Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

Tongan comedy raises racism debate in Australia

Aussie mockumentary upsets community leader but Kiwis seem to see the funny side

Comedian Chris Lilley (centre) plays the title role of Jonah in the Australian comedy.
Comedian Chris Lilley (centre) plays the title role of Jonah in the Australian comedy.

A mockumentary depicting a misbehaving Tongan boy at an Australian high school has angered members of the community there, with one Tongan leader calling it racist. But there is mixed reaction among Tongans here - with some high-profile members praising the film as good comedy.

Jonah From Tonga, a film featuring Aussie actor and comedian Chris Lilley, aired on TV this week.

The film is a spinoff of the popular Summer Heights High series, in which Lilley acts as various characters, including a Tongan student named Jonah Takalua.

The expletive-laden first episode had Jonah mouthing off at teachers, making sexual references to students and being given a machete by an older Pacific Island boy.

A Tongan community leader in Australia, Meliame Fifita, said it was highly degrading and showed her culture in a bad light.

But Auckland-based Tongan Melino Maka accepted the film as purely comedic. "I don't blame some people's thinking that it's degrading. But I think calling it racist is a cheap shot. The producers have a target audience and it's meant to be funny."

Mr Maka also acknowledged that much of the content and how Jonah was portrayed somewhat reflected the situation many young people were going through.

"When we don't know how to handle the environment we're in, we may misbehave. The only thing I find quite offensive is the language used."

Chiefs Super rugby prop Ben Tameifuna.
Chiefs Super rugby prop Ben Tameifuna.

Chiefs Super rugby prop Ben Tameifuna was yet to see the new film, but is a big fan of Lilley and Summer Heights High.

"We used to search all his episodes on YouTube, back in high school, just for a laugh. I think my mates and I found it funny because we can sort of relate to him in some ways."

In the film, Lilley has had makeup applied to make him look brown. He has a Polynesian tattoo on his arm and a rat's tail.

He uses terms popular with Pacific Island youth, including "fobs", "skux" and "dox".

Tameifuna said he understood that some of the content was offensive, but he didn't think it was racist.

"Sometimes people need to loosen up a bit."

- NZ Herald

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