Bullied for being gay, so hungry he ate bananas out of the school rubbish bin, it wasn't extreme poverty that traumatised Todd Karehana as a child, but the tragic death of his older brother.

The loss rocked the whanau "in a profound way" leaving his mother distraught and Karehana struggling to deal with grief at just 9. Now it's the inspiration behind a new short movie My Brother Mitchell, which had a private screening in Tauranga on Sunday.

The semi-autobiographic film tells the story of a young Māori boy coming to terms with the loss of his brother, leading him and his mother on a quest for answers.

The movie is a "cathartic" experience for Karehana, now 30, who was just 9 when his older brother Mitchell died at 10 years old.


In a family of 10 siblings growing up in Kawerau, Karehana recalls a childhood of extreme poverty.

"Mum raised us well but money was tight. I remember one Christmas the power was out and I just got a pack of Thomas the Tank Engine playing cards.

"We were often hungry. I remember me and my brother getting into trouble at school for going through the bins as we were starving - we ate bananas out of the rubbish."

Todd Karehana at 7 years old.
Todd Karehana at 7 years old.

If there was food, it was luncheon on bread or pancakes.

Karehana did not come out until he was 21, and was bullied at school for being "effeminate" and "hanging out with girls".

But he remembers happy memories of being with Mitchell - the two brothers were closest in age.

"We did everything together, jumped off sheds, we even had matching outfits. He had the bottom bunk, I had the top."

Like most siblings, they squabbled, and one day arguing over a Nintendo game, their mother sent Mitchell outside.


"Later she told me to get him for dinner. I remember going outside with my sister Tamara. I remember the wind blowing, I felt scared and we ran back inside. Mum sent my stepdad to go and look. He found Mitchell dead in the garage."

The coroner ruled the death an accident, but Karehana says he has always felt guilty.

Filmmaker Todd Karehana.
Filmmaker Todd Karehana.

The movie doesn't go into how Mitchell died, but it is a metaphor for how the family dealt with the burden.

Karehana expects the Sunday screening for family and friends of cast members to be "emotional" and for his family, including his mother and Tamara, it will be the first time they will see the movie.

"Making the film has been healing and has sparked conversations between us about how we experienced Mitchell's passing."

Now living in Auckland, Karehana is a script editor for Maori Television's new bilingual drama series Ahikaroa, and already has an acclaimed documentary under his belt, The Kweenz of Kelston.

He has submitted My Brother Mitchell for the International Film Festival and the New Zealand Film Festival.

The finished movie has elements of fact blended with fiction. The opening scene of a funeral is in the same wharenui where Mitchell's funeral was.

"In the film, Todd doesn't cry at the funeral just like I didn't cry."

Karehana's sister, Camilla, sings a moteatea (poem) in the film "as though to our real selves", and his brother, Julian, is editor "and brings his unique perspective to Mitchell's memory".

The actor who plays Todd in the film, Poroaki Merritt-McDonald, is from Matapihi and lost a brother to cancer.

Karehana hopes the movie will be a cathartic experience for audiences who may be at different stages of grieving loved ones.

"My Brother Mitchell is filled with people, places, experiences, memories, dreams and love. This is an ode to our loved ones, an ode to my brother."

The film's ultimate message is one of hope.

"The end is not the end. When someone dies, you don't lose them, you have memories, and they are still around.

"When I see a beautiful sunset, I think of my brother."

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