Filmmaker Mike Walker began developing a road movie back in 1975: a rare film where young Polynesians would take centre-stage. But as is often the way with filmmaking, funding proved an issue. As a result, he would make two other dramas first, both of which won acclaim for their storytelling and portrayal of at-risk youth. Of the trio, Kingi's Story and Mark II would prove especially pioneering, in terms of putting Māori and Polynesians in lead roles on the small screen.
Napier-born Walker became a photography and movie fan as a teen. After leaving school he began working as a graphic artist at the Tourist and Publicity Department, shortly before it became home to the Government's National Film Unit. The year was 1949.
Two years later Walker set up filmmaking company Morrow Productions, with British animator Bob Morrow. Based for most of its existence in a small stucco house in Levin, the company supplied animation for everything from commercials promoting the launch of decimal currency to National Film Unit shorts about volcanic power.
Morrow supplemented his earnings by teaching art classes. One day the principal of local correctional institute Kohitere Boys' Training Centre asked Morrow if he could give one of the boys tuition. So began an extended association between Kohitere and Morrow Productions, with many teens learning about art and working on the company's animated films.
In the mid 70s, Morrow and Walker decided it was time to upscale beyond animation and ads. The idea was to make a film of both substance and commercial appeal, based on a script about three young Māori travelling through the North Island in a Mark II Zephyr.
Walker also felt that the film would showcase a source of untapped talent. Many of the young Polynesians he'd met "had this very unusual poetic quality that I thought would lend itself well to screen performance, and perhaps bring almost a new aspect to screen acting in New Zealand".
Despite partial funding and some impressive screen tests using boys from the Kohitere institute, it looked as though Morrow Productions "was going to go with the Mark II project right down the drain". Then Kohitere principal Tom Woulfe suggested scaling things down, and making a film which reflected what brought young people to a place like Kohitere.
Unfortunately the smaller project proved just as challenging to finance. The 47-minute long Kingi's Story went into production only after three years of trying to win funding from Government sources, foundations and trusts. Originally conceived as a training video for Social Welfare and other Government staff, Kingi finally got the go-ahead after newly-installed TVNZ drama head Ross Jennings was impressed by Walker's script, and screen-tests of young Kohitere talent Mitchell Manuel.
Students also appear to have been impressed. Said Walker: "I've had it first-hand from a number of teachers that they've had written work from some of the so-called backward students to a level that these kids had never achieved before, because here they've got something they can relate to very directly."
After directing Kingi's Story, Walker went on to his only full-length feature as director, Kingpin. Walker co-wrote the script with Manuel. Shot in just under 30 days, largely during a Kohitere holiday break, Kingpin is the story of the battle to become unofficial ruler among the inmates of an institution. In his background piece on the film, Manuel writes that Walker likened the film's basic plotline to classic 50s Western Shane.
14-year-old Faifua Amiga debuted in the central role of new kid in borstal, Willie Hoto. Though professionals like Jim Moriarty and Terence Cooper appear in supporting roles as staff members at the institution, Manuel was the only teenage cast-member who had acted on screen before.
Listener critic Helen Martin found the results moving, compelling and authentic, and praised the ensemble cast. She added "while Kingpin shows the negatives constantly at work in these kids - violence, fear, loneliness, disappointment - it is, finally, a celebration of love and life." Dominion critic Costa Botes was just as enthused, praising the film's acting and storytelling, its "toughmindedness" and "compassion".
"The most refreshing aspect of Kingpin is the total lack of apologist preaching. There is none of that patronising didactic drivel which would set up the inmates of Kohitere as innocent victims of society. Certainly, socio-political influences have contributed to the situation of these boys, but Kingpin doesn't attempt to score easy political points at the expense of its drama."
Kingpin's central trio of Amiga, Manuel and Nicholas Rogers would again take centre stage when Mark II finally made it to the screen. Now it had become a tele-movie directed by John Anderson, after rushed scriptwriting sessions to bring the script down in size. Mark II screened on Guy Fawkes Night, opposite Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. It won rave reviews, plus NZ Film and TV awards for best single television drama and best actor (Manuel); Walker was nominated for best script, which he wrote with Manuel.
The Listener's Douglas Jenkin called it "fast-moving" and "beautifully observed" and gave special praise to the raw emotional power of a sense between Rogers and Jim Moriarty. NZ Herald veteran Barry Shaw wrote that Mark II proved that "the best television drama in New Zealand will only come from our roots, not from transplants from America, Britain or Australia."
As he entered his sixth decade, Walker left filmmaking behind to concentrate on still photography. He died in a Palmerston North Hospital in 2004, aged 72.
Costa Botes, Review of Kingpin - The Dominion, 19 May 1986
Douglas Jenkin, Review of Mark II - The Listener, 1 November 1986
Helen Martin, Review of Kingpin - The Listener, 5 October 1985
Monique Oomen, 'These Dreams Came True' (Interview) - Onfilm, October 1985, page 3 (Volume 2, No 6)
Barry Shaw, Review of Mark II - The NZ Herald, 6 November 1986
NZPA Writer, 'Early film-maker set scene for Once Were Warriors' (Obituary) - The NZ Herald, 10 July 2004, page A27
'Levin film-maker looks to local themes for success' (Interview) - The Chronicle (Levin), 22 August 1985