Kiwi movie feels just like home

03:51, Feb 14 2013
Mt Zion
Stan Walker and Temuera Morrison on set in Pukekohe.

Mt Zion stars Hamilton Boys' High old boy and Australian Idol winner Stan Walker so it's no surprise it shot to number one in the New Zealand box office just days into its first week. Siena Yates reports.

It's not just a movie, it's a cinematic experience. The cinema is full of laughter and it's the little things like the old school insults, the "bros" and "whatevers", the boil-up, the kids playing on the marae.

When Tem picks up a guitar, someone yells, "give us a G", followed by, "play something we all know" and we all laugh at our inside joke. Then a classic like Lonely Blues comes on, we all sing along.

It's a film that feels like home, and makes every other cinema-goer feel like family.

For the film's creator, Tearepa Kahi, it's been a long journey and one well ended.

It's taken years of work, and even the idea for Mt Zion has been forming in the back of Kahi's mind since he was a child.


Like our main character Turei, Kahi's father was a spud picker in Pukekohe, before hitting the road in a jazz fusion band with none other than Billy T.

"So music had always been around, a part of my life. And even though I grew up in Christchurch, every year we travelled back and forged strong connections with the whanau and worked out what Puke' was all about."

It all fell into place on a lunch break, when Kahi found video footage of Bob Marley's welcome to New Zealand.

"Suddenly he received this powhiri . . . and I just remember looking at this guy coming at Bob Marley with a taiaha and thought, ‘wow, what would it have been like to hold that taiaha and do the wero for Bob Marley?', so that was the catalyst."

The competition to open for Marley really happened and the band that won in the movie really did win, but the rest came from Kahi and the rest of the team.

Vital to the cast is musician and Australian Idol winner Stan Walker, who caught Kahi's attention with a rendition of Prince's Purple Rain.

Walker was a student at Fairfield Intermediate and Hamilton Boys' High School before moving across the ditch, and has a loyal fan base in the Waikato.

"We had a lot of questions as to whether he was the right person to play Turei. But when we started just hanging out, getting to know each other, all we ever talked about first was our whanau, our mana, our musical background and forged a connection based on personal experiences and once we did that we were able to work our way into Turei," says Kahi.

"It was more about building the confidence within Stan to know that he could take this role on, that he had the right stuff. I think when you've never acted before, there's always a little bit of doubt. Once I started working with him and got to know him I was pretty adamant that it was gonna be Stan the man all the way."

Kahi's family were also a vital part of production, with his wife helping to call all the big shots, and his son acting the part of Toko. But perhaps the most well-known cast member is Kiwi screen icon Temuera Morrison.

"Tem's the man. As a director you want to try to bring out something that you've never seen before in that person, that well-known actor.

"We all know Tem's roles over the years . . . everyone does know him as Jake [Once were Warriors] . . . so I was very interested in presenting Tem in a role that asked him to be fragile and broken, and he felt the same way.

"I'm really proud of his performance, it's really beautiful and authentic."

And then there's the music. It's Kiwi reggae with that home garage feel, largely written and composed by Kahi himself, despite describing his musical background as "pretty limited".

"I was brought up on Miles Davis and made to play the trumpet from an early age. I can still get the horn out and give it a toot, but I've put my musical ambitions to the side.

"A lot of Maori actors - we always think that we can sing but when you're sitting in a garage and you ask Stan to sing a song, then you know what singing's all about and then I'm glad that I can write and direct. Just join in on the chorus," he laughs.

The music is firmly based in the Ratana faith, which he and most others in Pukekohe were all brought up with, and the messages and musical structures of which, he felt, synched perfectly with Marley's.

"We narrowed it down to a very Puke' sound.

"The bros don't have money to buy instruments, they've got what they've got, a lot of their guitars have only got four or five strings but their sound is something that is native to the place they live. It's not No Woman No Cry, it's not Redemption Song, it's just bros in the garage singing to a poster on the wall.

"We've designed a film where there's next to no violence, no big heavy leather jackets, no death, just good hard-working people who pick all day and sing all night and just work for each other. Life with some sunshine and heartache and a lot of time for laughter."