New Zealanders of the year: John Barnett

By Eugene Bingham

When John Barnett started trying to convince people to back a film about a bunch of immature Samoan guys desperately needing girlfriends, they just didn't get it.

"It took a while because not everybody could see that it was going to have a wide appeal - some people told me it would be very limited but I never had any doubt," says Barnett, film-maker and chief executive of South Pacific Pictures.

In March, Barnett watched proudly as Sione's Wedding, a growing-of-age film set around an extended Samoan family in Grey Lynn, had the biggest opening weekend of any New Zealand film.

After its box office run, it had pulled in $4 million, the fourth-biggest of any New Zealand film. The story about a group of friends banned from a wedding because of their trouble-making antics had struck a chord with movie-watchers of all backgrounds, not just the Pacific Island community.

"I felt a feel-good story set in that world would attract audiences and would resonate with people."

Barnett has been responsible for several of the films New Zealanders are most proud of, most notably Whale Rider. His work also dominates lounge rooms with Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune two of his hottest series.

He dreamed of getting Sione's Wedding to the big screen for five years, eventually drumming up the money, thanks in part to SkyCity and a personal contribution from friend Joe Moodabe, former head of the SkyCity movie chain.

Moodabe, a loud critic of grim, unpalatable New Zealand films, was won over by Barnett after reading the script.

"I just loved the script and told John that if he needed extra cash to come back," says Moodabe. "He did and I put my money where my mouth was."

Barnett was the producer, but the creative brains behind the film were the stage act the Naked Samoans, primarily actor and writer Oscar Kightley. Director Chris Graham, co-writer James Griffin and the film's stars - including Robbie Magasiva, Shimpal Lelisi, Iaheto Ah Hi, and Dave Fane - were also crucial ingredients.

The result was a Kiwi comedy we could be proud of, silliness with a story-line.

Herald reviewer Peter Calder rated the movie five stars, saying it was "so infectiously energetic, so drenched in joy and so bloody funny that to give it less than a top rating would be churlish".

Audiences agreed, so much so that the movie had the dishonourable distinction of becoming one of the country's most popular bootleg movies in history when DVD pirates sold countless copies.

The illegal distribution horrified Barnett, but the black market appetite for his movie just showed how much New Zealanders of all walks of life had taken Sione's Wedding to heart.

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