Wi Kuki Kaa was a diverse, formidable presence on New Zealand stage and screen for almost 30 years. His iconic roles included Iwi in Barry Barclay-directed feature Ngati, Rewi Maniapoto in TV series The Governor, Wiremu in Geoff Murphy-directed Utu, the koroua in Trinity Roots' music video Little Things, a scarecrow maker in Worzel Gummidge Down Under, and many more.

Wi, you were a great actor with your best work ahead of you [...]. Your wit, intellect, cheek, and mana will be sadly missed. Rawiri Paratene in Onfilm magazine, March 2006

Utu Redux

2013, As: Wiremu - Film

In 1983, director Geoff Murphy stormed out of the scrub of the nascent Kiwi film industry with a quadruple-barreled shotgun take on the great New Zealand colonial epic. Set during the New Zealand Wars, this tale of a Māori leader (Anzac Wallace) and his bloody path to redress 'imbalance' became the second local film officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival, and the second biggest local hit to that date (after Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie). A producer-driven recut was later shown in the United States. This 2013 redux offers Utu “enhanced and restored”.

River Queen

2005, As: Old Rangi - Film

Vincent Ward's fifth feature follows an Irishwoman in 1860s New Zealand, as Māori tribes resist the occupation of their land by the British. Sarah (Samantha Morton) has had an affair with a Māori and borne his child. Years later the boy is kidnapped by his grandfather, a powerful tribal leader. Sarah embarks on a search for her child, aided by warrior Wiremu (Cliff Curtis). When she finds him, both mother and son must decide to which culture they belong. This excerpt from the notoriously ambitious film sees Sarah encountering charismatic chief Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison).

Turangawaewae / A Place to Stand

2003, As: Tiare - Short Film

Actor Wi Kuki Kaa (1938 - 2006) plays Tiare, a Vietnam War veteran who is dislocated by his experiences of war, and homelessness. He wanders the city streets, collecting ephemera in plastic bags. Nancy Brunning plays his daughter, who, with her own daughter, visits their reluctant koro (old man) to convince him to visit his ancestral home. The result is a moving story about a man jolted to find his turangawaewae (place to stand), and the whanau that helps him get there. Directed by Peter Burger, the film was selected for Critics' Week at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.

Aroha - Mataora

2002, As: Sid - Television

When traumatised soldier Matiu returns from service overseas, he struggles to reconnect with his wife and children. In this episode of te reo series Aroha, the marriage between Matiu (Te Kauri Wihongi) and Wai (Rena Owen) mirrors the Māori legend of Niwareka and Mataora, a union between spiritual and earthly worlds. Matiu decides to seek out his ghosts; he symbolises his reunion with his family through a facial tā moko performed by his father-in-law (Wi Kuki Kaa). Mataroa was written by Aroha co-creator Karen Sidney. It won an award at Canadian festival ImagineNATIVE. 

The Strip

2002 - 2003, As: Bible Bill - Television

The Strip centres around 30-something Melissa (Luanne Gordon), who sheds a legal career to set up a male strip revue. Created by Alan Brash, The Strip played to a certain demographic's desire for ogling naked men (warmed up by 1987 play Ladies Night and 1997 film The Full Monty), but with a focus on female characters, as Melissa juggles business with raising a teenage daughter. Taking cues from Ally McBeal (with fantasy sequences to match) the Gibson Group tale of g-strings, feminism and red light romance screened for two series on TV3 and sold internationally.

Little Things

2001, Actor - Music video

This (mostly) black and white video stars late great actor Wi Kuki Kaa (Ngāti, Utu). The concept is simple but impactful: a close-up on Kaa's eye leads the viewer in and out of a series of memories. In combination with Kaa's performance — seated on a veranda, as family activities take place around him — Chris Graham's video works superbly to convey the essence of the song. The cinematography is by Adam Clark (Boy, the Oscar-nominated Two Cars, One Night). Julian Arahanga (Broken English) appears among the moving celebration of whānau and community.

Te Po Uriuri (The Enveloping Night)

2001, As: Te Atakura - Short Film

Awatea, a young warrior, is enraged when his lover Te Po, a high-born chief's daughter, enters an arranged marriage. Retribution is swift and brutal. Set in the late 16th century and based on a Shakespeare sonnet ("my love is as a fever, longing still"), the storytelling of Te Po Uriuri is visceral, and suitably mythic in style. Ruru hoot, bloody patu gleam, and bodies and the oily black of the night are vividly shot by Waka Attewell. Directed by Toby Mills and filmed in te reo, it was selected for the Hamburg International Film Festival.

Our People Our Century

2000, Subject - Television

Our People Our Century was a documentary series from Ninox productions, that looked back over the past 100 years of New Zealand society as it turned over the millennium. Major events and changes over the century were shaped into six themed episodes: war, land, poverty and prosperity, families, state support and national identity, with apposite interviews providing personal and dramatic context. Our People Our Century won Best Factual Series at the 2000 NZ TV Awards, with Philip Temple winning a best documentary script award for the 'Families at War' episode.

Savage Play - Part One

1995, As: Rewi - Television

In the first episode of this dramatic mini-series based on the 1888-89 tour of Great Britain by the NZ Natives rugby team, Pony (Peter Kaa from movie Te Rua) must leave his mother (Rena Owen) and grandfather (Wi Kuki Kaa), to join the side. His motivation isn’t just rugby related — he hopes to find his English father who he has never met. The Natives have an early supporter in an Earl (Ian Richardson of House of Cards) who is a rugby fan intrigued by the novelty of these “savages”. Meanwhile, his granddaughter (Liza Walker) discovers an interest of her own — Pony.

Savage Play - Part Three

1995, As: Rewi - Television

In the third episode of this drama based on the 1888-89 tour of Great Britain by the NZ Natives rugby team, the romance between Pony and Charlotte is gathering momentum. Charlotte’s grandfather — the Earl — might be alarmed by the tryst, but the Cambridge University rugby team has a far blunter way of expressing their displeasure with a Māori rugby player trying to cross class and racial lines. In the face of such opposition, Charlotte and Pony attempt to follow their hearts, but can they resist the pressures now being exerted by both of their cultures?

Savage Play - Part Two

1995, As: Rewi - Television

In the second episode of this drama based on the 1888-89 tour of Great Britain by the NZ Natives rugby team, Pony — one of the side’s stars — is courted by society and invited to shoot with the Prince of Wales; and his Māori blood is also a novelty in the music halls. He’s hoping to renew his acquaintance with Charlotte — the granddaughter of a rugby loving Earl — but there are matches to be played in London. Locating his English father is far from heart warming, but his disappointment is more than compensated for as Charlotte follows him to the city.

Breaking Barriers

1993, Subject - Television

John O'Shea was godfather to generations of Kiwi filmmakers; he was an inspirational force committed to bringing new perspectives to the screen. As Ngati actor Wi Kuki Kaa put it, "had he been a Māori, he would have been a kaumatua years ago". This documentary backgrounds O'Shea and his pioneering indie production company Pacific Films, ranging from his efforts to put Māori on screen, to banned 60s ads. The cast provides proof positive of O'Shea's influence — amongst the ex-Pacific staff interviewed are the late Barry Barclay, Tony Williams and  Gaylene Preston.

Te Rua

1991, As: Rewi - Film

Variously praised as a major step forward in indigenous cinema, attacked for overambition, and little screened, Te Rua marked Barry Barclay’s impassioned follow-up to Ngati. This story of stolen Māori carvings in a Berlin museum sees Barclay plunging into issues of control of indigenous culture he would return to in book Mana Tuturu. Feisty activist (Peter Kaa) and elder lawyer (screen taonga Wi Kuki Kaa) favour different approaches to getting the carvings back home. Barclay and his longtime producer John O’Shea had their own differences over Te Rua’s final cut.

Linda's Body

1990, As: Hemi - Short Film

Performance group The Front Lawn (Don McGlashan, Harry Sinclair, and later arrival Jennifer Ward-Lealand) stretched all of their prolific talents for their final, 24 minute short film. After he whistles a certain tune, Ben (McGlashan) finds that his partner Linda (Ward-Lealand) no longer seems to be conscious. Then things get stranger: Linda catches up with an old lover (Sinclair) and faces a life-changing dilemma, while her body — awol with a tennis player on Tamaki Drive — has other plans. The surreal romance was made for TVNZ. It won Best Short at the 1990 NZ Screen Awards.

E Tipu E Rea - Thunderbox

1989, As: Thunderbox - Television

A teenage boy's unorthodox relationship with his father (Wi Kuki Kaa) is explored as he learns about hypocrisy in this E Tipu e Rea edition, written by Bruce Stewart and starring Faifua Amiga as Thunderbox Junior. After establishing a reputation as a highly successful director of commercials, this was Lee (Once Were Warriors) Tamahori's first attempt at the helm of a longer drama. "You tend to get a bit of experience making people laugh when you direct commercials,' he said. "One thing I'm sure of is that people like to laugh at themselves."

Kaleidoscope - Ngati

1987, Subject - Television

This item from arts show Kaleidoscope looks at pioneering Māori feature film Ngāti. There are interviews with director Barry Barclay, screenwriter Tama Poata, producer John O’Shea and actor Wi Kuki Kaa – who discuss the film’s kaupapa – and a visit to its premiere at Waipiro Bay Marae on the East Coast (where the film was shot). Barclay’s first dramatic feature, Ngāti also marked the first feature film to be written and directed by Māori. Many of the crew were enlisted via a scheme aimed at redressing the lack of young Māori working in the screen industry.

Ngāti

1987, As: Iwi - Film

Set in and around the fictional town of Kapua in 1948, Ngāti is the story of a Māori community. The film comprises three narrative threads: a boy, Ropata, is dying of leukaemia; the return of a young Australian doctor, Greg, and his discovery that he has Māori heritage; and the fight to keep the local freezing works open. Unique in tone and quietly powerful in its storytelling, Ngāti was Barry Barclay's first dramatic feature, and the first feature to be written and directed by Māori. Ngati screened in Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival

Open House

1986 - 1987, Actor - Television

This 38 episode series revolved around the ups and downs of a community house run by Tony Van Der Berg (Frank Whitten). The series was devised by Liddy Holloway to meet a network call for an Eastenders-style drama that might tackle social issue storylines. It was the first drama series to put a Māori whānau (the Mitchells) at its centre. Despite being well-reviewed, it was perhaps the last gasp of Avalon-produced uncompromisingly local drama (satirised as the ‘Wellington style’), before TV production largely shifted to Auckland to face up to commercial pressures.

Worzel Gummidge Down Under

1986 - 1989, As: Travelling Scarecrow Maker - Television

Kingpin

1985, As: Mr Nathan - Film

Kingpin was the second of a trilogy of films from Mike Walker about troubled New Zealand youth (the others were Kingi's Story and TV movie Mark II) Filmed at, and inspired by residents of Kohitere Boys Training Centre in Levin, the bros-in-borstal tale follows a group of teens who are wards of the state. Kingpin focuses on the bond between Riki (Mitchell Manuel) and Willie (Fafua 'Junior' Amiga), who along with the other kids are terrorised by Karl (Nicholas Rogers), the Kingpin of the title. It was directed by Walker, who co-wrote the script with Manuel.

The Bounty

1984, As: King Tynah - Film

Utu

1983, As: Wiremu - Film

It's the 1870s, and Māori leader Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) is fed up by brutal land grabs. He leads a bloody rebellion against the colonial Government, provoking threatened frontiersmen, disgruntled natives, lusty wahine, bible-bashing priests, and kupapa alike to consider the nature of ‘utu’ (retribution). Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael raved about Geoff Murphy’s ambitious follow up to Goodbye Pork Pie: “[He] has an instinct for popular entertainment. He has a deracinated kind of hip lyricism. And they fuse quite miraculously in this epic ...”

The Governor

1977, As: Rewi Maniapoto - Television

The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.

The Governor - He Iwi Ko Tahi Tatou (Episode Four)

1977, As: Rewi Maniapoto - Television

The Governor examined the life of George Grey, providing a whole new angle on traditional portraits of him as the "Good Governor". The six-part historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. This episode — 'He Iwi Kotahi Tatou' (Now We Are One People)' — won a Feltex award for best script. War looms in the Waikato as Māori tribes band together; peacemaker and kingmaker Wiremu Tāmihana (the late Don Selwyn) agonises over the right course of action.

The Governor - The Lame Seagull (Episode Five)

1977, As: Chief Rewi Maniapoto - Television

The Governor was a six-part TV epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey (Corin Redgrave). This episode arguably best lived up to the blockbuster scale and revisionist ambitions of the series. It depicts key battles of the 1863-64 Waikato Campaign (including ‘Rewi’s last stand’ at Ōrākau). General Sir Duncan Cameron (Martyn Sanderson) feels growing unease following Grey’s orders to evict Māori villagers, as he learns respect for his foe, and that Grey’s motives are driven not just by the urge to impose order on ‘the natives’ but by hunger for land.

The Sullivans

1976, Actor - Television

The Island

1965, As: Dan - Television

This early children’s TV classic is a Kiwi take on a genre staple: the summer holiday adventure. Aucklanders Peter and Laura meet up with their Wellington friend Rangi and his older cousin Dan (Wi Kuki Kaa), and go on an expedition to Kapiti Island. The trio (minus Dan, who has a sprained ankle) go bush for some kids vs. wild action, peppered with a menagerie of manu (kākā, weka, kererū, tui), and tales of Te Rauparaha, whaling and ghosts. They camp, fish, skylark around cliffs and caves, summit the island, and inevitably get lost, before ... getting safely home.