A Boy Called Piano - The Story of Fa'amoana John Luafutu is a dramatised documentary that tells the story of Fa'amoana Luafutu's experience of state care. Sharing the screen with his son, actor Matthias Luafutu, and grandson Tane Luafutu, who studies at Toi Whakaari/New Zealand Drama School, this work marks the debut feature of acclaimed theatre-maker Nina Nawalowalo and gives voice to the thousands of Māori and Pacific children who were made wards of the state. By Elisabeth Easther
Fa'amoana Luafutu spent his early years in Samoa, where he enjoyed a quintessential 1950s Pacific Island childhood: walking arm-in-arm with his best mate, swimming, climbing trees and chasing chickens. But Fa'amoana's parents wanted their children to have greater opportunities so, in 1958, the family moved to Ponsonby.
In Auckland, the playful Fa'amoana felt like "a taro shoot, a tiapula, trying to grow in the snow". On his first day of primary school, Fa'amoana's teacher deemed his name too hard to pronounce, so renamed him John. The new language provided another barrier, and the learning environment, which included corporal punishment and dunce caps, was neither supportive nor inclusive.
So, instead of attending school, Fa'amoana whiled away the hours at Grey Lynn Park with his brothers and cousins. Inevitably, they came to the attention of the authorities, of truancy officers and police; and in 1963, Fa'amoana was summoned to the Family Court at Queen St. He was sent to Ōwairaka Boys' Home at the age of 12. As Fa'amoana was taken from his tearful mother, she instructed him in Samoan to "be a good boy, and listen to the directions they give you", because she trusted the state to do the right thing by her son.
"I was totally lost. I no longer belonged to my parents, I belonged to the Government," Fa'amoana says. Once at Ōwairaka, Fa'amoana was deemed to need "extra training" and was sent to Kohitere Boys Training Centre in Levin. One of only two Samoan children, he was plunged into the misery of the state care system.
In the years that followed, the happy, hopeful boy from Samoa went from boys' home to borstal, gang life and jail. His parents, who'd worked so hard to give their children a better life, who'd packed their dreams in banana boxes, were brokenhearted.
More than 50 years later, Fa'amoana is father to three sons, two of whom also found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Men now, they are Matthias, an actor; Julian, and Malo, better known as hip-hop artist Scribe.
What happened next is nothing short of a miracle – because the Luafutu aiga crossed paths with theatre-makers Nina Nawalowalo and her husband Tom McCrory, co-founders of The Conch, a performing arts company that uses theatre as a vehicle for social change.
The events that led up to the chance encounter unfolded when an error of judgment saw Matthias sentenced to two years behind bars. While Matthias was incarcerated, Miranda Harcourt visited Rangipo Corrective Training Facility with her ground-breaking one-woman play Verbatim. Matthias' eyes were opened to the power of theatre. Released from prison just shy of his 21st birthday, the young man vowed never to return - at least, not as an inmate – and he spent the next three years touring with Jim Moriarty's Te Rākau Theatre Company.
"Working with at-risk youth built up my soul and I wanted to take acting seriously, so I auditioned for Toi Whakaari," he says.
But for Matthias, drama school exposed long-suppressed emotions. "Once I let those feelings out, I didn't know how to lock them back up, so I left without saying goodbye." By way of explanation, Matthias left a copy of his father's book, A Boy Called Broke, in a teacher's cubbyhole. That teacher was Tom McCrory, who picks up the story.
"Years later, we were thinking about a new production for The Conch, when I looked at the cover of Fa'amoana's book. For the first time I noticed the subtitle: 'The Story So Far'."
"Somehow it all synchronised," Fa'amona explains, "and I'm so grateful to God because I believe He puts people with people."
"It's been over two decades since our two families came together," McCrory continues, "and we've walked this path for eight years, first with the play The White Guitar, then A Boy Called Piano. Part of the beauty of Nina's film is due to that level of openness, the trust and love, that made it possible."
A central pillar of the documentary depicts Fa'amoana returning to Kohitere Boys' Training Centre in Levin. Dream-like aerial shots show dilapidated concrete buildings crouched in a field of weeds. All that remains are the segregation unit and the "gym", where the boys settled scores with their fists. Director Nawalowalo describes how Fa'amoana was adamant that his son and grandson should not accompany him to that place of shame and hurt, "because he didn't want them to walk on that land".
Fa'amoana himself was astonished by the memories invoked by returning. "I tried to deny I was ever in that segregation block, but when we walked in, it was like I could see my mate, Barry. I walked towards my mate's cell and remembered how we'd bang on the pipes to communicate. Then my cell caught my eye. I saw where my bed used to be. I'd tried to deny some of what happened, but it was buried in my subconscious."
Another critical turning point in Fa'amoana's life came when he talked with a prison psychotherapist. "I'd always been cynical about therapy until I met Don Prince, the first psychotherapist I took into my heart. He was also a Methodist minister, so I dropped my guard with him. At first we just talked about God and Jesus, then when I had a session with him as a psycho, we already had a rapport, and he helped me open up."
Prince also encouraged Fa'amoana to put pen to paper and, in 1994, A Boy Called Broke was published. The book Matthias left as a parting gift for McCrory.
"My experience in state care made me distrust everything about the establishment," Fa'amoana continues. "I thought I was fighting the system by joining the gang and getting into fights and fighting the police. But when I wrote A Boy Called Broke, I put all the pain I was carrying inside me into that book and I let it go. Once I threw down the sword, and picked up the pen, I could see clearly."
The Conch has since toured their plays to traditional theatre venues as well as prisons, including Springhill just outside Hamilton, where they have a specific Pacific unit. "There's a large Pacific fale in the middle of the jail, because they focus on rehabilitation by working with the men in culturally appropriate ways," Nawalowalo says.
Fa'amoana says, "I knew some of those old fellas in there. And I said to them, 'I was like you guys. You see these boys who are with me now, they used to visit me in prison and now we're visiting you. But I'm walking out with my son and my grandson.'"
"The arts has been my way of saving this guy from what I'd known," Matthias says of his son Tane, who is proud to be following in his father's footsteps.
"I always knew performing was in my blood, but I didn't understand my dad's or grandfather's stories until we took this journey together. As a result, we've written a new narrative that has healed our family for the generations to come," Tane says.
It has taken courage to embark on such a raw journey of self and familial discovery, says Nawalowalo. "But seeing this story helps other survivors realise they're not alone."
"For a long time I was so angry," Fa'amoana says. "I even hated myself. But Tom, Nina and The Conch showed me how to use theatre for something positive. Because there are so many guys like me who live in that dark world - then they end up feeling comfortable in there, because the dark becomes familiar and safe. Then this theatre thing shines a little pinprick of light through the darkness and it is so powerful. That someone might see that little ray of light and grasp on to it and find their way out. Our work gives those people hope."
A central pillar of the film is Fa'amoana's moving testimony before the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry. "I saw one of my little nephews giving his testimony about being in boys' homes and state care. What he described had happened to me 15 years before, and I realised nothing had bloody changed. So I jumped in to testify, to support him, because I grew up with his father, walking arm-in-arm in the islands. Long story short, Fa'afete was a gang member and now he works for the Royal Commission."
Fa'amoana is still connected to people in the gang world, largely because he's been through so much with those men. "But the old fellas, they're all thinking like me, that it's time for a change, because they don't want to see their grandchildren do the lags. I watched my family grow up from a cell and we don't want that for our kids."
As for that little boy from Samoa who felt like a taro, a tiapula, planted in snow - thanks to two plays, a film and the love of family and friends, he has been transplanted into more nurturing soil.
"I felt such great relief after the Royal Commission. Especially when Ida Malosi, the district court judge, said she stood for our people and claimed me. I felt a big weight come off my shoulders, the weight of the whakamā, the shame, I'd brought to my parents. When she said those things, in my mind, I saw my mother smile, because so many other times I'd only seen her cry."
By sharing the story of Fa'amoana's life, the Luafutu family has found redemption. The transformative power of music and story has helped the family heal, as has their deep faith and unwavering love from Carol, Fa'amoana's wife and mother to the three boys. "It was our mum, Carol who kept us all together before we found this path," says Matthias, "and I pay tribute to all the women behind these broken men."
The story so far
"I'm at peace with myself and where I'm at. It's been hard, there have been tears and all those cathartic things. But I'm in a good place now. I'm going on 70 and I'm glad to have been part of something positive before I leave this Earth." – Fa'amoana John Luafutu
"A lot of pain came to the surface while creating these works but so much hurt has lifted and I'm proud of dad for speaking at the Royal Commission, for being a voice for the voiceless, because many of Dad's friends died full of shame and guilt. By allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, lives have been changed." – Matthias Luafutu
"I'll continue to tell stories that have been hidden, to share them with the world, to tell them with love and light." Tane Luafutu
A Boy Called Piano – The Story of Fa'amoana John Luafutu will screen nationwide at the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) this August. NZIFF's full programme will be released on July 4 – visit nziff.co.nz for more information.