Beyond the Battalion: Kiwi film-maker's tribute to little-known 1970s documentary reveals hidden love story

Film-makers Michael Havas and Julian Arahanga with Wiremu Williams.

Film-makers Michael Havas and Julian Arahanga with Wiremu Williams.

New Zealand student Michael Havas was holidaying on the island of Crete in 1973 with his girlfriend when a visit to a local cafe puzzled him. 

Havas, then a film student in his mid-20s, was treated like royalty at the local establishment when people found out he was a Kiwi.

Drinks were on the house and it was explained to him that was because of the sacrifices New Zealand soldiers had made in World War II when the island was under attack from German forces.

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Havas, who was studying film in Prague, knew nothing of the New Zealand soldiers' war effort in Crete but that cafe visit inspired him to make a documentary about it. Called Once Upon An Island, it featured interviews with Kiwis who fought at Crete, including some, like Ned Nathan, who were part of the 28th Maori Battalion.

After Nathan was injured in 1941, a local Cretan woman, Katina, took care of him with help from her family. Katina and Nathan fell in love but after hiding out in caves, Nathan was later captured and sent to a German war camp. He never forgot Katina and the pair eventually reunited before marrying and moving to New Zealand. (They were the subjects of Ned And Katina: A True Love Story, a non-fiction book by Kiwi author Patricia Grace.)

Havas, who was born in 1947 in Czechoslovakia but moved to New Zealand with his parents the next year, befriended Nathan while making Once Upon An Island.

Havas discovered Nathan and fellow survivors of the Battalion plus the whanau of some of its members were planning to visit World War II battlegrounds in 1977, stopping at places such as Crete and Cassino, Italy. The two men corresponded by letter and Havas decided to make Sons Of Tu Matauenga, a documentary film about the 1977 pilgrimage. 

Forty years on, Wellington-based film-maker and sometimes actor Julian Arahanga (Once Were Warriors, The Matrix) has made a documentary with Havas about Sons Of Tu Matauenga and its links not only to the past but also to the present.

"We felt this content needed to be reimagined and replayed," says Arahanga. "I think especially in Sons Of Tu Matauenga when people see what Maori in the 70s were like with their suave clothes and their plum in their mouth in the way they talked ..."

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Beyond The Battalion includes interviews with those who took part in the pilgrimage including one woman who sold her car to fund the trip. Arahanga says the cost in 1977 was around NZ$2000 a person, which was a lot of money back then. 

"There were some who could afford it, some that couldn't afford it but scraped the money together," he says.

"There might have been four or five family (members) that wanted to go but they all pulled their money together and only one could go."

In Beyond The Battalion, Arahanga and Havas visit Crete and Cassino. In New Zealand there are interviews with Nathan's children and grandchildren plus people such as Wiremu Williams, who did the 1977 trip.

Arahanga says one of the most interesting things he learned while making Beyond The Battalion was how soldiers who returned from World War II sometimes struggled to cope with life.

"The pain that everyone had to carry – that's not just the Maori soldiers but also the Pakeha soldiers as well," he says. "You'd come back and a lot of these guys would have been suffering what they call post-traumatic stress disorder and stuff like that in today's terms but there weren't psychiatrists and people like that around to help them through all of that that they were carrying.

"That price that those guys had to pay and their families as they had to live with these men. They had nightmares and suffered the reliving of this kind of stuff."

Arahanga, who is in his mid-40s, has five children and two grandchildren. He played Jake Heke's son Nig in Once Were Warriors but these days mostly works behind the camera having directed Maori Television documentaries such as Songs From The Inside and Behind The Brush.

He is the son of Kiwi film-maker Larry Parr and the half-brother of director and actor Tammy Davis (Munter in Outrageous Fortune). 

Arahanga hopes people watch his latest documentary because he believes it is "a great window into our recent past".

"I like the idea of telling a story and developing a story whether that's a documentary or drama or reality," he says. "At one stage I did have the opportunity to try to follow up on a Hollywood career but I've always felt the pull towards New Zealand and telling New Zealand stories. I think our stories here are rich and still quite vastly untapped."

Beyond The Battalion, Maori Television, Tuesday April 25, 6.45am and repeated at 7pm.

 - TV Guide

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