As a visual storyteller, Sima Urale retains the Samoan oral tradition of story-telling or fagogo, bringing to it a contemporary twist. At the forefront of filmmakers telling Pacific stories, she is influenced both by her Samoan heritage and the urban experience of living in Aotearoa. Urale's experience as an actor has also proven invaluable in her directing career.
Sima Urale immigrated from a small village in Samoa to Wellington around the age of seven. The fourth child of a large family — many of whom would end up in the arts — she hated school rules, and took lunchbreaks on her own timetable.
At 19, after time on a Government funded acting course, she was encouraged to apply for a place at drama school Toi Whakaari. Her classmates included Cliff Curtis, Tim Balme, Hori Ahipene and future author Emily Perkins; Perkins recalls Urale as being wonderful, "earthy and strong" in an end of year production of The Cherry Orchard.
After graduating, Urale joined television sketch show Skitz, where among other parts she played terrifying Samoan Aunt Mimi. She would reprise the role in short-lived spinoff The Semisis. She also played a social worker in tele-play Swimming Lessons, and won a Chapman Tripp award after acting in Samoan play Think of a Garden. the play's director Nathaniel Lees labelled her work as "extraordinary".
After two years as an actor, Urale realised she wanted to create stories that, in the words of Herald writer Greg Dixon, "appealed to a broader — and browner — audience". After friends and family pulled together to help with her application, she won a place at Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts Film and Television (formerly Swinburne). That year Urale was the winner of the VCA Encouragement Student Award, and in 1994 graduated with a bachelors degree in arts, film and television.
On returning home to Wellington, she wrote and directed her much lauded short O Tamaiti (1996). Shot in black and white (in order to bypass "kitsch" stereotypes of Samoans) and filmed in Samoan, the film focused on a young boy forced to play parent in devastating circumstances. Urale writes about the background to the film here.
O Tamaiti marked a powerful debut, winning an impressive trolley of awards, including best short at the Venice Film Festival, Best NZ Short, and another at the Chicago Film Festival. Hollywood began knocking, but Urale wanted to concentrate on developing her craft at home.
In this period producer Vincent Burke proposed to Urale a television project on velvet painting. Urale signed on for her first documentary once Burke agreed to let her concentrate less on painting techniques, and more on eccentric velvet artist Charlie McPhee. The result was Velvet Dreams, made for TVNZ's Work of Art series. Ironic and playful, the film explores stereotypical 'dusky maiden' images of bare-breasted South Seas maidens painted on velvet. It screened at the NZ and Hawaii film festivals, and won Best Documentary Award at Canada's Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival.
Urale's second short Still Life (2001) focused on the challenges of ageing for a closeknit Pākehā couple. It became the first Kiwi short to take the top award at the Montreal Film Festival. Still Life received a Special Mention Award at Switzerland's Locarno Film Festival, and three more at the local Drifting Clouds International Film Festival.
Urale went on to direct — and appear with her filmmaking sister Makerita — in arts show The Living Room. Her debut music video Sub-Cranium Feeling, filmed underwater for her brother King Kapisi, won Best Music Video at the BFM, Mai Time, and Flying Fish Awards. In 2004 it was awarded a NZ On Air 1000 Music Video Celebration Award. Urale explored the local hip hop scene further with documentary Hip Hop New Zealand.
The same year Urale won the first Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writers' Residency at the University of Hawaii. In 2006 she spent six months in Amsterdam as part of the Mauritz Binger Script Development Programme, working on her long-in-development feature project Moana, which she described in 2008 as "the baby I need to have".
After returning to New Zealand, Urale showed her sensitivity to character with outsider tale Coffee and Allah, the tale of a Muslim Ethopian woman immigrant. The film was written by Indian-born emigre Shuchi Kothari, who had been won over by the distinctive "Sima Urale mood"; the way her films walk "a delicate line between light and dark", balancing a kind of buoyancy and darkness. Coffee and Allah was shot by frequent Urale collaborator Rewa Harre, who, in Urale's words, "has the patience and peaceful nature of the Dalai Lama".
Writer Kothari then succeeded in winning over Urale with her own feature film idea. Apron Strings, the result, interweaves the lives of two sets of sons and mothers. One mother is Indian (Brit-born Laila Rouass), one Pākehā (Jennifer Ludlam). Both are trying to find the courage to confront secrets from their past. Selected for the Toronto International Film Festival, Apron Strings also opened the Auckland Film Festival. Festival director Bill Gosden described it as "irresistable" to mark the festival's 40th year in Auckland by opening with "such a strong" Auckland film.
Urale's interest in social themes has also flavoured her work on commercials. Aside from a beloved Vogel's bread ad, flavoured by Chris Knox classic Not Given Lightly, she has directed a number of health-related spots, including campaigns on cervical screening and family violence. Urale's work in commercials has seen her on location from Malaysia to New York. She has also spent time in Samoa and Fiji, upskilling Pacific Islanders in making commericials.
In 2010 Urale began lecturing at Unitech Film and Television School. In mid 2012 she took over as head tutor at Wellington's NZ Film and Television School.
'Interview with Sima Urale' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary (Uploaded 1 November 2008). Accessed 4 June 2013
Greg Dixon, 'Frame of mind' (Interview) - NZ Herald, 6 August 2008
Michael Fitzgerald, 'Shaking Up the Happy Isles' (Interview) - Time magazine, 25 July 2005
David O'Donnell, 'Everything is family: David O'Donnell interviews Nathaniel Lees', in Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama and Theatre in an Age of Transition, edited by Marc Maufort and David O'Donnell (Brussels, PIE Peter Lang, 2007), Pages 331-347
'Interview with Sima Urale' (No longer online), Flicks.co.nz website. Loaded 18 August 2008.