Kiwi-born Samoan Nathaniel Lees began acting on stage in 1975, and on screen in 1984. Since then he has become a leading force in the development of Pacific Island theatre in Aotearoa, and brought his distinctive baritone voice to everything from The Billy T James Show to The Matrix.
My parents are Samoan — I am Samoan. That’s where I feel the connection. Lees, on his Samoan heritage
In this 2016 Loading Doc, Regina Tito talks about life for a homeless person, gleaned from her own experiences of living on the streets. She reflects on the circumstances that forced her to leave home, and describes the emotional experience of being homeless. The Downtown Community Ministry worker ended up on the streets to escape family violence – "at that time the streets were a lot safer". First-time director Leigh Minarapa and producer (and industry veteran) Nathaniel Lees set out to win empathy for people who are sleeping rough.
Inspired by the mindbending tales of The Twilight Zone and the freedom of a low budget, Jonathan King's stylish yet “modestly budgeted" twister marks his first collaboration with novelist Chad Taylor. King regular Nathan Meister stars as a media executive whose confusions multiply after learning that a strung-out woman (Michelle Langstone) has his wallet. Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles praised the film's canny visions of a future where others control our perceptions of reality. REALITi's five NZ Film Award nominations included Best Self-Funded Film and Screenplay.
In the five years since Sione's Wedding, the Duckrocker quartet have experienced marriage, children, Australians and the good lord. Then their minister reunites them on a quest to find Bolo (Dave Fane) — once their driver and conscience, now MIA. The sequel to the break-through PI-Kiwi hit reunites the original cast, and adds in a dodgy minister (Kirk Torrance) and a new director (Outrageous Fortune's Simon Bennett). On the burden of following Wedding, Stuff reviewer Steve Kilgallon adjudged: "seen on its own merits, it [Sione's 2] proves worth the wait".
Tusi Tamasese’s first feature tells the story of a taro farmer (real life farmer Fa’afiaula Sagote) who finds the courage to stand tall for his family and culture, and stand up to sceptical villagers. Variety called it “compelling drama”. Though previous films (eg. Flying Fox on a Freedom Tree) have told stories inspired by Samoan writers, The Orator is the first feature written and directed by a Samoan, and the first filmed in Samoan. In its debut at the prestigious Venice Film Festival it won a special jury mention in the Orizzonti (New Horizons) section.
Taro planter Lui’s grief for his dead wife is blighting his life and crops. A widow, Malia, is bound by anger to the grave of her abusive husband, as the rising sea slowly drowns it. When Lui and Malia meet by chance, he’s provided with a path from his hurt. Filmed in Samoan on the island of Upolu, and directed by Samoan-born Tusi Tamasese, the short is a fable-like meditation on communion, cooking and sacred places. It was selected for Clermont Ferrand and Hawaii film festivals, and was the precursor to Tamasese’s Venice-selected debut feature, The Orator.
Maurice Gee's classic novel about aliens running amok under Auckland has rarely gone out of print, since its debut in 1979. First adapted as a memorable 80s TV series, this movie retooling sees teenage twins Theo and Rachel stumbling across shape-shifting creatures that are hiding beneath Auckland's extinct volcanoes. American showbiz magazine Variety praised Black Sheep director Jonathan King's "solid helming", and the excellent acting of Sam Neill as the mysterious Mr Jones. Oliver Driver plays lead villain Mr Wilberforce, under four hours of make-up.
Doves of War is a political thriller revolving around a group of ex-Kiwi soldiers and their involvement in a war crime committed 10 years prior. A discovery of a mass grave in Bosnia forces ex-SAS Sergeant Lucas Crichton (Aussie actor Andrew Rodoreda) to revisit a past he and his comrades would rather bury. Also on the trail is ambitious Hague prosecutor Sophie Morgan. Action travels from Europe to upmarket Auckland, Wellington nightclubs, West Coast bush, and central Otago. Written by Greg McGee (Fallout, Erebus), it screened for one season on TV3.
Nanna Maria (Ruby Dee), the matriarch of a Fijian family living in Auckland, feels that the heart has gone out of her clan. She demands that her grown grandchildren put on a traditional feast, at which she will name her successor. The grandchildren — Soul, Charlene, Hibiscus, Erasmus, and Tyson — reluctantly turn up. But tiffs send the day into chaos. Nanna calls the whole thing off. This lovo-warmed love letter to his Mt Roskill hometown was the debut film for director Toa Fraser (Dean Spanley). It screened at many festivals; it won the World Cinema audience award at Sundance in 2006.
Sione's Wedding is a feel-good feature comedy about four 30-something guys who must each find a girlfriend before their best friend Sione's wedding — or be left out in the cold. Through the efforts of these bumbling blokes to get the girl(s), the film brought to life the colour and humour of the urban Samoan community in Auckland, the world's largest Polynesian city. A breakthrough PI-Kiwi film, Sione's broke box office records when it opened in cinemas throughout New Zealand in March 2006. Actor Oscar Kightley co-wrote the script with James Griffin.
The second Lord of the Rings installment sees hobbit Frodo Baggins continuing his mission to destroy the ring. Meanwhile the Fellowship is breaking apart, and an epic night battle ensues at Helm's Deep. The film marked a star turn by Gollum, the emaciated Andy Serkis-voiced creature whose realisation was a cinema landmark and a triumph for the design and special effects team. Alongside praise for the film's pace and spectacle, The Two Towers broke international opening records, before going on to outgross Fellowship of the Ring, and win two technical Oscars.
Over four seasons, Street Legal’s slick Kiwi take on urban crime and law genres racked up a stack of award nominations - including a 2003 NZ TV Award for best drama series. Although initially wary that the Auckland setting might alienate viewers, writer Greg McGee chose a Samoan lawyer (Jay Laga’aia) as his main character, to exploit the show’s inner-city Ponsonby setting (where cafe society bumps into Pacific Island immigrant culture). Other key characters included Silesi’s lawyer ex-girlfriend Joni, and her new partner Kees, an overstressed sergeant.
This edition of the Rangatira series chronicles the colourful life of Donna Awatere Huata: activist, opera singer, psychologist, businesswoman, author, Ngā Tama Toa member, ‘81 Tour protest leader, daughter of war hero-turned-murderer. Awatere Huata’s decades of dedication to Māori causes, including the promotion of literacy and education programmes, are reflected upon by Dr Ranginui Walker, Sir Roger Douglas, Tame Iti and Hana Te Hemara. Filmed here debuting in parliament as an ACT MP, Awatere Huata was later to be expelled from the party and convicted of fraud.
City Life follows a tight-knit group of apartment-dwelling twenty-somethings (lawyers, bartenders, drug dealers, art dealers, et al) on the emotional merry-go-round of urban living. Created by James Griffin, the television series was an effort to create popular drama relevant to contemporary Auckland city life and to appeal to a Gen X demographic – to inject Melrose Place into Mt Eden. A bevy of Kiwi acting talent drink, dramatise and prevaricate to a soundtrack of contemporary NZ pop.
City Life screened from 1996 to 1998 and made a direct appeal to New Zealand's Gen X apartment-dwelling demographic. Following the lives of a tight-knit group of friends, and featuring racy shots of Auckland's K-Road and nightlife set to contemporary Kiwi pop music, the show was Aotearoa's answer to Melrose Place. In this excerpt from the first episode, the friends are thrown into conflict when one of their own (played by Kevin Smith) decides to marry outside the circle. Complications ensue when Smith shares a brief, but notorious, screen kiss with Charles Mesure.
Seventeen-year-old Timothy (Dean O'Gorman from Pork Pie) is facing suspension after a misguided prank. His parents hope the French-Canadian exchange student they’re hosting will settle Tim down, but when ‘Michel’ turns out to be ‘Michelle’ — and spunky — plans go awry. Coming of age and cross-cultural comedy ensues as Tim tries to court his Montreal mademoiselle. Shot around Avondale College, the award-winning NZ-Canadian film got a special mention from the Children’s Jury at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival. The cast includes Angela Bloomfield and Milan Borich.
This series centred on a weekly TV current affairs programme in mid-90s Wellington. Katie Wolfe stars as stroppy journalist Amanda Robbins: lured back from Australia for her tabloid style in an effort to boost the show's ratings. Tackling timely storylines and shot ‘handheld’ in the NYPD Blue-inspired style, the TV3 series was well reviewed but faced its own ratings struggles (a later series screened on TV One). It was Gibson Group’s second foray into producing a TV drama series, after Shark in the Park. A pre-Lord of the Rings Fran Walsh was a series writer.
Shortland Street is a fast-paced serial drama set in an inner city Auckland hospital. The long-running South Pacific Pictures production is based around the births, deaths and marriages of the hospital's staff and patients. It screens on TVNZ’s TV2 network five days a week. In 2017 the show was set to celebrate its 25th anniversary, making it New Zealand’s longest running drama by far. Characters and lines from the show have entered the culture — starting with “you’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata!” in the very first episode. Mihi Murray writes about Shortland Street here.
Billy T’s unique brand of humour is captured at its affable, non-PC best in this compilation of skits from his popular 1980s TV shows. There’s Te News (“somebody pinched all the toilet seats out of the Kaikohe Police Station...now the cops got nothing to go on!”) with Billy in iconic black singlet and yellow towel; a bro’s guide to home improvement; skits about first contact, and a take off of Miami Vice. No target is sacred (God, the IRA, the talking Japanese sketch) and there are classic advertising spoofs for Pixie Caramel’s “last requests” and Lands For Bags’ “where’d you get your bag”.
This posthumous series — produced by Ginette McDonald — collects segments from Billy T’s long running skit based comedy series. Some of his most cherished creations are here: the giggling Te News newsreader, Cuzzy in his black shorts, and the chief bemused by Captain Cook. Support comes from a seasoned cast including Peter Rowley, David Telford and Roy Billing (with cameos from Bob Jones and Barry Crump). Some of these skits are essentially elaborate setups for one line jokes but Billy T’s infectious warmth and good humour inevitably carry the day.
Shark in the Park was New Zealand’s first urban cop show. In this second season opener, Inspector Flynn (Jeffrey Thomas) and his team face restructuring and cutbacks from HQ, and a gang prospect (Toby Mills) is interrogated about a hit and run. Among the impressive cast of cops are Rima Te Wiata, Nathaniel Lees, and Russell Smith (It is I, Count Homogenized). This was the first episode made by Wellington company The Gibson Group, as Kiwi television entered an era of deregulation (Shark's previous series was one of the last made by TVNZ’s in-house drama department).
A big smoke cousin to Mortimer's Patch, Shark in the Park was New Zealand's first urban cop show. Devised by Graeme Tetley (Ruby and Rata), it portrayed a unit policing inner city Wellington, under the guidance of Inspector Brian 'Sharkie' Finn (Jeffrey Thomas). With its focus on the working lives of the officers, the show followed the character-based storytelling of overseas programmes like The Bill and Hill Street Blues. The first season marked one of the last in-house productions for TVNZ's drama department. The next two series were made independently by The Gibson Group.
Gloss was a popular Kiwi television drama series made by TVNZ that screened in the late 80s; it combined a wealthy family, the Redferns, with a lucrative high-fashion magazine business. Yuppies, shoulder-pads and méthode champenoise abound in this cult "glamour soap". New Zealanders wanted to see themselves as less bottom of the world and more "here we come and we are sailing" (as the infamous Cup campaign song warbled), and Gloss was just what the era demanded.
Yuppies, shoulder-pads, sports cars and méthode champenoise abound in this cult 'glamour soap'. Gloss was NZ's answer to US soap Dynasty, with the Carrington oil scions replaced by the wealthy Redferns and their Auckland magazine empire. The series epitomised 80s excess, and became something of a guilty viewing pleasure. In this Rosemary McLeod-penned pilot, a 'Remuera Revisited' plot unfolds as Brad Redfern's plans to have a quiet wedding get waylaid by ex-wife Maxine. Schoolgirl Chelsea wags, listens to her Sony Walkman and gets an unorthodox haircut.
Stunt driver Judd (US Oscar winner Cliff Robertson) and his mechanic Casey (ex child star Leif Garrett) are in NZ racing 'Shaker' — their pink and black Trans-Am — when they're enlisted by scientist Dr Christine Ruben on a fast and furious dash from Dunedin. Unknown to the Yanks, Ruben (Lisa Harrow) has stolen a deadly virus that she's aiming to smuggle to the CIA, and away from the NZ military — who plan to use it for bio warfare! Touted as "fantasy car violence", the chase and stunt-laden Run was one of dozens of films sped out under an 80s tax break scheme.
Pre-dating Peter Jackson's arrival (Bad Taste) by three years, New Zealand's first horror movie sees Michael Hurst making his movie debut as he fights mutants (including Bruno Lawrence) on Waiheke Island. Hurst's character is out to avenge the mad scientist who forced him to kill his parents. A grand prize-winner at a French fantasy festival (with cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky on the jury), David Blyth's splatterfest marked the first of many horrors funded by the NZ Film Commission. It was also the first local showcase of the smoothly-flowing Steadicam camera.