When Don Selwyn passed away in April 2007 at age 71, memorials to his talent and mana flooded in from Māori and Pākehā alike. Speaking at his tangi, Ian Mune described Selwyn as "the bridge between our two cultures". Elsewhere Mune wrote that Selwyn had "mana in and knowledge of both worlds, and the skills to find the pathway between".
Selwyn championed Māori drama. TV executive Caterina De Nave put it like this in 1995: "He's talked for many years about the need for a Māori film and televison industry and he's gone and done it with little recognition, on the smell on an oily rag". Aside from Selwyn's own work in front of and behind the camera, he was a mentor to many Māori actors, writers and directors — among them Temuera Morrison, Rena Owen, Joanna Paul, and a number of future key personnel at TV New Zealand, TV3 and Māori Television.
Don Selwyn — later nicknamed the Don — was born in Taumaranui. His acting career began by accident after theatre director Nola Millar heard his bass baritone voice while he was working as an English teacher. Selwyn found himself doing Shakespeare in tights and a tutu, causing no end of laughter from rugby mates who were watching in the audience.
Later he talked of having realised early that Māori already had a tradition of theatre. He was thinking of the marae, and how speakers had to get their message across in a disciplined way. Selwyn was a founding member of the New Zealand Māori Theatre Trust; acting and singing would take him from Wellington to Russia, Europe and Expo ‘70 in Japan.
One of Selwyn's earliest television roles was in New Zealand's first weekly drama seres, Pukemanu. In 1975 television producer Tom Parkinson, surprised that Māori working at Avalon television centre numbered in single digits, enlisted Selwyn for programme Clobber Shop, fronting a weekly comedy sketch set in an imaginary Māori television station. Selwyn's long association with Parkinson would see him joining comedians Billy T James, David McPhail and Jon Gadsby, and working with Parkinson on the warrant application for TV3.
Selwyn's role on popular building site drama Moynihan (1976) saw him playing what appeared to be one of the only Māori chippies in existence. The same year he played a violent boyfriend in the controversial Big Brother, Little Sister episode of TV drama Winners & Losers, and starred as a Māori doctor having to choose between old ways and new in bicultural thriller Epidemic. The role could be seen as a precursor to his role as peacemaker Wiremu Tamehana in this episode of widely-seen historical epic The Governor.
Policemen were a Selwyn staple, even though the actor failed to meet the regulation height to join the force. The best known was Sergeant Bob Storey, one of the lead characters in long-running 80s rural drama Mortimer's Patch. Selwyn also played policemen in features Goodbye Pork Pie, The Lost Tribe, and Mauri. He got the role of a small town bookie in classic comedy Came a Hot Friday after reminding director Ian Mune that his father had been a bookie.
From the early 70s, the former teacher had been nurturing young Māori keen to work in film, television and stage. Following a short-lived SPATS training course in the early 80s, Selwyn ran the film and TV course He Taonga i Tawhiti (Gifts from Afar) for many years. The course provided more than 100 Māori and Pacific Islanders with the technical skills to bring their own stories to the screen.
When the course ended, Selwyn helped found He Taonga Films — the aim being to move training into the world of making. Among other things the company produced Nga Puna, a series of one-off dramas, which saw newcomers and industry veterans working together. Selwyn directed some, and produced others. One of them, Koro's Hat, the story of the bond between an old man (Bill Tawhai) and his granddaughter, won Selwyn the Best Director award at a Canadian Indigenous People's Film Festival.
Selwyn's directorial debut had occured six years earlier, on 1989's Variations on a Theme, part of the landmark Maori anthology series E Tipu E Rea. Selwyn also directed an adaptation of the Hone Tuwhare story Don't go past with your nose in the air! The short film was awarded Best Foreign Short Film at the 1992 New York Festival.
In 2002 Selwyn finally brought his dream project to the screen: The Māori Merchant of Venice (Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Weneti). It was the first feature film made entirely in te reo Māori. The movie was based on a Māori language translation of Shakespeare's play which he had directed for the 1990 Kōanga Festival. Among other enthusiastic reviews, The Listener's Philip Matthews praised the film's "unexpected synergy": "a good old-fashioned costume drama that crashes cultures together in an intriguing, souflul way".
In the role of Shylock, the moneylender who demands his pound of flesh, Selwyn cast Waihoroi Shortland, who would win an NZ Screen award for his work. Assistant Director Tony Forster recalled that Selwyn rehearsed the cast so thoroughly that for at least two weeks they managed to shoot "without a single line fluff during any rehearsal or take".
"When I was going to school they brought Shakespeare in to colonise me," Selwyn told Herald writer Michele Hewitson. "Now I've put it into Māori language I've colonised Shakespeare."
Selwyn also worked extensively as a casting director. His casting resume includes both Once Were Warriors films, and small town drama Jubilee (2000). He was also part of the cross-cultural TV melange that was Greenstone. As both a cultural advisor and associate producer, he worked to ensure that this ambitious colonial drama tried "to attain some historical dignity in a fictional genre".
Don Selwyn died on 13 April 2007, leaving a huge legacy to a wealth of young talent he has nurtured over the years. He was 71.
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
Michele Hewitson, 'Man who colonised Shakespeare' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 19 November 2005, page A30
Tom Hyde, Interview with Don Selwyn - Metro, August 1995
Peter Kitchin, 'Selwyn bullied into acting' (Obituary) - The Dominion Post, 19 April 2007
Philip Matthews, 'A Wretch for all cultures' (Review of The Māori Merchant of Venice) - The Listener, 9 February 2002
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Various writers (including Tony Forster), 'Don Selwyn 1935 - 2007' (Obituary) - Onfilm, June 2007, page 18
'Don Selwyn' (Profile) The Arts Foundation website. Accessed May 2019