If Justine Simei-Barton never hears the words "New Zealanders are not ready for this" again, she'll be a happy woman.
For more than 20 years, Simei-Barton has struggled to bring Pacific Island stories and actors on to stage, film and mainstream television, and to a huge extent she has succeeded.
Take Lena, the play written by Jason Greenwood which she directed at the Herald Theatre, its season ending last weekend. It was a well-reviewed sellout, with many in the audience from Auckland's Pacific Island community.
Lena was a dramatic tale based on events Greenwood's Samoan mother had told him about, set in Samoa in 1947. He had hoped the play could be staged by the Auckland Theatre Company, but didn't get any response to his script.
Enter Simei-Barton. "I sat down with him one day and said, 'Even if they pick this script up, there is no way in hell they are going to understand your script. It is Samoan.' The thing about Lena is that it's the story of our parents' and grandparents' generation and that voice has not been heard.
"One of the arguments we heard when we were trying to put this on was they wanted to hear young PI voices. 'New Zealand's not ready for the older generation, it's not valid.' I said, 'OK Jason, we will show them.' "
Simei-Barton says Polynesian people should have total artistic control over their own stories. "Not a consultation role - I find that very token. The writer needs to be of PI descent, we need to be in a producing or directing role, or all three. Only that way can we truly say it is coming from a PI perspective.
"That is the issue we are now fighting. Everybody is on our bandwagon. We are riding the crest of the wave which is really good after 20 years. I feel totally satisfied that we are here now but we need to be in those artistic power positions for it to be honest and sincere and come from the right perspective."
Simei-Barton, born in Porirua to Samoan parents, first came to Auckland in the late '80s to study law. With both parents "very religious", she'd been familiar with theatre from childhood because theatre and storytelling is an ancient tradition in the Samoan culture, the churches often mounted plays, and she had organised productions while a student at Porirua College. Auckland was a shock.
"There was nothing here. From being brought up in Porirua where theatre was alive to come to a city that had one of the world's largest Polynesian populations ... it was monocultural. There wasn't anything I could relate to. I'm not saying I didn't understand the texts or the plays but there were no brown faces apart from Don Selwyn and I saw a production where Jim Moriarty played Hamlet. Those two inspired me."
Simei-Barton found a script in the university library for a Papua New Guinea musical - not a phrase you often see - called Feiva/Favour, which she staged at Maidment's Little Theatre with a cast of 15. "It was a smash hit," she recalls, "and we suddenly realised there was a market here and the Polynesian voice needed to be heard."
She also came to realise that she loved the collaborative process of working with actors - "The creative process brought my soul to life and that was the deciding factor."
When it came to telling her parents she wanted out from law, there was initially some "tension" because of the expectations that, like a lot of people of her generation going through university, Simei-Barton should earn a lot of money because the income was needed for the extended family. She continued to study part-time for three years, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Political Studies, and a post-graduate diploma in broadcasting.
She formed the Pacific Theatre company in 1987, staging productions such as Romeo and Juliet for the university's Summer Shakespeare in 1992, co-directed by Alan Brunton, with an entirely Pacific Island cast. The university tried to stop it. "That was so controversial I could not believe it," she says. "The university was 'not ready to see people running around in tapa cloths trying to speak English'. That was quoted to us in a memo from the committee, they found it quite offensive.
"That made me a lot more determined get this play up and running and we fought a long time for the right to put on a Shakespeare play with Polynesians. We had to be really clever about it. We planted our own actors in the committee so when the applications went through, they had the voting power."
Since then, she has worked with a who's who of Auckland performers, including producers Don Selwyn and Ross Jennings, cinematographer Allen Guilford, Limbs founder Mary Jane O'Reilly, her own husband, writer-teacher Paul Simei-Barton, designer John Parker and actors Martyn Sanderson and Jay Laga'aia.
She won a QEII Arts Council Travel Grant and the Rockefeller Foundation Travel Award and has made a number of short films and documentaries under her Tala Pasifika film production company banner, including Brown Sugar, The Overstayer, Coming Home and directed the excellent TV series Good Hands-Lima Lelei, about a netball team based in South Auckland. The way Good Hands was treated still riles her.
"That was bloody difficult, we spent seven years fighting for that, getting those scripts into development. The argument was not from the community, it was the broadcasters, that New Zealanders 'were not ready to see brown faces on mainstream, and we would have to change our accents'. For me, it was like, how do you know that? You've never tested it. A lot of that attitude still exists but with Good Hands we got lucky."
For a while anyway. TVNZ's then-head of comedy and drama John McRae saw the series' value and intended to give it a primetime slot in TV One in 2003. But when he quit, his successor, Tony Holden, "totally cleared the slate", says Simei-Barton. "Good Hands got dicked around quite a lot. It went into a Sunday slot and it was supposed to come up for a repeat and then we were supposed to go into a second series and we lost John, so everything went out the window. Now they are holding on to it and we were asking them to replay it during this week's netball finals [they haven't]. I find that attitude so unbelievably stupid."
Simei-Barton describes herself as "not diplomatic. I am straight up and people find it hard to cope with me."
Being recognised as a "senior artist" by CNZ makes her smile. "I still have a few more years. I come from a strong political background. As a Pacific Island woman, you are also fighting Pacific Island men which is another thing I have found quite dispiriting over the years. I have to fight the Palagis and now I've got to fight you bastards as well."
It's a fight you get the feeling Simei-Barton is winning more as the years go by. She will use the CNZ Pasifika grant to finish post-production on two documentaries and she has just finished a film called The Trophy, about a 12-year-old Pacific Islander who loves science; it is in submission for international film festivals.
Simei-Barton's career has been "a really rough road", she admits. "But I don't want a job. I just want them to give me the money and I will do the work." And if it's a TV series she's working on, "give us a proper timeslot as well".
* ARTS PASIFIKA AWARDS
Who: Justine Simei-Barton, theatre, film and television writer, producer, director; documentary-maker; tutor.
What: Awarded this year's $7000 Creative NZ Senior Pacific Artist's Award, along with social anthropologist Dr Okusitino Mahina (Pacific Heritage Arts Award, $5000); theatre writer-director Nina Nawalowalo (Pacific Innovation and Excellence Award, $5000); opera singer-teacher Sani Muliaumaseali'i (Iosefa Enari Memorial Award, $3000); WakaUra Cultural Dance Company Ltd (Emerging Pacific Artists' Award, $3000); artist Sale Pepe (Salamander Gallery Award for Emerging Pacific Visual Artists, $3000).