel we were seeing ourselves on the screen.
But that was just once a week. It’s incredible to see how that has grown. There’s still a lot of growing to do, but, in terms of representation, it’s vital that we have the opportunities to tell our stories.
I think the next step is to own our stories. Even though we’ve made great progress, the power structure behind the production is still often not Māori or Pasifika practitioners or producers. That’s the work for our next generation.
You’ve been able to capture the down-home style of Pasifika communities. You also touch on unexpected areas, such as ballet. How important is artistic diversity to you?
That’s a great question. I always quote that Walt Whitman poem: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
I feel like that was something my dad gave me, too. He always used to say: “Be the fish that swims in different waters.” Don’t be content to be defined by boundaries within a box. I feel like that’s been a part of my career, to say: “I may be from a particular background, but I can tell stories all around the world.”
I remember Ranginui Walker coming up to me after he’d seen Dean Spanley at an awards ceremony at the University of Auckland, and saying: “Kia ora, Toa! Good on you for making that movie Dean Spanley.” I didn’t quite know why he was congratulating me. So, I asked him, and he said: “It’s because it’s English.”
Europeans had been coming to the Pacific for generations and telling our stories, and maybe this was a version of somebody going there and telling their stories, although it’s more complicated than that. But that’s always been part of my desire — to not get pigeonholed.
It’s important to me to feel that we’re as good as anyone else. You see Taika doing his great storytelling with the Marvel world, and one of the ones that I always remember is Lee Tamahori’s name on the credits of The Sopranos. Can you imagine that? The Sopranos was such a groundbreaking show — and seeing Lee’s name there was mind-blowing at the time.
As it was to see yours on Penny Dreadful, bro!
Haha, thank you!
Can we touch on The Dead Lands for a moment? This programme broke new ground: action, slow-mos, and totally in te reo Māori. What made you move in that direction?
Matthew Metcalfe, the producer I’d worked with on Dean Spanley. He had a script and worked on it with Glenn Standring. At the time, I was looking to do something more athletic than I’d done before in movies. We talked about it, and one of the things I suggested was that this should be done in te reo.
To his credit, Matthew agreed. I was inspired by Rawiri Paratene (and others, including my mate Xavier Horan) taking Troilus and Cressida in te reo to London’s Globe Theatre — and for me that was a real example of how a production like ours could be told in te reo. I also felt like if you were gonna tell this story, it was important to tell it in the language appropriate to the story.
We were fortunate that Scotty Morrison came on board and not only did an incredible translation, but he also supported the whole martial arts mau rākau aspect in terms of style — all the slow motion and blood spatter and Bruce Lee and that sort of stuff.
That was one of the most profound and meaningful projects that I’ve been involved in. It was not only profound in an intellectual and political way, but also on a spiritual level.
There was a healthy wairua on the project that had little to do with me. It was largely from people like Tainui Stephens, Jamus Webster and Te Kohe Tuhaka, who brought everybody together and made the movie in such a healthy way.
Would you reflect briefly on the decision to go public about having early onset Parkinson’s disease, and what challenges that has thrown up for you in your life?
A symptom of Parkinson’s that I’m affected by is my voice, the softness of voice — and it’s ironic, given that my dad had such a rich, powerful voice.
One of the things that I’ve recently learned is that, when you get diagnosed with Parkinson’s, potentially you’ve been affected by it for 20 years. And I was self-conscious about my voice for a long time. What I’ve been able to do in my life is to use my more metaphorical voice in the way that I write and direct. I feel privileged that I’ve found myself in this sort of vocation. They both swim together, these two elements, Parkinson’s and director.
Getting the diagnosis has been a great thing in a way, because I knew something was wrong but until that point, I didn’t know what it was.
That Penny Dreadful episode that you mentioned was my first episode of TV, and that happened at the peak of my undiagnosed Parkinson’s symptoms. Only a couple of months after I did that, I got diagnosed, and, since then, I’ve had the most productive and fulfilling few years as a director, wandering around the world working on some incredible projects.
There’s nothing like an incurable brain disease to give you focus. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to continue to work in the way that I have.
That comes back to the production I’ve been involved in for the last year, Sweet Tooth, which is the thing that brought me back home. I feel very grateful for that, because I’m able to be here and take care of my kids and learn to live with the Parkinson’s more — and also to do more work with the younger generation.
There’ve been many accolades directed your way, and justifiably, but maybe there’s something else you’d like to share — a moment where it all came together, telling you how good it is to be alive.
I have great memories of the summer of 2005, when we made No.2 in the backyard in Mt Roskill. It was a real community whānau experience.
We had the feast with the pig in the backyard in the movie, which we shot over five days. We needed a new pig each day, and my aunty was in charge of distributing the pork to the neighbours — and we were very popular because we were feeding people.
That time, when we were a young group of brown people telling a story that was personal, had so much meaning for each of us.
Also, there was the honour of having Ruby Dee come from New York with her incredible history and experience. One of the most memorable days of my career would have to be the day she arrived in Auckland. I’d been dreaming of making movies for a long time, and when she arrived, that was a day that I felt I could rip out one of the happy vouchers in the limited book of happy vouchers that you get in a career. We were going to work together on a movie.
Then the next day, I got a call from the producer, Tim White, saying: “We’re gonna have to fold the movie. Ossie Davis died last night, and Ms Dee has to go back to New York and be with her family.”
I went to see Ms Dee as she was leaving. At the time, we had no idea if she would be back. But she said: “I’m looking forward to coming back and celebrating life with you.”
She was 85 at the time, and she’d never been away from Ossie, her husband, for as long as she would’ve been, had the movie gone ahead. But she returned to New York and attended the funeral — and they dimmed the lights on Broadway.
Then she came back two weeks later to Mt Roskill, and we held a feast for her in the backyard of my aunty and uncle’s place.
One of the things she said is this: ”You have to use your voice or somebody else will use it for you.” That’s been something that I’ve adhered to since then, and I always offer it to other practitioners as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? We know you as a filmmaker, but you also have other roles and commitments. What do you do to keep your zest for life, Toa?
Well, the film industry can be stressful, especially when you’re freelance. So, I’ve done yoga for a long time. And I’m enjoying the vegetable garden and working on my basketball jump shot.
I’ve also enjoyed taking photos this winter, particularly around Sandringham and Mt Roskill, where I’m living. Lots of other stuff: poetry, music, eating. I’m a pretty good cook, and I do make a good corned beef curry.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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