Growing up in a house with five brothers was like Piccadilly Circus, according to Haunui Royal. Life was loud and never boring, thanks in part to moving around New Zealand, and briefly to Australia, because of his father’s job.
Māori education was an integral part of Royal’s family. His parents, Turoa and Maryrose, were both teachers. Turoa Royal helped develop curriculum for Te Reo in schools and went on to become the first Māori Chief Executive of a polytechnic — Whitireia in Porirua. During school holidays Royal and his brothers were dropped off at marae in Horowhenua, to learn tribal history and Te Reo.
Royal went on to study Māori and English at Victoria University in Wellington, where a film paper inspired him to make documentaries. He was mesmerised by the work of legendary neorealist director Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City).
“When I left high school the Springbok tour was on and Māori land protests were ongoing. It was a very heightened political time. I saw film and television as a tool I could use to engage people in discussion, explore social injustice and express the alternative Māori world view.”
After graduating, Royal drove around Aotearoa with Shane Loader and Andrea Bosshard as they made unemployment documentary In Our Own Time, and tried a variety of jobs. In 1988, he landed his first television gig at TVNZ, as a trainee director/producer on magazine show Weekend (his first piece to air was an item on the launch of Radio Aotearoa). Royal was hired as part of TVNZ's Kimihia trainee scheme, which aimed to “get more Māori into TV”. His fellow trainees included Paora Maxwell and Carey Carter. At the time, Māori programmes "were still very much in their infancy"; the only televised Te Reo programme, Te Karere, was a mere five minutes long, and Waka Huia had just been launched.
After completing the scheme Royal spent a year in TVNZ's 'Rock Unit' at Avalon, where he directed for music show CV. He studied studio directing before working on LIFE (Life in the Fridge Exists) in Christchurch. When he was hired to work for the children’s department of new channel TV3 in 1991, he moved back to Auckland.
Royal went out on his own in 1993, freelancing as a writer, director, producer and occasional narrator for TV3 and TVNZ on a great many documentaries, including Tā Moko, on tā moko artist Derek Lardelli, and 1997's Who’s Killing the Kiwi? — plus entertainment shows like Fresh-up in the Deep End and Havoc and Newsboy’s Sell Out Tour 2.
He found his niche telling stories with a Māori perspective, such as A Whale’s Tale (1992), a documentary about Ngāi Tahu Māori developing the whale watching concept, in order to combat unemployment. Such stories were inspiring to Royal "because they pointed to Māori success not failure, which was the prevailing narrative in the mainstream media".
Land claim documentary One Land, Two People — about Whakatohea, an iwi in Ōpōtiki —was nominated for Best Documentary at the 1997 NZ Television Awards. Two years later Royal took away the gong for Best Māori Programme for Ōtara - Defying the Odds, which followed eight success stories from Ōtara, working to break down stereotypes about the suburb. In 2002 two further documentaries from Royal and producer Rhonda Kite were nominated in the same category: cross-cultural adoption tale Someone Else's Child, and the wide-ranging Truth about Māori.
In the same period, Royal left the industry to train as a counsellor and healer, feeling he needed a change. He went on to run a meditation centre for two years. “The film and television industry can be frustratingly shallow and egotistical," he says. "It was nice to be in an environment where kindness wasn't just a marketing tag and people were actively looking to better themselves. That was so refreshing after being in such a competitive environment.”
Royal was lured back to television in 2003 to studio direct Te Reo children’s programme, Tikitiki. Later that year, Royal moved from behind the camera into management, as executive producer of general programmes at Māori Television. Starting a year before the channel's launch, he set up and recruited staff for this new department, and executive produced 300 hours of programming.
During a stint away making his own shows, he directed for acclaimed, Mike King presented Treaty of Waitangi series Lost in Translation. Royal returned to Māori TV in 2008, to become General Manager of Programming. In 2015 he began a two-year stint as head of the channel's programming department.
Royal’s achievements at the channel included extending Māori Television's daily coverage by five hours daily, overseeing language learning show Ako, supporting films Boy (2010) and Mt Zion (2012), and developing the idea to broadcast the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He is proudest of Tamariki Ora (2010), Māori TV's two-night special devoted to raising awareness around family and child violence in Aotearoa.
In 2016 Royal left Māori Television to assist his wife — Auckland Medical School Senior Lecturer Matire Harwood — with research into health disparities in South Auckland.
The following year he took up a new role as Senior Māori Curator of the Auckland Library’s Heritage Collections — a role which Royal describes as "an enormous privilege". The job reflects his "lifelong passion for telling stories and helping people to engage with stories, particularly about this country and its people".
Profile written by Natasha Harris
'Haunui Royal' Ngā Aho Whakaari (Māori in Screen Production) website. Accessed 15 November 2017
Jo Smith, Māori Television: The First 10 Years (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2016)
Unknown Writer, ‘Haunui Royal new Maori TV Programming GM’ (Press release) The Big Idea website. Loaded 6 November 2008. Accessed 15 November 2017
Unknown Writer, ‘Honorary doctorate for educationalist Turoa Royal’ (Press release) Scoop website. Loaded 16 March 2009. Accessed 15 November 2017
'A Whale's Tale' Ngā Taonga website. Accessed 15 November 2017