Sima Urale new NZ Film School head tutor

From poverty to head film school tutor

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 10:19 25/11/2012
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CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ

LEADING THE FLOCK: Sima Urale says she loves shepherding new talent.

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Sima Urale burst on to the screen in the 1990s with O Tamaiti, a short film that went on to win eight international awards, including best short film in Venice and various other festivals as well as in the New Zealand Film and Television awards.

She was still in her 20s. Since then she's won many awards, made more notable films - Apron Strings and TV's Velvet Dreams for two - been a Fulbright Scholar and a senior lecturer in film and television at Unitec in Auckland. Now she's been appointed head tutor at the New Zealand Film School.

Her brilliant career - during which she eschewed an invitation to direct in Hollywood - kicked off from a six-month government work scheme.

Urale, 45, was born in Samoa, one of six children whose parents shifted to Wellington in 1974 to improve their chances in life. Only their mother, a teacher, spoke English and she retrained and became the family's main breadwinner. First, they lived in Newtown then Lyall Bay. Urale remembers the two-bedroom Newtown flat.

"The little ones slept with mum and dad, sideways, with mum and dad's feet over the edge of the bed. Very squishy. But as a kid you don't realise that's poverty."

Her memories are that it was "more exciting than woe-is-me". She also remembers being bemused by the mass of white faces in New Zealand, because they failed to speak Samoan, and also because their noses were so sharp she wondered how they kissed without stabbing each other.

Her mother taught at South Wellington Intermediate and all the children flourished at school. Her "big little" brother is rapper King Kapisi and her other siblings have also been successful in creative careers. Their parents, she says, "let us fly".

"I was the dreamy one, not particularly focused but not naughty." She left Wellington High and took an office job.

"I knew it would kill me."

Her parents considered unemployment shameful, but her mother sighed and said: "OK, go on the dole. Find out what you want to do."

"I had to do an access course and I did discover what I never thought of, and that was drama."

Her tutor, Maori actor and director Rangimoana Taylor, "inspired and motivated me". As the course ended he encouraged her to apply for drama school, "so I learned some Shakespeare and a British play and that's how it started".

She graduated from Toi Whakaari in 1989 and worked at Circa and Downstage. "Two years later I realised I'd like to be a wider creative. I love theatre but it doesn't travel like film and TV, and the mode of communicating a story [in film] is more accessible." Three years later she graduated from the Victorian College of Art Film and Television in Melbourne. "I came back because there were so many stories here to tell. Once Were Warriors came out in my second year there, a powerful and amazing film. So powerful. It confirmed to me there are so many more stories to tell here. Warriors showed one perspective but there are a million other perspectives. I had a belief in New Zealand stories and actors and thought there was so much more to explore, even with the big films being made."

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O Tamaiti, an empathetic film about a family of Samoan children, was financed by the Film Commission.

"It was quite a different take to Once Were Warriors, a bit more subtle and art house."

Soon she was tracked down to Lyall Bay by a Hollywood studio, expecting her to jump at the chance of directing in the United States. But no.

"Regrets? Only a tinge."

Money's not everything, she says and she wouldn't have been able to do the things she has done.

Her new role redirects her pragmatic and aesthetic film-making skills and she loves shepherding talent and the mutual learning involved.

To her students she emphasises the power of the camera. "It's a weapon," she says. Like other parts of the media "it can put people up there and do amazing things or it can destroy them". "The camera is quite a powerful tool and it can be a dangerous one. People forget, in a digital age, the respect that the image and a camera requires."

- The Dominion Post

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