When Michael Bennett watched tapes of police interviewing Teina Pora he knew Pora was innocent, when Pora gently picked up a ladybug and blew it into the air he was positive, and in the eight years he's covered the story, nothing has changed his mind.
Bennett is a filmmaker, documentary maker and author. He decided he wanted to use his skills to help Pora back in 2011 and since then has made a documentary, and written a book about him.
His latest venture, a film adaptation of that book, depicting a "man with an extraordinary heart", is due out today.
In Dark Places tells the story of Pora's two-decade imprisonment for the murder of Susan Burdett, a crime he did not commit.
After seeing the police interview tapes with Pora, Bennett was certain of his innocence so arranged a meeting with him and the private detective mounting an appeal.
"I went home that day and told my partner and my family, 'I have to do whatever I can to help this guy, I have to tell his story and it's going to be one of the most important things I do in my career'," Bennett said.
"I know nothing about making submissions to Parliament or anything like that but what I can do is tell stories so I knew that I had to do whatever I could."
Since 2011 Bennett has created the documentary The Confessions of Prisoner T and wrote the book In Dark Places.
Bennett's family is originally from Rotorua and while he now lives in Auckland, he still returns to visit and held the launch of his book at Te Papaiouru Marae in Ohinemutu.
For the Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaue man, Pora has also become family.
"There are all kinds of important aspects to his story but most of all I want to tell the story of this guy I know who's warm, and a loving father, a loving grandfather and not the guy he was made out to be in those prison cases," Bennett said.
Bennett spent years telling Pora's story but said this film would likely be the last.
"I do think it's been a massive part of my career and an incredibly important part but I've done all that I can do."
Bennett said the issues raised in the film were relevant around the country, including in Rotorua.
"For me it's more than just Teina's story, it's an incredibly important story about the New Zealand justice system and how it is failing in a number of ways and especially failing Māori."
Bennett said those who had already seen the film watched in disbelief, on the edge of their seat.
"I'm still in disbelief eight years after starting work on the story. I'm in disbelief that it could ever happen," he said.
"Anyone who has watched it has come out with exactly the same feeling; that this cannot happen to another New Zealander, things have to change."
Writing, filming and editing the project took two years.
The prison scenes were shot at old Mt Eden Prison which Bennett said portrayed a coldness which couldn't be created in a studio.
"The heaviness in the atmosphere, the sheer weight of the place, even empty and deserted, is quite indescribable ... that sense of heaviness and human desperation and sadness ... that kind of stuff lingers."
Bennett worked on the film with his family. His son helped compose the music while his partner Jane Holland co-wrote and produced the film.
Pora is played by newcomer Richard Te Are who got the part fresh out of drama school.
Te Are has to play Pora at ages 17, 25 and 35. During filming, he sometimes had to do all three in one day.
Bennett's second book, a graphic novel called Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas, will be published this month.
In Dark Places screens on TVNZ at 8.30pm.
- Richard Te Are as Teina Pora
- Craig Hall as Tim McKinnel
- Calvin Tuteao as Malcolm Rewa
- Aidee Walker as Ingrid Squire
- Cameron Rhodes as Jonathan Krebs
- Writer & Director-Michael Bennett
- Writer & Producer-Jane Holland
- Producer-Chloe Smith
- Co-producers: South Pacific Pictures, 10,000 Company