Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Let's go Shopping

Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland's new film is set in the same era as Boy, but that's where the similarity ends, writes Lydia Jenkin

From left, Shopping cast members Matthias Luafutu, Jacek Koman, Laura Peterson and Byron Coll. Photo / Supplied
From left, Shopping cast members Matthias Luafutu, Jacek Koman, Laura Peterson and Byron Coll. Photo / Supplied

Writing and directing team Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland have the midas touch when it comes to film-making. Their first short film Run was awarded multiple international accolades, including an honourable mention at Cannes.

Their second short, The Six Dollar Fifty Man, also racked up the awards and trophies, including a Jury Prize at Utah's prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and was long-listed for the 2011 Academy Awards.

And now their debut feature Shopping has won the Grand Prix award at the Berlin Film Festival, having had its premiere as part of the official selection at Sundance earlier this year.

Not bad for a couple of kids from the Kapiti Coast whose films are inspired by their experiences growing up during the 70s and 80s. And though the autobiographical aspects are strong, also woven into their films are the wider themes of coming of age, cultural identity (Sutherland is half-Samoan), and a deft stroke of comedy.

"I met Mark and his older brother Craig when I was 8 years old," Sutherland explains. "I'd moved from Porirua to the Kapiti Coast, and it was literally walking out of a classroom that was 99 per cent Polynesian and the next day walking into Raumati Beach School, and it was the opposite. That was a bit of a culture shock for me. I'll never forget coming into the classroom, and finding a sea of white faces.

"But then, I had a run in with Mark's brother Craig, and we had a fight on a sandy knoll, and he beat me, so we became mates. And then I got to know the whole family."

The pair spent most of their childhood living near each other, riding round the neighbourhood on their Raleigh 20s and Mongooses and getting up to mischief.

After school finished, they went their separate creative ways, though soon ended up working together at local community TV station. They had a few film ideas but nothing clicked. Sutherland went off to drama school at Toi Whakaari, Albiston went to Britain to do some TV work, but when they met again, it was their conversations and reminiscing about life at Raumati Beach that inspired them.

"All of sudden those stories became really interesting and relevant," Sutherland explains. "Mark and I talk a lot about our lives and our experiences, and what we've been through in our families, just as mates, so we share things on quite a personal level. One thing we found very early on was that writing an abstract idea was fine, but we seemed to find more passion in the pen whenever we were talking or writing about our own experiences."

When Run got them a place at Cannes in 2007, the pair realised the festival would give them an opportunity to begin pitching ideas for a feature film, meeting potential distributors, and agents, which is how the idea for Shopping was born.

"We decided Shopping might be the best idea in our pockets, so we quickly put together a treatment for it on the flight over, and from that point on, there really was no decision, we were in it," Sutherland says.

Turns out it was a pretty good decision. The story centres on teenager Willie (played by newcomer Kevin Paulo), and the group of charismatic career criminals who entice him (led by Australian actor Jacek Koman as Bennie, with Matthias Luafutu as Red, and Laura Peterson as Bennie's daughter Nicky), offering an escape from the mounting tensions in his home life, including an abusive father. It has clearly moved international audiences, and the pair hope locals will find even greater richness in the film.

"I think the thing that really got the international people going initially was the idea of the shoplifting; that was an endearing aspect to it, an uplifting aspect, and gave it a slight irreverence. And the dramatic value was whether or not Willie would find the right path. But in a New Zealand sense, it will resonate because it's about a point in time that moved the nation, 1981, but it's also filled with language and situations and nuances that Kiwis will connect with," Sutherland says.

Despite its surface comparisons to Boy, Albiston and Sutherland both feel local audiences will see beyond the similarities.

"Offshore they see a dramatic story about two brown kids who live on the coast. But for me and Mark, and I'm sure Taika Waititi, and the majority of New Zealand audiences they'll go, 'Nah the kids on Boy were Maori, and they're east coast, this is predominantly a west coast film, and it's set in a European environment'," says Sutherland.

"I think the biggest impact Boy had on us was probably that we saw New Zealand stories can cut through, and there's a hunger for them," Albiston adds. "But in terms of content, we got to where we got to because of our own process. And I've seen Boy, but Louis refused to see it, as he was doing all the script work at the time, and he doesn't like to watch films when he's writing."

Of course a huge part of the film's success is its mesmerising cast - many who have little experience.

They found 9-year-old Julian Dennison, who plays Willie's younger brother Solomon, through extensive auditions around schools, and Laura Peterson, who plays Nicky, studying drama at Kapiti College. Perhaps most serendipitously, they found Paulo eating at a Paraparaumu food court. "We'd been from college to college, seeing all these teenagers, really hoping to find someone," Sutherland laughs.

But then they came across Paulo.

"I guess if you believe in where you're going and you're bloody-minded about it, something turns up. It certainly has for us. I could've ordered sushi. It's good to remind yourself no matter how much you plan and prepare, some things just come down to luck. That humbles you."

Who: Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland, writers and directors
What: Debut feature film Shopping
Where and when: In cinemas May 30

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