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No. 2

Film (Trailer, Excerpts, and Extras) – 2006

Parental Guidance

A Perspective

Not many feature films start off as theatre monologues — especially when they have large ensemble casts like this one. No. 2 (known as Naming Number Two in North America, to avoid any scatological connotations) is one that made a successful transition. While its theatrical roots are frequently evident and the story does follow a well-trodden path, you forgive it for any lack of originality because it has such an authentic feel to it. The cast members — and there are a lot of them — are uniformly good, and they are aided by a well-written script that rarely puts a foot out of turn. This is a film that wears its beating heart proudly on its sleeve.

Along with Sione's Wedding (released a year earlier) No. 2 represented feature film's contribution to an ascendent Pasifika pop culture renaissance in New Zealand (alongside chart-toppers like Scribe and Nesian Mystik in music; and bro'Town in TV). Many of these performers were Children of the Migration of Pacific Island workers to NZ in the 1960s and 70s.

Although second generation PI, director Toa Fraser's background was not typical. Fraser, whose mother is British and father Fijian, grew up in the UK (where his father worked as a broadcaster for the BBC) and moved to Auckland when he was a teenager. He describes No.2's story as a love letter ‘to family, to friends, to life'.

Mt Roskill is also a recipient of his affection. The Auckland suburb is where Fraser's father's family has lived for more than 50 years, and always seemed to the growing-up writer as a romantic, mythical place ‘where powerful, immortal figures sat around with their ambrosia, a place where passions ran wild and whisky was poured, not sipped.' He was surprised to learn eventually that many others think of it as Auckland's most boring suburb. (Read Fraser's reflections on his adopted hometown here, as he introduces NZ On Screen's Auckland collection).

The original play was written in 1999, when Fraser was in his mid 20s. He wrote it in collaboration with the young actress Madeleine Sami, who performed all of the characters. It won the Festival First award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and ended up touring successfully to Jamaica, Fiji, Mexico and Australia. Adapting it into a screenplay took Fraser almost four years, working closely with his producers and script consultants.

Finding the right actors was essential, and Fraser credits veteran casting agent Di Rowan, for ‘helping him make some good decisions'. Together, they succeeded in assembling a fine team who, while from a variety of Pacific ethnicities, brought exactly the right spirit to the film. Pivotal to the film was the role of Nanna Maria. Looking locally first, they couldn't find anyone with the mana they felt was required to bring this feisty old matriarch to life, so they decided to cast their net more widely. Always at the back of Fraser's mind was the veteran African American actor Ruby Dee — it was her performance in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing that inspired him to write No. 2 in the first place — so an approach was made to the New York-based 80 year old. To their delight, she accepted.

Their excitement they felt when she arrived in New Zealand was followed by sadness. Less than 24 hours after she arrived, she heard that her husband of 56 years, the equally esteemed actor Ossie Davis, had died suddenly. The production was put on hold while she returned to the USA, but she promised she would return, and two weeks later she was back to begin work.

Also from the other side of the world came Tuva Novotny, a young Swedish actor who already had a slew of films under her belt. When the actor already cast for the role suddenly pulled out, Novotny was auditioned via webcam. She got the thumbs up, and arrived two days later.

Central to the film is its soundtrack, thoughtfully assembled by Don McGlashan. He also wrote some of the songs and music, including the rousing gospel inspired lead single Bathe in the River, featuring singer Hollie Smith (which went on to top the pop charts). An intimate scene between Nanna Maria and her granddaughter gets added emotional heft with a soaring aria from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana.

Cinematographer Leon Narbey, responsible for the good looks of so many New Zealand features, does a great job with this one too. A slow pan that turns into a breathtaking crane shot at the end provides a perfect resolution to the drama.

Reviewers were mainly won over by the film's heart. Variety said "assured handling and an appealing cast make this a deserving crowd-pleaser". Some found the film a bit clichéd and formulaic, however most of them commented on the fine performances and earthy charm. Philip Matthews, in The Listener, called the film ‘warm and enjoyable', focusing mainly on Fraser's loving portrayal of Mt Roskill.

Although it didn't make a big impact at the New Zealand box office, No. 2 was invited to a number of international film festivals, including the Berlin Film Festival's Panorama section and the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for ‘World Cinema Dramatic'. It also won four New Zealand Screen Awards. 

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