Kawerau-born Todd Karehana overcame childhood poverty and trauma to become a successful film maker. He's co-written Maori TV's new web series for young, urban Māori.
1. You co-wrote Māori TV's new bilingual drama series Ahikāroa. What's different about the format?
We're currently releasing episodes of Ahikāroa online, there are 80 in total, each five minutes' long. They'll be joined together into half-hour TV episodes which premiere on Māori Television in May alongside a weekly talkshow called Ahikaroa After Dark. Both shows have a language component where you can learn catchy phrases like; "Kei te ū tonu koe i ngā wā katoa" or "Thanks for putting up with my shit". We got a group of rangatahi or young Māori together to tell us what they'd like to see in a TV show so many of the characters and storylines are based on real people and experiences.
2. What's the feedback been like so far?
There's lots of awesome feedback online. A lot of people are addicted and loving it. There's also the opposite. There'll always be haters. Sometimes they have valuable insights but if they're just going on a rant you take them with a grain of salt.
3. You also made the show's eye-catching publicity shots. What's the response been like?
Some people at Māori TV didn't get what I was trying to do. It is pretty left field because the costumes contain traditional and colonial elements even though the show is set in the present day. For me, Ahikāroa is about colonisation and young Māori trying to navigate this ever-changing world - Te Ao Hurihuri. So we've combined modern fabric like denim with historical references like feathers, ribbon earrings and top knots. Supposedly Rule 101 of publicity is to tell the audience what the show is about but I think that's an outdated whakaaro and audiences are sophisticated enough to make those connections themselves.
4. Growing up in Kawerau, did you always want to be a writer?
No, when I was a kid I wanted to be a kick boxer. We grew up quite poor. Mum was struggling on the benefit with 10 kids - I'm number eight. Once my sister got called into the primary school office because me and my little brother were looking for food in the rubbish bins. But we were happy because of Mum and her love for us. She's the most intelligent person I know but people underestimate her because she's Māori and on the benefit. Five of us kids went on to study at university.
5. So university was always in your sights?
No, I never thought university was part of my future. I was really naughty. I had a lot of emotional issues. I used to get bullied a lot for being too feminine but I didn't know I was gay. There were no gay people in Kawerau that I was aware of. Just one trans person. For seventh form I got sent to live with my brother in Wellington but I was naughty there as well. The people who inspired me to try university were a group of young trans people of colour I met at a peer support camp. They were so vibrant and unapologetic and fun and lovely.
6. Were they "The Kweenz of Kelston" who starred in your acclaimed documentary?
Yes. They became really good friends. I made that film for a post-graduate class I was doing in documentary directing. I was inspired by how they were able to be themselves in an all-boys institution. They've formed a sisterhood at that school. My friends were from the older generation of kweenz who came through. My documentary focused on the next generation. It screened in Mangere Arts Centre's Polytypical exhibition, the Auckland Art Gallery and film festivals worldwide.
7. Auckland Art Gallery senior curator Ron Brownson called it, "One of the most important documentaries of the decade". Did that convince you to stick with filmmaking?
Yes. I realised I was in love with telling stories through that medium. In my honours year I made a short film called The Spectacular Imagination of The Pōhara Brothers about two boys that sell flying lessons to pay their mother's overdue power bill before the power gets cut off. It's fictional but has some real memories embedded. There was a Christmas where we didn't have power. It's kind of an ode to mum and her resilience. Whirimako Black has a starring role. It won best short film script at the Wairoa Māori Film Festival and had three audience choice awards at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
8. You've just finished making a film called My Brother Mitchell about the childhood death of your brother. Why did you choose that topic?
My master's supervisor noticed a lot of my films kept circulating around brothers and mothers. I told him what happened to Mitchell and he suggested I might not be able to move forward with my life and my stories as a director until I had tackled that story. I had to talk with mum and my whānau because it's their story too. Mum was hesitant at first because she was judged as a parent when he died. People made her feel like a terrible mum. But she loves me and wanted me to do what I needed as part of my grieving process.
9. Mitchell was 9 when he died and you were 8. What happened?
We were playing Nintendo and arguing ... so mum said, "Mitchell, outside, and Todd, stay inside". About an hour later she told me to get him for dinner. I got scared for some reason and ran back to the house so she sent my stepdad who found Mitchell dead in the garage. The coroner ruled it was an accident. I've spent a large part of my life feeling guilty. The film is a metaphor for how I deal with that burden.
10. Did you find the process of making the film cathartic?
It really dredged up a lot of emotion at the time. I was having nightmares and waking up in tears but you have to go through some of that heavy stuff before you can feel lighter again. I'm grateful that my supervisor pushed me because I've popped out the other end a whole new person. I want to continue pushing myself to go places I don't want to go. That's the stuff that interests me now.
11. What did your mum think of the film?
She hasn't seen it yet. I want her to see it on the big screen first. We'll have a cast and crew screening with just the people that have been through the journey with us. A lot of the crew understand how I feel through their own experiences. The main actor and production designer have both lost a brother and the cinematographer has lost a son so everyone was going through their own feelings while making that movie. We're trying to get it into an international film festival before bringing it back to New Zealand.
12. You're about to launch your own fashion label. How did that happen?
I've always loved fashion and worked in retail. Working on Ahikāroa I met the most inspiring person - Jessica Hansell, aka Coco Solid. She's a rapper, DJ, artist and writer and creator of an animated cartoon called Aroha Bridge. She showed me that as an artist you don't have to limit yourself to one medium.