Tainui Stephens is a rare programme-maker who excels both on camera, and behind the scenes. A fluent storyteller in English and te reo, he counts himself blessed to have begun in television just as Māori programming finally made inroads on New Zealand screens.
Stephens was initially slow to embrace his Māori identity. Born in Christchurch to a Māori father and Pākehā mother, he was raised "in a very Pākehā world, and went to a very good Pākehā school". His father left home before Stephens got to high school.
At Canterbury University, a grant from the Māori Education Foundation helped him embrace his Māori side. Feeling guilty about gaining monetarily for "something I physically was, biologically was, but culturally wasn't", Stephens visited Canterbury University's Māori Club and was surprised to find himself singing along in te reo. Something chimed. That night he changed his courses, and began the long journey of learning about Māoritanga. He was also gaining a film education, thanks to Sunday night screenings of everything from It's Alive to beloved Italian epic 1900.
Stephens did odd jobs on both sides of the Tasman, including time as a taxi driver, then became an investigating officer for the Race Relations Office. Over four years he tackled cases of discrimination which veered "from the blatant to the darkly discreet". He has paid tribute to his "humble, patient, inspiring" boss, Race Relations Conciliator Hiwi Tauroa.
In April 1984 Stephens began at Television New Zealand, joining the small team behind Koha — Aotearoa's first ongoing series devoted to Māori topics. "I turned up in a time when there was a turning of the tide," he says in this video interview. "There was a belief in the system that Māori television counted, and we had to make way for it. I happened to be there at the right time."
Over his four years on Koha, Stephens got valuable hands-on experience of making television. He began as a researcher and reporter, but within a year had done an in-house training course in producing and directing. In this period he was directing both on location (Koha, arts show Kaleidoscope) and in the studio (magazine show Weekend).
By the late 1980s Stephens was directing the first of many documentaries. Outside of his TVNZ job, he wrote and directed half-hour documentary Rere Ki Uta Rere Ki Tai (The Voyage). It followed preparations for a gruelling journey of war canoe Ngātokimatawhaorua from Waitangi to Whangaroa. The same year (1988) he helmed kapa haka documentary Ka Tū Te Ihi, and was part of the team chronicling the close of landmark exhibition Te Māori.
Māori Battalion - March to Victory (1989) was made to mark the battalion's 50th anniversary. Stephens writes here about directing the documentary, and his desire to go beyond "recording the mere facts of the war of these men — to trying to capture how they felt about it". The following year he wrote, directed and produced series When the Haka Became Boogie, which traced the history of Māori popular music.
By the 1990s the number of Māori programmes on television was finally expanding. Some were cancelled before getting a chance to grow (e.g. current affairs slot Te Kupenga). Others became long-running staples of Maori programming, like current affairs series Marae, and te reo archival show Waka Huia, which explores culture and customs. Stephens worked on them all. On Marae, he encouraged a move to using more accessible, informal forms of te reo. Youth show Mai Time was officially born in 1995; Stephens had launched it two years earlier as part of Marae.
He was also bringing Māori stories to international audiences — he directed episodes for both series Family (made for the 1994 International Year of the Family) and Aussie-Canadian production Storytellers of the Pacific.
In 1995 Stephens moved into management, as Executive Producer of TVNZ's Māori Programmes Department. In-between overseeing shows like Marae and Rangatira, he occasionally still found time to direct (including 1996 documentary Icon in B Minor, on pianist Michael Houstoun).
The key show from this period was The New Zealand Wars (1998). Stephens directed all five episodes, proving there was an enthusiastic prime time audience for Aotearoa's rich and forgotten history. Presented by trailblazing historian James Belich, the series chronicled the 19th century civil wars between Māori and Pākehā. The New Zealand Wars was named Best Documentary at the 1998 Qantas Media Awards. Costa Botes writes about it here.
In 2000 Stephens left TVNZ and set up company Pito One Productions. Aside from continuing to make television, his experiences making content for both Māori and Pākehā audiences meant that he could be a useful adviser to others. As an advisor to funding agency NZ On Air and TVNZ, he acted as a middleman between Māori producers, and TV executives keen to win over prime time audiences.
Wary of the naysayers, Stephens was confident that new channel Māori Television would do well. In 2003 he spoke of the importance of having two threads of Māori broadcasting: Māori for a Māori audience, and mainstream content for a general audience, "that includes kaupapa Māori — Māori content, Māori views and thoughts". Having both threads was both important and "enormously exciting".
After Māori Television's launch in March 2004, Stephens worked on many productions for the new network. He directed and co-wrote three-part documentary He Whare Kōrero, in which Tūhoe scholar Tīmoti Kāretu traces the renaissance of the Māori language. Meanwhile his feature-length, Qantas-nominated Let My Whakapapa Speak chronicled 25 years of the Kōhanga Reo movement, and the life of co-founder Iritana Tawhiwhirangi.
Stephens has worked on Māori Television’s epic live coverage of Anzac Day commemorations in a variety of roles, from presenting to writing and producing. He has directed and produced a range of entertainment shows, from It's in the Bag to My Party Song. Stephens has also been seen on-screen, as presenter of documentary slot He Raranga Kõrero, and birds eye view of New Zealand series Aotearoa. Since 2010, he has been part of company Blue Bach Productions, alongside fellow director/producer Libby Hakaraia.
In 2002 Stephens made his first drama: short film The Hill. The teenage odd couple tale was selected for the 2002 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. A number of high profile movie projects followed. Stephens was part of the producing team on Vincent Ward's ambitious historical drama River Queen (2005), and one of a trio of producers on Ward's partly-dramatised documentary Rain of the Children. The film's title, he says, touches on the suffering of children, and also "the suffering of a mother who at times failed, and at times was thwarted in her need to be a mother.”
Stephens was a producer on both Toa Fraser's te reo action movie The Dead Lands and the 2019 NZ-American TV series of the same name. He has also produced two short films directed by Libby Hakaraia: The Lawnmowermen of Kapu, and The Gravedigger of Kapu.
Sometime around 2003, Stephens began a kōrero with legendary Māori directors Barry Barclay and Merata Mita. The trio — like others before them — were passionate about finding ways "to get more support for Māori feature films". Launched in 2008, Māori development initiative Te Paepae Ataata enabled the making of Himiona Grace's first feature The Pā Boys, and was a forerunner of later NZ Film Commission policies aimed at supporting Māori filmmakers. Stephens' own work has explored the long journey of Māori in television (he directed this Māori episode of 50 Years of New Zealand Television) and film (he co-wrote screen history documentary Hautoa Mā).
Stephens spent nine years (until 2010) on the Film Commission board. He has also been on the board of the Māori Radio Spectrum (Te Huarahi Tika Trust), organisation Script to Screen, and a Māori liaison for NZ On Screen. Since the early 1980s he has been a speaker everywhere from universities to hui. Often found in mentoring roles, he has long encouraged Māori to tell their stories on-screen. He and Libby Hakaria were founding members of Ōtaki's Māoriland Film Festival, which celebrates the primal experience of sitting in the darkness, watching "visions and light".
Stephens has a hard time picking a favourite, out of the many shows and films he has worked on. He defines success as having enjoyed making every one."I've loved it all," he says. "I ate it all up".
Profile updated on 21 June 2019
'Tainui Stephens: Foremost Māori broadcaster..' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Clare O’Leary. Loaded 17 May 2009. Accessed 30 May 2019
Tainui Stephens, ' The Boss is Dead: A Tribute to Hiwi Tauroa' E-Tangata website. Loaded 3 February 2019. Accessed 30 May 2019
Blue Back Productions website. Accessed 29 April 2019
Alison Carter, 'Invading the Invaders' - The Listener, 6 May 1991
'He waahi kōrero' (Interview) - Onfilm, November 2003, page 16 (Volume 20, number 11)
Te Paepae Ataata website (broken link). Accessed 19 September 2012
'Tainui Stephens' (Radio Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 16 March 2014. Accessed 30 May 2019
'Tainui Stephens' (Radio Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 4 January 2016. Accessed 30 May 2019
Rain of the Children press kit