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Mike Jonathan

Director, Cinematographer [Tainui, Mātaatua, Te Arawa]

From the freezing works to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Mike Jonathan has built an impressive career through his commitment to New Zealand stories and characters, wherever they may appear. He has worked in the industry for almost 30 years, undertaking a variety of roles across a diverse range of genres and mediums. The next role is directing his first feature: Ka Whawhai Tonu, which is set for release in 2024.

Jonathan has deep connections to numerous iwi, and he continues to be driven by his Māori heritage and whānau. Born and raised in Taumarunui, he recalls two definitive filmic memories from the Regent Cinema in the centre of town. Star Wars was the first movie he ever saw, but it was five years later that a film “truly left an indelible mark on my soul.” Jonathan was only nine when Utu was released; he found himself captivated by the presence of Māori faces on the big screen. "Utu ignited a fire within me, sparking a deep inspiration I couldn’t fully comprehend at that age." The film also featured Jonathan’s future mentor Merata Mita, adorned with moko kauae, who he describes as "my first movie crush".

Thirty-five years after seeing Mita in Utu, Mike Jonathan would work as cinematographer on feature documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. The film captures the immense influence of Mita and her work. This is but one of many documentaries that Jonathan has been cinematographer for — including 2014's Once Were Warriors - Where are they Now, Ngā Tamatoa: 40 Years On, LaDonna Harris: Indian 101, The Walkers, and White Island doco The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, which was released by Netflix in 2022. Each of these documentaries engages with noteworthy events or individuals.

Jonathan is impassioned by the power of visual storytelling, and the ways that imagery can “connect people, bridge cultures, and evoke a sense of shared humanity.” This awareness of tone and narrative is visible across the diversity of Jonathan’s work behind the camera. He has captured the epic reality of the outdoors while directing episodes of TV series Hunting Aotearoa, Kairākau, Crayfishers, and Toa Hunter Gatherer.  He has shot music videos for artists such as House of Shem, 1814, and Ardijah; web series about Italian cooking, Māori art, and Sons of Zion; and numerous short films.

Mike Jonathan first broke out as director and co-star of eclectic travel show Bro-tour.com, which screened on Māori TV in 2006. But it was with his award-winning debut short Hawaikii, released the same year, that his journey truly began. Following a young Māori girl on her first day of school, Hawaikii examines cross-cultural exchange, class dynamics and fatherhood. Directing this film was a milestone for Jonathan, who counts himself lucky to have worked with producer Libby Hakaraia, "a powerhouse in Māori cinema".  

Since Hawaikii — which screened at multiple festivals, including Berlin — Jonathan has directed further shorts, including Ow What!, Koro, Manawa Ora, and Ra’stat’ste, which he co-directed with Canadian First Nations filmmaker Sonia Boileau. “I feel it is my purpose to safeguard and preserve our stories,” Jonathan says, “despite working in an industry often associated with exploitation.” A firm believer in returning these narratives to their rightful owners, Jonathan’s shorts strike to uphold indigenous values and traditions.

The majority of Mike Jonathan’s short films are produced by his production company: Haka Boy Films. Based out of Rotorua, Haka Boy represents an avenue for uniquely Māori stories. The name pays homage to his son Te Kaha; Jonathan notes that he still has "a photograph of him at the age of three, performing the haka at kōhanga reo. He will forever be my haka boy.”

Alongside Haka Boy, Mike Jonathan is a member of Rotorua's Steambox Film Collective, made up of Māori directors, editors, producers, and cinematographers. The collective launched the Rotorua Indigenous Film Festival and Tohea, a course in film production for rangatahi which balances industry advice with tīkanga Māori. They have also released a number of award-winning films.

This collaborative spirit is evidenced throughout Jonathan’s filmography and outlook. He argues that “the most significant highlight in my journey has been the opportunity to connect with amazing individuals across Aotearoa, and beyond”. The beyond that he mentions is far reaching; his career has taken him across the globe, “from exploring ancient ruins in Greece and North Africa, to embarking on a profound pilgrimage to the battlefields and cemeteries of the 28 Māori Battalion.” 

Jonathan's urge to explore — and emphasise — is present in both the hour-long documentaries Jonathan has directed to date: Road to the Globe: Troilus & Cressida in 2013, and Freezing Works in 2016. Road to the Globe follows a groundbreaking te reo performance of Troilus & Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. It captures the struggles and successes of Rawiri Paratene's theatre company as they open the world’s largest Shakespearean festival.

Jonathan again plays with the relationship between Aotearoa and the larger world with Freezing Works, which follows 12 New Zealanders travelling to Iceland to work at a meat-processing plant. Freezing Works captures a spirit of camaraderie, while exploring what it means to be a New Zealander in a distant country.

For Mike Jonathan, the "pinnacle" of his journey was the moment in 2022 when he "first stepped foot on the set of Ka Whawhai Tonu as a director". Set in 1864, the ambitious feature is based in and around the 1864 siege at Ōrākau. Alongside Cliff Curtis and Jason Flemyng, the film stars Temuera Morrison, who Jonathan has worked with on multiple projects. Ka Whawhai Tonu is another demonstration of his commitment to telling stories from a Māori perspective.

Profile written by Danny Bultitude; published on 26 June 2023

Sources include
Mike Jonathan
Haka Boy Films website. Accessed 26 June 2023 
''Ka Whawhai Tonu' Begins Worldwide Sales at Cannes' (Press release) Scoop website. Loaded 17 May 2023. Accessed 26 June 2023