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The auteur is not looking herself. On the august stage of the Civic Theatre, under its gloriously silly fake firmament, Sima Urale swans across the boards dressed, well, like a star in a flowing black and white gown with a long, narrow black scarf thrown over a shoulder.

"Don't I look fabulous?" she bellows to the Auckland Film Festival's opening night audience. "I'm freezing, but I look great." The crowd goes wild like it's their night. It isn't, of course.

Urale, a film-maker for more than a dozen years, is about to unveil her first feature film, a complex, moody piece called Apron Strings. Which is why, in a perhaps uncharacteristic bow to convention, the resolutely down-to-earth Urale has put aside her own comfort and dressed for the occasion - which is, after all, a world premiere. It's just as well the outfit wasn't left to her.

"I would have come in sweats," she tells me later, "but my sisters weren't having it." It seems the plain-spoken director is happy to take direction, at least sometimes. After the sort of suitable words that such nights also demand - from Urale, festival director Bill Gosden, an unusually effusive Helen Clark and Apron Strings' producer Rachel Gardner - the lights dim. The show is about to begin. But without the auteur.

Unseen by all, Urale and Gardner slip out the back of theatre and on to Queen St. At the small bar Starks, near the Civic's door, the duo and a couple of Urale's sisters order champagne and begin a party all by themselves. Her flash dress can't shield her from anxiety. Urale may exude the kind of confidence that comes from making award-winning and widely praised short films and documentaries, but her unassuming self-assurance isn't up to sitting among the festival audience as they assess her latest work. "We decided we wouldn't watch the film," Gardner says.

"First of all, we've seen the thing about 200 times ... we know every word. And it's so stressful watching a film in front of an audience. It's the most hideous experience. You just have to trust in what you've done and hope that people get it ..." Instead, Urale talks, smokes and laughs as the Thursday night traffic drowns out the long applause as her film's credits roll.

Seated on her deck with the sun on her back and the verdant edge of Grey Lynn Park behind her, Urale exhales the smoke from yet another Marlboro and considers what this opening night - still a week away when we talk - means to her.

The Samoan-born, 41-year-old's work has been honoured and screened and studied at universities and at festivals from Australia to Italy, yet she is fair brimming with joy that her adopted home town's major film event has bestowed its greatest honour, an opening night premiere. "I was really surprised to be picked to open the festival," she says. "They could have selected any film, especially the international ones, which they tend to do."

Long-time festival director Gosden, a fussy sort of character, says the decision to screen Apron Strings on opening night was not taken lightly, particularly with a record 10 feature-length New Zealand films included in what is a special year for the Auckland festival.

"It was selected in the first place because it's such a strong film," he says. "It was irresistible to put it in the opening spot when we were celebrating 40 years of the Auckland Film Festival - to be able to open with a strong Auckland film was very appealing to us." The film is unusual and not just because it's the first feature by Urale, who has spent years turning down offers to make the longer cinema form including, it's rumoured, Whale Rider and Toa Fraser's No. 2.

Apron Strings, which opens at cinemas nationwide on August 14, has two separate but parallel narratives, the stories of two sons and their mothers - one a Pakeha played by local veteran Jennifer Ludlam, the other Indian, portrayed by England-based Footballers Wives star Laila Rouass.

Set in suburban Otahuhu, the film weaves the stories thematically through food, tradition and misunderstandings, with the two mother-and-son pairings struggling to come to terms with the past and, as the title obviously suggests, to cut the apron strings of dependence. It's a complicated piece of storytelling from a script by Auckland screenwriters Dianne Taylor and Shuchi Kothari, made with a tiny $2 million budget stumped up by the New Zealand Film Commission and TVNZ, which has first rights to screen it after its cinema release.

That her first feature is not based on a script of her own - Urale has written two of her three short films herself - and that it is appearing a dozen years after her first short film, the multi-award-winning O Tamaiti, cuts to the very heart of who she is and why she makes films.

"Until now I've just not been ready, or the film was not me, or it's not my genre. The kind of opportunities I've had, most film-makers would kill for. It's really incredible. Even after O Tamaiti offers were already coming. It's a strange thing. I could have been in Hollywood then, like that," she says snapping her fingers. "I chose not to. I told an American 'no thank you'.

He said [she adopts an American accent] 'why nawt? Don't yew wanna look at some scripts over here?' I'm like 'no, that's just one short film and I've just got to make my first films over here - and I'm saying first films. It's not just Apron Strings. I actually do have my own Pacific-Polynesian story to tell from here as well. It's not like make-one-film-then-piss-off. The home country is really important."

So, too, is family. Urale's parents moved their family to the bleak hills and harbours of Wellington from Samoa in 1974 when she was just seven. All six kids have flourished in the arts and media.

The eldest, Natasha, has just released an album of Polynesian pop-rock; the next sister, Makerita, is a film and theatre producer and director; the eldest son, Tati, is a producer at TVNZ; youngest sister, Maila, is an arts student at AUT; the youngest brother is best known in these parts as rapper King Kapisi.

However, little Sima Urale - who, though the fourth child, was quite the diva apparently - hated school, and her parents knew it. "I didn't know that you had to follow rules, that you had to obey. So I would walk off and have my lunch whenever I felt like it, and play when I was bored."

After being forced to repeat sixth form at Wellington High, she quit school on the understanding she got a job. "I worked in an office for three months. I nearly died. I did photocopying for three months. I said to Mum 'I'll die if I work in an office. I can't do this'." So she didn't.

It seems the Urales are a liberal family, accepting of their kids' desires and dreams. And also prepared to give them time to find themselves. Art - "I've always doodled" - was what she wanted to do. Instead, she became an accidental actor. In 1987 she was accepted - though there wasn't much option; to keep the dole she had to do it - on an government-funded Access course teaching performance.

Cast director and friend Stuart Turner was on the same course and remembers her being rather different from the soft hippies and alternative types that filled out the rest of the class. "There was this person in one of those green Swannies, with the hood, that went past the knees. It was full-on, bro. She had the hood on the whole time and arms folded. I remember seeing her and saying 'f***, she's staunch'." He giggles at the thought.

"She never said anything, she just sat there. I was quite wary of her. About two days after the course began someone fell over in class, some hippie from Nelson, and hurt themselves. Because of the way they fell it was really funny. I remember laughing, everyone else was quite concerned. I could see [Sima's] shoulders just going up and down.

I looked at her and pointed at her and said 'I know you'. From then on in we were really good mates." Evidently "staunch" wasn't the only kind of acting she could do.

The Access tutor suggested she try out for a place at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School and the following year, at age 19, she found herself in what must rate as one of the school's most fertile years. Her fellow would-be thespians included Cliff Curtis, Tim Balme, Marton Csokas, Hori Ahipene and novelist Emily Perkins.

Urale grew up, and fast. "There is no other institution where you're really thrown in together like that. It's like being thrown into a pool of sharks - though I was one of those sharks as well." Perkins remembers the two-year course as supportive rather than competitive, and Urale as one of its stars.

"She was great, she had the lead role in our end-of-year production, The Cherry Orchard," Perkins says. "She was wonderful. She was a really good actor. She was earthy and strong and talented and seemed to know what she wanted." As it turned out, what she wanted was something else.

There is a naughtiness to Urale. Her eyes flash with mischief, her manner is an odd mix of the theatrical and the laidback, and she has the most remarkably explosive laugh.

She's unquestionably charming company. But all this cloaks, according to those who know her best, an intense focus, a strong work ethic and - though she shrieks "I'm not that politically correct!" - a drive to tell stories that are, seen through the lens of social justice, political.

Acting - or rather performing the work of others on stage - quickly grew stale for her. She was frustrated by playing to the mainly Pakeha theatre audiences of the early 1990s. She resolved to tell her own stories in a medium, film, which appealed to a broader - and browner - audience. She applied and was short-listed for a film directing course at Victoria College of Arts, Film and Television in Melbourne.

Problem was, she had nothing on film to show at the interview. "So I got all my actor mates and my boyfriend together to shoot this really bad thing, just so I could put something on tape ... I took it, my art work and scraps of writing I'd done and sat there in front of the [selection] panel, all three of them, and said 'let's watch this ... I've done this, I did it last year.' Lie! Lie! Lie! And then I stuck it on, played the first 20 seconds then stopped it and said 'anyway it's not finished, almost there, the story goes like this ...' You've got to have the gift of the gab to get by." And, of course, the talent.

In 1996, the year after graduating from film school, she wrote and directed O Tamaiti (about a child's struggle to prevent a sibling's death), which went on to screen at festivals around the world and win eight international awards including best short film at the Venice film festival - where she was seated beside the late, great director Robert Altman.

Like many an auteur, her output since then hasn't been what you'd called prolific. Her second, award-winning short film Still Life (about euthanasia), which she also wrote as well as directed, was released in 2001 and her third, Coffee & Allah (about a young immigrant woman's love for coffee and badminton) was also included in this year's festival in Auckland.

She has directed two television documentaries (including 1997's Velvet Dreams, a good-humoured piece about the old white guys in the Pacific who painted portraits of dusky, Polynesian maidens on velvet to hang up in barbershops) and music videos too, including two for her brother, King Kapisi, whom she refers to by his rather less regal given name, Bill.

The bread and butter has been commercials. But even these have leaned towards social messages. While she directed the much-loved Vogel's bread ad (the one with the Chris Knox soundtrack, Not Given Lightly), she has favoured non-commercial, often government-funded, health-related campaigns, including cervical and breast screening and family violence.

Producer Nik Beachman, who produces most of her commercials, says Urale has enormous range, and she approaches all her work - films or commercials, with a similar spirit. "She's very dedicated, extremely professional, she's a very good collaborator, but ultimately she's also quite a ruthless film-maker. She is very purposeful in terms of what she wants and doesn't muck around getting there."

However, she is also, by her own admission, leisurely in her film output - mainly because she's extremely choosy. "What's the rush? I know I'll be doing this for the rest of my life so why rush when this is what you'll always be doing? It's doing what you want to do, working on the projects you want to work on, that's success for me. Money along the way would be nice, but it's not the driving force."

Her first feature film might have been her own. She has been writing one for years; working title Moana. It has yet to be completed, even with a three-month, $40,000 Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writers' Residency (she was the inaugural winner) at the University of Hawaii in 2004. "It's a film script I've been working on for five years, there's still a lot of rubbish in it - see how self-critical I am! - still a lot of work to do. I'm the first to admit when I've got rubbish or it doesn't work. I guess that's what makes me so slow and plodding."

It might have been years more before she produced a feature if it hadn't been for someone she'd never met having an overwhelming desire to work with her. Apron Strings co-writer and Auckland University academic Shuchi Kothari had seen O Tamaiti not long after moving to New Zealand and had loved - and has indeed taught - that film.

When it came time to find a director for a short film (her third) she'd written called Coffee & Allah, Kothari knew exactly who she wanted. The choosy Urale said yes - the result premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was "a wonderful collaboration," Kothari says.

When it came time to line-up a director for Apron Strings - which Kothari had co-written with Dianne Taylor - Kothari pushed for Urale again. She wasn't 100 per cent sure Urale would say yes a second time, but knows the director is drawn to complex and ambivalent issues like those traversed in Apron Strings. And she knew she wanted Urale's strong and distinctive style. "There is a mood, a Sima Urale mood. It's in all her films and that's very much Sima.

It's something that walks a delicate line between light and dark, and I don't mean light as in funny, I just mean light. There is a kind of buoyancy and there is a darkness. There is this thin wedge that her films always walk so gracefully." However, Apron Strings is a mere twitch by a film-maker coming into her prime, according to friend Stuart Turner.

"It's her first feature, but it's not her feature. I think it's flexing a muscle for her. I think it's just her stretching. She's got so many other stories to tell, this is just a precursor really, this just a little taste ... she's an international film-maker. She just happens to be in New Zealand at the moment."

Urale confirms Moana will be her next feature, and that she isn't going anywhere. "Moana is the baby I need to have." In her own good time, of course.