Shearing stories

Temuera Morrison, as the head of the Mahana family, in a scene from the film Mahana. Photo: supplied
Temuera Morrison, as the head of the Mahana family, in a scene from the film Mahana. Photo: supplied
Akuhata Keefe plays the principle protagonist, Simeon Mahana, in the film. Photo: supplied
Akuhata Keefe plays the principle protagonist, Simeon Mahana, in the film. Photo: supplied

Among its various themes, New Zealand film Mahana deals with generational differences which, as Shane Gilchrist discovers, is not unlike the demeanour of two of its lead actors.

Talk about contrasts.

Here sit Temuera Morrison and Akuhata Keefe, the two leading actors of New Zealand film Mahana.

One has a career spanning more than four decades; the other is just starting out.

One speaks rapid-fire, as if there aren't enough hours in the day; the other, by his own admission, is shy.

Morrison, a veteran of many an interview, wastes little time.

A man whose strong handshake is accompanied by a look-you-in-the-eye invitation, he settles back on a couch in the Otago Daily Times foyer before grabbing the dictaphone, occasionally flourishing it in the direction of Keefe who, at 15, is a quiet foil to his fellow lead.

"This is the important part,'' Morrison says in reference to the rounds of interviews required of the various cast members of late.

The media duties have brought him, Keefe and others to Dunedin for a day culminating in a screening of Mahana, followed by a question-and-answer session at which the 55-year-old actor continues to reveal a taste for humour, wider reflection and hard work that, in some ways, parallel key themes of the movie.

Based on Witi Ihimaera's 1998 novel, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies, the Lee Tamahori-directed Mahana might seem to revolve around the rivalry between two Maori shearing families, the Mahanas and the Poatas, yet the intensity of their competition in the shearing sheds of the North Island's east coast suggests a grudge that goes much deeper.

When Simeon Mahana (Keefe), the 14-year-old grandson of proud traditionalist Tamihana (Morrison), discovers an old photo, his curiosity is sparked.

In the process, Simeon's grandmother, Ramona (Nancy Brunning), is forced to reveal the truth beneath Tamihana's enmity with the head of the Poata clan, Rupeni (Jim Moriarty).

Simeon is a key protagonist in the tension between generations; he constantly questions his grandfather, prompting rebukes mostly verbal, although, on one occasion, also physical.

Ultimately, however, he emerges as a peacemaker and a leader.

"The movie is about grooming the new leader,'' Morrison says.

"It's about the young people coming through and learning what they've got to do. And the old man believing you've got to have the callouses on your hands to get you ready for life.

"Bulibasha is a great book with so much colour, so much texture. We had a lovely base for this film to flourish and seeing the script that came out of it was pretty exciting. It came off the page splendidly.

"Our best stories and our best work come from our own earth, from our own country.''

Morrison says that because the relationship between Tamihana and Simeon was similar to that of Ihimaera and his own grandfather, he was keen to hear about it directly from the author.

"I listened intently to what Witi was saying about his real grandfather. He'd give me examples, like when his grandfather gave him a haircut; that was a hurtful moment for him and he never forgot it.

"He also said his real grandfather was quite pleasant, with a soft manner. After talking to Witi, I could feel more depth. All that information was just invaluable to me,'' Morrison says.

"Having a great book so rich in layers and multiple themes ... as an actor, you need a lot of guidance. I went to the east coast and talked to people. This movie takes me back to my childhood, to spending time on my grandparents' farm in the King Country.''

Keefe has spent most of his life in Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay, north of Gisborne.

Yet despite his familiarity with the area, he needed some history lessons.

After all, Mahana is set in the 1960s and Keefe was only 14 when he played Simeon.

"As soon as I got the part I went straight to my grandfather, who grew up on the east coast and farmed there.

"I asked him about the youth in his days compared to now. He said we have it a lot easier than he did. We aren't expected to get up and do chores before school. In contrast, he would wake up, milk the cow, chop the wood, then go to school. But for me, I just get up and eat.

"My family owns a farm on the east coast, but my grandfather doesn't give me jobs; he lets me explore the bush, go hunting, build huts. That's a bit different to all the chores Simeon has to do.''

In one of the most compelling scenes in Mahana, Simeon goes on a school trip to the local courthouse and addresses the judge, standing up for a young Maori man who is not allowed to speak Te Reo in court.

"Simeon has a lot of courage and will speak his mind any where, any time,'' Keefe reflects.

"I'm not like that. I'd probably talk to one person about my opinions as opposed to addressing a crowd.''

Morrison turns towards his younger co-star: "He's the main star of the movie,'' he says, likening Keefe to Keisha Castle-Hughes, who starred in Whale Rider, the 2003 film based on another Ihimaera book.

(At 13, Castle-Hughes was the youngest actor nominated for best actress in the history of the Oscars, before she was surpassed by Quvenzhane Wallis, at age 9, for Beasts of the Southern Wild).

There are other similarities, too: Castle-Hughes had no formal acting training and went from high school to film set; ditto Keefe, who adds he'd prefer to utilise his brain rather than his looks.

This prompts chuckles from Morrison as well as another digression (into the countenance of Keefe's uncle, actor Lawrence Makaore, particularly in regards the latter's appearances as a large orc in Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit).

He eventually gets back on track, telling of how the clothes can sometimes make the man.

Morrison says he sought out costume designer Liz McGregor early on, his character's clothing helping him greatly.

Always in a wool suit, complemented by a hat and waistcoat, the buttoned-up image of Tamihana perfectly matches the patriarch's overbearing demeanour.

It also complements the sense of "stillness'' Morrison attempted to invoke while depicting the old man.

"Remember Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs? He talked about stillness in the character. Everyone was so scared of Hannibal Lecter. It's like having this volcano going off inside, but it's not evident.''

Morrison acknowledges that idea of implied threat is quite different from the palpable and visceral violence he brought to life in Once Were Warriors character Jake Heke.

Tamihana is staunch, for sure; yet often it's his words which hurt the most.

"I talked to some older men like this,'' Morrison says.

"They gave away very little.''

Notably, 1994's Once Were Warriors was the last time Morrison had worked with Tamahori.

Later, after the screening of Mahana, Morrison tells of being humbled when he was approached to play the role.

"When you get approached by Lee, there's a sense of being privileged. I wanted to be good because I knew I had a pretty focused director to work with again.

"But I was definitely keen to put Jake the Muss to bed. I get a bit sick of hearing all that 'cook me some eggs' stuff.

"I'm not sure what the catch-cry will be from Mahana: 'shear my sheep' maybe.''

Mahana is funded by New Zealand Film Commission, New Zealand On Air, Maori Television, Entertainment One, Wild Bunch, and private equity investors, including 200 individuals who provided financial support via the Snowball Effect crowd-funding platform.


The film

The film opened at cinemas throughout New Zealand on Thursday.



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