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Murders, armed robberies, prostitution and P labs have meant Manurewa has been on the telly a bit lately, but the latest footage of the South Auckland suburb has little to do with crime.
Jinx Sister, a new film by Auckland director Athina Tsoulis, focuses more on the poverty of the soul of main character Laura Martin, played by New Zealand actor Sara Wiseman, whose credits include Sione's Wedding, Mercy Peak and Outrageous Fortune.
Laura is a complex character. She thinks she is a jinx, courtesy of a childhood remark made by sister Mairie following the death of their father. The girls' aggrieved mother then drinks herself to death, precipitating a long-time sibling rift.
Having spent 10 years in Los Angeles and done little more than plumb the depths of her own alcoholism, Laura returns to Manurewa only to discover she has to let go of her past in order to embrace her future.
Jinx Sister, inspired by a friend of the director who'd lost both parents as a child while living in South Auckland, thus deals in big themes. Love, loss, fear and secrets are at the heart of the story and, in conjunction with the complicated nature of Laura, are what lured Wiseman to the project, she explains from her central Auckland home.
Having grown up in the East Auckland suburb of Howick, Wiseman admits she has not spent much time in Manurewa, but warmed to Tsoulis' idea of reversing stereotypes. In Jinx Sister, the key Polynesian male characters have life "sussed", are calm, in control of their emotions and can see through Laura's sad veneer, which mixes self-loathing, image-consciousness and a sex-equals-power ideal.
"What I like about the male characters are they are really on to it: they are genuine, loving, intelligent guys."
Tsoulis' developed her script over 10 years. Yet it took Wiseman just a few hours to read it and decide to take on the role.
"I sat down in one session and read it from go to whoa, which is a really strong sign for me . . . I believed in the characters. It has some very big themes, but they are not shoved down your throat and they are not shown in big, sensationalist way.
"For me, it's the things behind the people; how they will try to avoid the dark stuff in their world, whether that is referring to drugs or sex or running a marathon, whatever it is they choose to do in order to not access things," Wiseman says, adding the slow shedding of Laura's layers was particularly appealing.
"When you realise what someone has been through, you suddenly have a greater understanding of why they do what they do."
Not only did Wiseman have to inhabit the skin of her character, she also needed to don the clothes and accent of a New Zealander who has spent a decade in California. It certainly helped that she'd spent six weeks in Los Angeles immediately before shooting began.
"I've got a green card so I was up there making that active and, of course, it was an incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of Los Angeles . . . You just got a great sense of the type of person who would come back and try to pick up and fit into Manurewa or East Tamaki."
To heighten the effect of dislocation, the fashion-conscious Laura is pictured strolling through the Otara markets, her blonde head bobbing in a decidedly South Pacific sea. Laura's image is also in direct contrast to that of sister Mairie (played by Rachel Nash) who, married, pregnant and with two young children, is struggling financially but seemingly content.
The tension between the two sisters is palpable, testament to the pre-shoot improvising Wiseman and Nash did in order to create fictional shared experiences.
"Athina got us to improvise some scenes around our past, basically to create some parallel memories so when we did our scenes together there was a sense of history. Athina was very specific in wanting a visual distinction between the sisters, how one has gone completely anti-family and one has fully embraced it.
"She wanted to show two sides of how people deal with family grief: one rejects love for fear of it happening again, and another person surrounds themselves in it, cotton-wools themselves in it."
There are other poignant touches, too: the lead male character, Sam (Jarod Rawiri), has love and hate tattooed across either hand, a visual metaphor for Laura's internal battles; the benefits of spending time immersed in the world of children is explored; and a husband's seemingly unprofitable passion for sculpture finds a use in a bittersweet final scene far removed from Hollywood's happy-ever-after endings.
That Jinx Sister was shot in less than a month, and under a tight budget, matters little to Wiseman. In fact, tight time frames have their benefits, she says.
"Once you realise you have just a short time, you just get on with it. It made for a great shoot in that regard.
"There wasn't much waiting or downtime, so when you were on, you were pretty much on for the whole day.
"I love getting stuck in. It keeps you warm, I guess, because six months later you're not still trying to get yourself into it. I think we started on January 5, 2007 and we were finished by February 2, so it was like a 21-day shoot."
Given the full-immersion experience of playing Laura, Wiseman says it took a while to farewell the character.
"It does linger. It becomes 24/7 for the time you're rehearsing and working, but I love that. You consciously have to disengage, say thank you and goodbye."
• Jinx Sister opens nationwide on Thursday, October 23.