Next weekend, we’re launching Conversations, our new six-part web series celebrating Māori and Pacific women. Here’s Simone Kaho, who directed all six episodes, on what has seemed, at times, like a painful birth.


A woman in a kayak floated up to the mesh hang-out docks at the back of the trimaran where we were lounging, and hooked her paddle over the railing. We were a crew of volunteers on a medical aid expedition in Vava’u, Tonga. “Simone’s going on sabbatical,” my boss announced to the company when I resigned to join the mission.

After working in marketing for 17 years, I wanted something different. I wanted to connect to my Tongan roots, and to find something meaningful and creative to do, that would help make the world a better place. It was a big fat cliché. I knew it and I didn’t care.

“I see ghosts,” the woman said. “Do you want a tarot card reading?” Of course me and my closest boat friend, Emily, said yes.

A few days later, Emily and I boarded her yacht bearing mango and watermelon. She’d made us a vegan lasagne with coconut milk bechamel. We ate it, and then the woman got out the cards, shuffled and read for Emily who has a comedic Chinese spirit guide, we discovered. Then she laid out my cards, looked up at me and said, “You’re either pregnant, soon to be pregnant, or you have some big creative projects coming up.”

Big creative projects, I said, definitely.

Six months later, I was back in New Zealand launching my first book, Lucky Punch. Then I went to film school, chasing my childhood dream to be a movie director. I graduated and joined E-Tangata as a digital strategist, writer, and jack-of-all-trades, throwing my weight around in efforts to revamp the website, raise funds and grow readership.

One of the initiatives I pushed for was applying to NZ On Air for funding for video content, which had been asked for in reader interviews.

Tawera Productions, run by Toby Mills, whose partner Moana Maniapoto is one of E-Tangata’s writers, agreed to work with us. Together, we pitched a web series to tell the stories of six inspiring Māori and Pasifika women, galvanised by this E-Tangata story by Christine Ammunson pointing out the invisibility of our indigenous women on International Women’s Day.

I said to Toby, “I’d like to direct some of them.” Okay, he said. Then we got funded. And Toby said: “Would you like to direct all six?”

Now, two-and-a-half years on from that card reading, the web series, Conversations, is about to launch. It’s E-Tangata’s first video content and my first documentary web-series as a director.

I really feel that it’s been a bit like having a baby. I haven’t had a human baby, so I’m speculating, but at times the process was so painful I felt there must be some parallels. Directing six documentaries, at the same time, for the first time, of profoundly important stories that I really didn’t want to fuck up, was not a comfortable experience. At times it was pure panic.

One reason it was so important not to fail (apart from the money and our reputation) was the women whose stories we’re sharing. Our six Māori and Pasifika women, battlers, taonga and guiding lights. Women who deserve their stories to be told with aroha, respect and depth. Women bearing an ability to change the world in their chosen field through their vision, purposefulness and power.

Underlying that power, is something else. Something unique to each woman, yet aligned with her roots (our roots), as a Māori woman and Pasifika woman. The very thing I was searching for.

It changed me, philosophically and spiritually, to come in contact with these women. Thinking about it now, I feel excitement and hope moving through me, a twisting, silvery feeling like an underwater current. I’ll be musing about something I find hard or uncomfortable, and then something one of the women has said will pop into my head.

. . .

“I don’t see myself as a leader,” says Pania Newton. “We’re all leading ourselves, as I see it.”

“It means I’m a servant really,” Naida Glavish said, when she was made Dame Naida. The Conversations editor had reservations about including that sentence. “I’m not sure it comes across well,” he said. “Is she saying she’s a servant? Like a butler?” Being an afakasi Tongan New Zealander, raised here, I don’t feel I truly understand faka-Tonga, but I knew enough to know we should include that sentence. “Naida is saying her leadership is service; the wellbeing of her people is her measure. There is no other boss.”

Which is not to say Dame Naida suffers fools. I was nervous meeting her for the first time having been pointedly told that.

It was a stormy day when I pulled up in a puddle outside the Waitakere Hospital marae and she welcomed me in with a clear and piercing gaze. “Arriving in a storm is a good sign,” she said.

I found that, as well as being a political and cultural force, Whaea Naida is deeply spiritual. She spoke to me about the business plan she was writing for an addiction services project which would live in the Manawanui marae in Pt Chev. It was a culturally innovative model combining a western clinical approach with Māori healing and community concepts, Chinese acupuncture and Native American sweat lodges.

I couldn’t include it in the documentary because of time and space limitations. But it showed me Whaea Naida in full power, mobilising money and institutions, unfettered by traditional boundaries or partitions between healing and funding, or between cultures.

Filming Pania Newton (right) at Ihumātao.

Another memorable first meeting was with Pania Newton. A high school teacher friend of mine told me Pania spoke at her all-girl Catholic school and all the students were girl-crushing. Meeting Pania, I immediately saw some of the obvious reasons why. She is beautiful and tiny in stature. Softly spoken and wearing gumboots.

It was pre-7am on a Tuesday morning in chilly July. Pania led me and our director of photography (DoP) around the kaitiaki village at Ihumātao. She showed us the raised planting troughs and said: “We wanted to grow crops but couldn’t bring ourselves to claw into the land.”

I’ve always craved a place to belong, as a Pākehā-Tongan, a tūrangawaewae. I had mixed feelings as we talked, envy tempered with relief. “It must be so hard with the threat of development hovering over you,” I said. “Yeah,” said Pania. “It’s so hard … It’s so … I can’t quite describe it.”

She looked down at her gumboots and so did I, her hurt as palpable as a third person standing between us at the feet of Te Puketāpapatanga-a-Hape. The DoP walked up. “A great director creates instant trust with the subject,” she said later, as we were scouting for shots in the Ōtuataua Stonefields. Ah, but I’m not a great director, I’m a noob with great responsibility.

Stress and burnout are often linked with taking on too much and having high expectations of yourself. Watching Selina Tusitala Marsh talk with a room of Pacific Island girls about burnout was a revelation. She didn’t dumb it down, just because the girls were 11. Selina respected their experience, the sense of responsibility they already have, which is universally true of the children of migrants.

We feel the need to validate our parents’ choices and sacrifices, by achieving, relentlessly. Our parents’ loss of their home is our challenge, to be good enough, to make the loss worthwhile.

Selina threw off so much emotional energy, nurturing smiles and validation for the kids the day we spent at St Joseph’s that I wondered how she could still stand at the end of it when we dropped her off to Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri’s for lunch. As an introvert, I was scared by the scale of her emotional availability.

Selina Tusitala Marsh, and her fue (ceremonial fly whisk).

Looking at the children’s faces as they touched her Poet Laureate tokotoko, I could see the same shimmering feeling I felt, that underwater current.

Moana Maniapoto was our most elusive subject. “I’ve been done to death,” she said when we first asked her to be a subject. Everyone else involved wanted her, both for who she is as a musician, activist and storyteller, and as a pioneer for E-Tangata. Someone involved from the early days and hugely significant as an ally, advocate and columnist.

Being the newest team member and still starstruck by Moana, I was surprised to find out how humble she is. I don’t mean humble as in just not-tooting-your-own-horn. I mean, humble as in, not particularly interested in your own brilliance, and more interested in who’s around you and what you can do together.

Moana’s biggest criticism of the documentary we made was that it didn’t give enough credit to other people. The editor and I made the call not to include the long lists of names that Moana would occasionally burst out with, as if in song, because they each needed a story or context to make sense — and time and space prevented that.

In Conversations, Mo says she was bullied into writing for E-Tangata, and she’s glad she was. We bullied her to be involved in the series and I hope she’s glad we did.

Pepe Robertson came to our attention through the writing of her daughter, Christine Ammunson, in the article for E-Tangata, which was also the genesis for the Conversations series.

Christine makes this observation:

To mark International Women’s Day, Newshub broadcast a montage of inspirational women — and while women from around the world and Pākehā New Zealand women were included, Māori women were not. Nor were Sāmoan women. …

Why do we always seem to be looking overseas for our heroines and heroes when we have so many right here at home — in our family histories and in our hearts?

E-Tangata took up that challenge, starting as close to home for Christine as you can get. From her funky, silver, elfin hair to her crack-up cackle, Pepe is a boss. You’ll find, if you talk to Pepe for more than a minute, you’ll be recruited for something. The DoP and I almost signed up for Volunteer Services Abroad while filming at Western Springs High school with Pepe and her daughter Helen.

Pepe, however, is not a media person. She’d never given an interview. The day of Pepe’s interview, another woman was sick. We changed the interview time and then Pepe’s daughter, Helen, couldn’t accompany her. I felt her vulnerability then and also felt a desire to protect her. But, like a boss, Pepe pushed through. Determined to tell her story of Sāmoan women and the Mau, determined to speak up, determined to represent, despite her discomfort.

Simone (centre) with Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o.

I asked Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o how she survived in such varied and demanding environments, from working with heavily abused young people to board meetings with corporate and government officials. She said: I make myself comfortable with discomfort.

As someone who has knocked about conference rooms and high-powered meetings myself — and knowing how their inhabitants behave — I couldn’t fathom how someone as sweet and even-tempered as Emeline could do it, and not become harder, and lose her values, as I felt I did. Emeline’s answer stays with me.

There is beautiful footage we didn’t use of Emeline and Albert, her husband, talking about how they met, and the risk they took to get married after having met only briefly. Their decision was intuitive and courageous and it worked. They are a truly progressive couple, running five businesses and home-schooling their three sons, living between Tonga and New Zealand.

I saw it and the DoP said it: “There’s a full-length documentary here.” We want to follow Emeline’s coffee beans from the source, Tupu’anga coffee in Tonga, to the Affirming Works cafe in Māngere. Perhaps it’s a future baby.

. . .

I was driving home from the fourth day of shooting with Emeline, pulsing with adrenaline and awash with aroha, when I realised I’d never encountered this kind of leadership before. Not in 17 years of working in the corporate world. What’s more, I was starving for it.

In being exposed to it through these women, I felt a surging response of energy, enthusiasm, like being lit up. Even so, it took me a while to understand what it was I was responding to.

At first, I thought it was emotional intelligence and nurturing that made their leadership feel so powerful and different. But I’ve worked with excellent female leaders in the corporate world who have those qualities. Some male leaders too.

Then, in the traffic driving back from South Auckland, it came to me. It’s about serving. Each woman was truly driven by serving her communities.

The leadership I’ve experienced has always had hierarchy in it, some sort of positioning. Of you, versus me, my team versus another team, who makes the decisions — who is more important.

The outcomes of leadership are focused on external achievements and need an order of importance to be executed. It’s shown through a tone, or eye contact, how much listening and talking is done, and by whom.

Our women look at people as if everyone is important and everyone belongs to one of the communities they serve. It is about challenging injustice where they find it, yes, but also, potentially, anyone is a community member, drawn together through universal experiences and needs. In this approach, we are all bosses and we are all serving each other. Not in a way that degrades us or our power, but that unites us and amplifies our understanding and energy.

Imagine the potential if this worldview was more widely shared.

Coming to know these women has given me more hope for the future and for what humanity is capable of, even how we might get there. This is what Conversations is about for me.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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