There’s an important concept in Maori society of ahi ka, of keeping the homefires burning. “If you are seen and active in your community, then belief in you and your own mana and the mana of your whanau accrues,” says Tim Worrall, a filmmaker from Ngai Tuhoe and a chairman of Tauanui Marae. “If you are absent and you are not there or involved or inputting then you’re ahi mātaotao, you’re a fire that’s going cold.”
Worrall knew Beam Titoko, a kaumatua (elder of prominence) from Urewera, who, for Worrall, is a perfect example of ahi ka. “He’s there based in the community and on the land but also has a sense of lightness and fun,” says Worrall. Worrall and his cousin Aaron Smart started talking to Beam, a gregarious personality known for his musical talents, about making a documentary on him. During those initial interviews, Worrall asked Beam whether he remembered any old Tuhoe party songs. Beam sung a six-line song ‘Te Rori ki Whakarae’ (‘The Road to Whakarae’) by a man he used to drink with 40 or 50 years ago.
In the song, the winding, unsealed road serves as a metaphor for the whole area, which, as the song goes, would be ruined if the road were to be straightened and sealed. “The road was an essential part of the identity and the mana of the place,” says Worrall, who connected with the song and thought it could be expanded and updated to reflect the community living there today. “There’s quite a lot of precedent in waiata Maori of reinterpretation or people taking a song and using it in a different way,” says Worrell, so he and Smart asked one of Beam’s nephews to help. Together, they expanded the song with Worrall writing the new verses, updating it for a modern audience.
With a three-minute song, Worrall and Smart decided a short film could focus on the song rather than on Beam. The resulting film, The Road to Whakarae, funded as part of the Loading Docs online initiative, features members of the Tuhoe community singing various parts of the extended song. By making the song and the Tuhoe community the focal point it would also help, according to Worrell, “build capacity within the valley to do more film stuff together so that we’re making our own stuff rather than get professionals from outside to come and help”.
Making a film that would be available online was also important. “Because it’s going to be on the internet, a lot more people are going to see it. So we were conscious of portraying a friendly image,” says Smart. Worrell agrees: “There are so many of the whanau that are really on the social media stuff, especially around Facebook, so getting it out through that medium [is] great.”
Worrell has wanted to make films about Tuhoe for a long time. Worrell went to Elam art school at the University of Auckland. He started filmmaking in his last year alongside close friend Niki Caro. After art school Worrell moved to the Bay of Plenty to be closer to his iwi. “It was clear to me that my main inspiration in my creative life was my Tuhoe side”, he says. Worrell spent the next decade as an artist of all trades, practicing sculpture, public art, and ta moko. When Caro started making Whale Rider, he utilised Worrell as a sounding board, an experience which turned his attention back towards filmmaking. He soon completed a MA at Victoria University in scriptwriting. “I’ve been going hard since then,” says Worrell.
Smart came to filmmaking in his mid-thirties. After his takeaway business in Australia went under, he was looking for something new, a “last roll of the dice”. He enrolled in film school in Byron Bay and on completion returned to New Zealand to start freelancing, making short films around the Bay of Plenty. Smart saw The Road to Whakarae as an opportunity to learn about where his wife’s family came from. “It really is quite remote,” he says. “There’s humble little ramshackle houses and there are people just living, doing their thing.”
For Worrell, the film was a chance to counter the narrative of Tuhoe as aggressive and solely concerned with separatism. “We’ve always been isolationist in that way, we pretty much do what we want to and what we need to,” says Worrell. “There is a heavy, hard-out impression of Tuhoe. We’re seen as scary and staunch a lot of the time. Certainly, there’s a truth to that but we had the strong intent on doing something light and fun, that whole other aspect which is much more likely to be part of your everyday experience there rather than the hardout stuff.”
This content was brought to you with funding from New Zealand On Air.