The debut of a new high-budget television series set in Ahipara is just the start of things to come, according to a Far North film producer.
Award-winning producer and director and recipient of the Order of New Zealand Merit (ONZM) Rhonda Kite (Te Aupōuri, Ngai Tākoto, Ngāti Kuri) is spearheading an initiative to attract more prominent screen projects to Te Hiku o Te Ika.
Over the course of 30 years, Kite has created several successful film and television documentaries and dramatic series, including the long-running Māori arts show "Kete Aronui" and the feature-length documentary "Squeegee Bandit".
Kite has also made a reputation for herself in the fields of digital education and technology, having founded Kiwa Media Group and pioneered the re-voicing of cartoons into te reo Māori, as well as the creation of the post-production dialogue-recording software VoiceQ.
Her impact on the industry has been so significant that in 2018, Kite's work with VoiceQ was awarded an ONZM For Services to New Zealand in Technology for Film and Television in recognition of her contribution.
The list of Kite's numerous awards and accomplishments in government, the creative industries, and indigenous issues might cover an entire newspaper, but she modestly credited her success to taking risks and being courageous in the face of her own challenges.
"I did not receive a conventional education since the system did not function for me," Kite explained.
"Having recently been diagnosed with adult ADHD and a reading disability likely explains my enthusiasm for education through storytelling."
"In the 1970s, I also worked on General Foods' very first computer, which occupied the entire second floor of the Tip Top Building in Auckland.
"Since then, I've been fascinated by the potential of technology."
After a career that has taken her all over the world, Kite and her husband Tom decided to move home to the Far North last year to be closer to whānau.
Her passion for storytelling and the cultural localisation of media content for a global audience is why Kite is now aiming to bring the world of screen, film and television to the Far North.
Through the newly established film office, Toi Te Hiku, Kite is keen to create a screen hub in Kaitaia, to open up pathways for locals, particularly Māori, to the creative screen industry.
"The Far North is an area of untapped potential, and there is a wealth of talent and undiscovered wonders up here," Kite said.
"You can liken the screen sector to a bit of a Trojan Horse industry in that you can start anywhere and often discover you're better at something else along the way.
"The lights have been off in this sector in the Far North for too long, it's time to turn them back on."
Toi Te Hiku with South Pacific Pictures - one of New Zealand's largest screen production companies - recently formed a partnership, whereby Kite will work as a conduit for locals to take part in on-the-job training for various roles in an upcoming television series.
From early next month, an SPP production team will set up in Ahipara for about seven weeks to start the filming of a mini-series based on one of New Zealand's biggest ever drug busts.
The $12 million production - funded largely by the New Zealand Government's Covid-19 Relief Premium Fund - will feature several local cast and crew members.
The unfolding of events that went down as part of the 2016 methamphetamine bust has been described as "bizarre" and "a comedy of errors" and caught the eye of SPP chief executive and director Kelly Martin and writer/director David White who happened to be visiting the Far North at the time.
More than 500 kilograms of the class A drug landed at Ninety Mile Beach (Te One-roa-a-Tōhē) in June 2016, with 52 kilograms of meth found buried in sand dunes and the remaining 449kg found in a campervan.
A total of eight people were arrested over the course of the investigation, with six men convicted and sentenced in court after pleading guilty to meth importation.
Stevie Cullen and Selaima Fakaosilea were later found guilty in 2019 of importing methamphetamine and participating in an organised criminal group.
Fakaosilea, a close relative of the late All Black winger Jonah Lomu, was sentenced to 12 years in jail but had her drug importation offending sentence downgraded last year to 9 years, with a minimum period of imprisonment cut from seven years to five years and four months.
Her sentence for organised criminal group offending remained, but could be served at the same time as she served the sentence for importing drugs.
Cullen was convicted of importing meth and being part of an organised criminal group and sentenced to 27 years in jail.
Martin said the news stories about the crime had fascinated White which began the journey of creating the new six-part drama/comedy series.
"David and I just happened to be up here when the story broke and we were reading the newspapers and David told me there's more to this story," Martin said.
"We then began investigating a bit more into what happened, not clear at that point about where it was going to lead us and it ended up evolving into a tv series, based on this crazy story about the drug bust at Ninety Mile Beach."
Smith and White have spent the past five years travelling to Ahipara to conduct more research and to get to know some of the series' protagonists.
Due to the mix of characters and nationalities involved in the story, 25 per cent of the series will be spoken in Mandarin — a first for New Zealand — and feature a line-up of Chinese actors, a Chinese director and Tongan writer, as well as Tongan and Māori actors.
Martin said while they couldn't yet reveal too much about the characters or who would play them, more would be revealed soon.
She also added that despite the show being portrayed in a comedic-dramatic style, she hoped people walked away with an understanding of the more serious side of the tale.
"At its core, this is a story about a drug bust, and, while it is funny in many ways, I hope people leave this knowing what happened was a very serious and sad event," Martin said.
"At its heart, a bunch of people have paid a very heavy price as a result of being involved in something that would appear like it wasn't a big deal at the time.
"Many people's lives were seriously impacted and not just those directly involved, but those associated with those convicted of the crime."
The SPP crew is currently working on pre-production and is due to set up base in and around Ahipara from June 6.
Martin said it was important to SPP the community was involved from start to finish and to give back to the community in their own way.
She said there had understandably been some apprehension regarding the story and the series portraying the Far North in a particular light.
However, Smith reassured the community this was not the case.
"We wanted to shoot this in the place where this happened and to take the community on the journey with us," Martin said.
"It was also important to us important to give back to this community, to spend our money on the local economy and do our work in a respectful and meaningful way.
"There has been some nervousness we were just going to tell another drug-riddled story about the Far North, but that's not where this story is heading.
"If anything the local people are the real heroes of this story and we believe this series celebrates that."
Filming of the new TV series will start on Monday and finish on Thursday, July 21.