Like most of us, Vea Mafile’o hasn’t always been on the same wavelength as her parents — in particular, her Tongan born and raised, and devoutly religious dad, Saia. Her documentary For My Father’s Kingdom, which premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival on July 30, lays bare the cultural and generational gulf that exists in many Pacific families in New Zealand, between Island-born parents and their Kiwi-raised kids. It also provides a bridge, as Vea explains here to Dale.
Mālō e lelei, Vea. I understand that your full name is Vea Margaret Mafile’o, which suggests that, like me, you have a cross-cultural background.
Yes, I do. Vea comes from my Tongan side, from my dad’s mother. Margaret is from my Scottish side, my grandfather’s mother. And Mafile’o was given to us by Tuita, a Tongan noble who lived in Ha’apai. He gave that name to my Māori great-grandfather, Kingi Katene, although I’m not sure if this was his correct name.
Kingi was a whaler who jumped ship in Ha’apai. But, in order for him to own land, he had to have a Tongan last name, so we got gifted the name Mafile’o. We have such a small strand of our family dating back to that gift that we can identify each other quite quickly. We haven’t explored that side of our family history yet, but we think that Kingi had roots in Kāwhia and possibly in Wellington as well.
Am I right to understand that you grew up on a dairy farm in the Waikato?
Yep. My mother’s parents had a dairy farm in Gordonton, between Morrinsville and Hamilton, which my parents bought. So we all went to country schools, right through until we started high school. Mum’s mother is English but grew up in Wales. But her dad, Robert Henderson, was Scottish. He was a POW and was in a German prison of war camp in World War II, for about four years.
He managed to do some study while he was in there because he was in the infirmary — and he learned German and was able to finish his Bachelor of Arts degree there. He was a headmaster in New Zealand before the war and when he returned home.
How did your mum and dad meet?
Mum joined the VSA, the Volunteer Service Abroad. Her first gig was in the Solomons. Then her second placement was in Tonga. Dad was teaching at a little primary school in Nukunuku. So was Mum. And I guess Mum got a little bit of jungle fever — and the rest is history.
What was the reaction in New Zealand to their marriage? Back in the day, unions like that were often frowned on.
I guess there definitely would’ve been concern. There were a couple of Indian families in our area, but we were definitely the only Pacific family there. So, probably there was quite a lot of racism in the community.
And I think it would’ve been quite tough on my mum’s parents, especially my grandmother, because she’d had such a sheltered life, and such an English upbringing. I remember she used to call us “little gollywogs” because of our unruly curly hair. But she loved us so much. She was our biggest supporter of our art work, and funded so many of our creative ideas and trips back home to Tonga. She lived until she was 94.
I’m sure she wasn’t being derogatory — that would’ve been an endearing term from nana. But what about your recollections of school, especially with the history of that Waikato land being so raw and so unjust? When did you get your head around what had happened there through the years?
At primary school, I’d get the odd racism remark, but I particularly remember one guy, a smart alec, who brought this joking version of the Treaty of Waitangi to school. It said really rude things about Māori — and it would’ve come from his parents. That’s when things started to click for me about the land and the feeling of entitlement that some of the farmers had. It was pretty bad.
But it wasn’t until high school that I got to know what the Treaty entailed. And then I was just like: “Wow. The cheek of that guy was unbelievable.” But it came from generational racism. My sister Emily and I always fought back at any racist remarks directed at us. We wouldn’t hesitate to respond. We were always told to be proud of being Tongan.
Was the Tongan language part of your life? Or reo Māori?
Dad was the leader of the Hamilton Tongan Society, so we always had to go into town and be part of the dance group. We all learned how to do Tongan dance when we were really young. Went to church, too, and that was all in the Tongan language. And, when we were growing up, we went back and forth to Tonga and lived there for a few years, too.
Mum and Dad did VSA in Tonga again, so, as a kid, I had a much better grasp of the language than I do now. I’m really shy about using it these days. For some reason, I just can’t retain Tongan sentence structure. I know lots of individual words, but stringing it all together is something else. That needs a lot of work even though I’ve done lessons. At high school, I’d learned Māori right up until the sixth form. Māori is really similar to Tongan, so I don’t know why I just can’t retain the language properly.
You speak for both of us, to be honest. I’m the same. Know plenty of Māori words, but not too flash when it comes to sentence structure. In the time you’ve spent in Tonga, have you been especially conscious of your background?
Because of our Pālangi mum, whenever we went to Ha’apai and visited family, we were always treated really well. There’d be the best tablecloths, and the cousins and everyone would come and cook us breakfast every morning and do our washing. We were called “the Pālangis”, even though I’m quite dark.
We had the best of both worlds — we were blessed. But, of course, it was a different story when we lived there away from family and we had to learn how to handwash our own clothes. Well, Mum probably did most of that!
But I always knew that I was Tongan. I didn’t have as much of an identity issue as, say, Emily, my older sister does. She’s a bit lighter and doesn’t understand the Tongan humour and language as much as I do. So she’s been very uncomfortable, at times, and really felt that she was a hafekasi, whereas I haven’t felt that way. To me, it hasn’t mattered. I know I’m Tongan.
Since you were a little girl, you’ve also had a love of art which has morphed into filmmaking. Do you know where that came from?
I remember looking in an art book and seeing some paintings from John Constable. I think it was The Cornfield. I recall seeing the clouds and just being amazed. And, from then, I really wanted to know how to paint like that. Seeing that image led on to my passion for painting and anything from the arts.
Throughout high school, if it wasn’t sport, it was art. I am the worst writer ever. I’m dyslexic. I can’t spell and I hate maths. Hate, hate maths. So I’d just take all of the art subjects to avoid English and maths and anything like that. But, also, a relation of ours is George Stubbs, who was an English artist more than 200 years ago. He was famous for his horse paintings.
As we were growing up, we’d each have a turn to take our grandmother back home to England, because that’s where an aunty lived. So when I was 17, I went with my grandmother. I dropped her off at my aunty’s in Devon and went for a little tiki tour, as you do, into London. I went to all the art galleries and then, sneakily, over to Paris. Mum didn’t know about that. Then, when I went to the Louvre, there was a John Constable and a George Stubbs, my ancestor, right above it.
I was like: “Oh, it’s a sign.” So I knew I’d get into the arts, although I always thought that I’d be a painter. In fact, I won a few Pasifika art awards when I was at Hillcrest High School in Hamilton. Mum was always really encouraging of us, too.
At Hillcrest, I did all the art subjects: painting, printing, sculpture, art history. And then, after high school, I went across to Mt Maunganui, lived there for a year and did scuba diving. Trained to be a diver instructor, and then worked over in Tonga as a scuba diver and dive master, taking tourist and dive groups through Vava’u.
What are your highlight memories from that time?
Just that it was the best time of my life. Here I was, 18 or 19, at my peak physically. I was completely comfortable diving. I’d do four dives a day. The diving in Vava’u is out of this world. And that’s what diving is — it’s a completely new world. I just loved it. Every moment of it. And, of course, the social scene was massive because dive groups would keep coming through, so it was always busy.
But it’s a very cowboy lifestyle and I knew I’d need to come back and get a degree and a proper job. So I came back and did a visual arts degree and followed that up with a post graduate diploma of fine arts at MIT (Manukau Technical Institute). It was under Auckland University but out at the Manukau campus in Ōtara. And I had such a good time there. Too good a time.
Your studies and work as an artist led on to filmmaking which, right now, has put you in the spotlight internationally. But what especially intrigues me is your willingness to look at Tongan issues. Some time ago, it was seen as impolite to focus on any negative aspects of Tongan life. But you’ve certainly broached them with your latest film about your dad.
Well, it took some time for me to get that perspective. Way back when I did my interview for art school, my sister Emily came with me — and she ended up coming to art school with me. So both of us moved up to the heart of Auckland, to Ōtara. That was a massive culture shock for us, because we’d come from Hamilton where there weren’t many brown people. And it was great. We were just like: “Wow, there’s all these people like us.”
Anyway, Emily and I got into the routine where we’d head off to Tonga for four to six weeks every year. She’d be photographing and I’d gather information. Then we’d bring that back to art school and unpick it through the year.
And one issue that caught my attention — and sometimes horrified me — was the attitude to rubbish. You’d go to the beaches and you could come across anything. Nappies, tins, plastic bags, whatever. It was shocking. Tonga, this beautiful, pristine environment, was getting trashed by people just throwing their garbage anywhere. That got me worrying about the effects of westernisation in Tonga — and it influenced the sculptures I was working on, too.
My sister was looking at the issue of deportees back then and the people that didn’t have a voice — the common people. So that period helped me see things that I thought weren’t right, or weren’t being discussed. And I was keeping track of it through moving images. As I was saying before, I hate writing and I hate keeping journals and stuff. So I took the camera and recorded everything. That’s where my interviewing people started.
Then I noticed that there was a lot of grumblings, but no one was doing anything. People were complaining about the same things. And a wide range of people, too, from shopkeepers to students, teachers, bank workers. Through those five years, there were changes. For instance, the king died and there were the riots and the new king taking over. And here I was, with my filming, documenting these things and people’s reactions.
That’s when moving image really started to play into my work. I was majoring in sculpture at the time, and I realised that I could never make something that could have more impact than using this footage — where you could see, hear, and feel the emotions of the people. That’s where the most powerful messages can come through, because when you see something with your own eyes, it’s easier to accept it.
Naturally, there’s provocative material there. And that makes me wonder whether some of the response to your work is along these lines: “Here’s this bloody uppity artist-sculptor with her camera again, trying to show the world our shortcomings. Riots in Nuku’alofa, for instance. The changing of the guard with royalty. Even this last piece with her dad.”
Have you ever felt like you were a bit of an outsider with your camera and you were touching on subjects that perhaps should’ve been kept in the shadows?
Yeah, definitely. Although, Tongans do love being photographed, being in front of the camera. They enjoy that process. So I’ve actually been blessed, as a filmmaker, to not be met with resistance. I’ve rarely been turned down for an interview. Generally, people are ready to talk because there’s been such a containment of ideas.
When I approach people, they seem really open to the idea of sharing because they can see that it’s time for change and they’re willing to talk about that. And because I’ve been so staunch with my “I am a Tongan” stance, even though I’m hafekasi, I feel I have the right to tell these stories.
But I’ve always been conscious of having a little bit of leeway because I am on the outside to some extent — because I’m hafekasi. If I was, say, living in Tonga or was full Tongan, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to have so much of a voice.
But I feel that, if there’s a problem, we should talk about it. See if we can let it all out so we can move forward and live a better life — and help provide a better life for future generations.
Perhaps we’re seeing the emergence of a powerful new dimension in Tonga. Not just filmmakers and artists like yourself but also a wider, young generation whose views aren’t as curtailed by the church, the politicians, and the royalty the way previous generations have been.
You’re bang on there. The previous generation to mine was still very much under the influence of the whole respect triangle where you can’t be seen to disrespect the church, nobles, royalty — the pyramid system.
But with my generation and the younger generation, we feel we’ve got to say this stuff because there are things that, simply, are wrong. And if it can be said in a respectful way, it’s important to have these courageous discussions.
There’s another significant chapter in your film career and that’s the production company Malosi Pictures which you and your partner, Jeremiah Tauamiti, set up four years ago. That’s meant all sorts of grassroots developments and docos and short films — including the world premiere of three of them at the Berlin Film Festival.
But, understandably, the focus at the moment is on For My Father’s Kingdom, where your dad kindly allowed his personal story to be told. This is a man of deep conviction who’s a pensioner and doesn’t have much money but works tirelessly for the church. It seems like a common story there.
Yeah, very much so. And I guess that’s why, when we started this, this was one of the grumblings that my siblings and I would have. Dad would ring us the day before the Misinale, the big end of year tithing that his church has, and he’d be like: “Hey, do you have $500 or $1,000?” And we’d be like: “Umm. No Dad. What the hell?”
So, for us, and me personally as a filmmaker, this film was born out of a place of real frustration and not understanding Dad. I’m living between these two worlds and within the western system, and I’m just like: “Dad, you’ve got nothing. Where are your savings? Oh, that’s right. You don’t have any savings, do you? And now you’re taking our savings. How do you want us to get ahead in the world? How are we supposed to get a house?”
As a family, it was really affecting us. We would all ring each other up: “Dad’s calling us all again.” And there’s the fact that Dad has this paper run. “How can you have a paper run, Dad? It’s fine for your health, but you’re giving everything away. You have nothing for yourself. What is going on here? I don’t understand.”
And so he was very keen to work with us and for us to film him, because I guess he really wanted us kids to understand why it’s so important to him. Why he’s doing all this. Why he’s asking us for money, and running around doing all his money-making schemes. Dad has always been a bit of a hustler. So, he was excited about making this film because it would allow his kids to understand him.
When the film has been widely shown, do you think that the reaction from others will show that it honours him in a deserving way — and that, despite your frustration, there’s something pretty special about what he’s doing and his love of his church and his people. What feelings will the audience go away with and what feelings does your old man have?
There was a really beautiful thing that happened during the filming. We had a change of heart which changed our head. To change your head, you have to change your heart. During the filming, we learned to understand Dad and where he’s coming from. The culture of where he’s coming from.
We learned to understand and to deal much better with all these things that were so frustrating to us. And now we acknowledge what he feels like he needs to do with his life.
Which is great. Congratulations, Vea, on the work you’ve been doing. You’ve had a sensitive touch with these matters — and it’s been heartening to see filmmakers and other artists broaching subjects that have previously been taboo. The more we know of each other, the more understanding and compassionate we can be. Maybe you’re fulfilling your dad’s wishes more than you realise.
Yeah. Although, when he first saw the film, he goes: “Mmm, that’s a bit long.” Then he said: “I don’t know why Pālangi would be interested in my story.”
And, although it’s still early days, what’s been the wider reaction, Vea?
It’s been great. Really awesome. A minister, who comes from the same area as Dad, rang me after he saw it. He said: “Vea. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. You made me cry, but you made me laugh. It’s very emotional.” Then he said: “You made me understand that we need to change the way we talk to our youth.”
That’s a great endorsement.
I was just like: Wow. Well, this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to make change. I just wanted people to think a bit more. And think about others and their actions. So I felt his comments were awesome.
There was another younger guy who saw the movie, too. He was quiet at first. I talked to him afterwards. He was like: “You know what? You shouldn’t have worried about your dad not coming across well. He was talking to you guys. My dad doesn’t talk to me like that.” I said: “Maybe you should have a chat with your dad. Throw some stuff out there.”
He texted me later. He’d watched it with his mum and his dad. He said: “The oldies are still talking about it. They’re still going on about it. It’s weird because my dad’s starting to self-reflect and he’s talking to me.”
In making this film, my brothers and sisters, we all knew that we’d have to dig really deep and be honest and true. And now I feel like all the pain and the emotions have been worthwhile if people are starting to comment like this.
For My Father’s Kingdom will premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival on 30 July in Auckland and 6 August in Porirua, before its nationwide general release on August 22.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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