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Shaping Stories – An Interview with Tainui Stephens

Storyteller Tainui Stephens is a New Zealand screen taonga. He has played a crucial role in telling some of Aotearoa’s most important stories. The New Zealand Wars, Māori Battalion  – March to war, When the Haka became Boogie, and The River Queen are just a few of the productions he’s been involved in. As a director, writer and producer Tainui has been involved in telling stories through the medium of film and television for most of his life. 

He spoke to Zara Potts about his career so far, the importance of telling your own story and how his early life in Ōtautahi helped shape his own story.

Where did you grow up in Ōtautahi?

I was born in Bealey Ave and I basically lived my life in the inner city. In my teen years I was based  mainly in St Albans and Papanui although it wasn’t that posh back then.

Did you come from a creative family?

I remember vividly my first encounters with anything creative – firstly through my mother’s record collection and the 3YC  programme where I learned about listening to classical music and picking up my mother’s knitting  needle and pretending to conduct.

The other thing in terms of arts back in those days was my exposure to good literature. My mother  certainly had good books around the place but it was actually through the Classics Illustrated comics that I had an   entry into great literature, I suppose. These were a big part of my early life, and it was very much enhanced by my schooling.

I went to St Andrews College, so those interests were very much allowed to be explored. I started  learning to play classical piano there, and have continued to do so all my life.

Was it was an encouraging school?

Very much so. For me anyway. It equipped me well for life.

When I look back at Ōtautahi,  I see all sorts of creative endeavours in  all sorts of creative fields  –  which are not necessarily recognised by  the rest of the country and certainly don’t seem to be represented in the way the rest of  the country sees Ōtautahi.  The usual story that  gets told  about Ōtautahi is that it is conservative, or traditional, or racist – but the creative aspect is  often ignored.  Did you get a sense of that vein of creativity here when you were growing up?

I always felt there were a lot of eccentrics in Christchurch.

As I grew up and became more aware of the history of Christchurch and my own place in the Māori  world, I saw the city with a greater sense of history, and of its own personality  – I was always struck that          Christchurch seemed to have so many eccentrics.

Someone said to me once that that was reflective of the Four Ships thing and this was a British characteristic more than anything else, but I don’t know. I  recall many people with big personalities, dancers, artists,    and musicians.

In terms of something ‘edgy’, I guess when I was growing up the edgiest thing that I remember was Renaissance Records which had a gloriously hippy kind of feel about it. When I think back on those years in the 60s and 70s, for me, Christchurch felt like a conservative and very Pākehā place.

I discovered my own Māori-ness outside of Christchurch but then again that’s just reflective of my personal family history. I discovered a small but vibrant Māori community in Christchurch as I made my  first steps into the Māori world.  I did so with great confidence because of them.

In particularly, the community around the Rēhua  Marae;  people like Terry Ryan and kaumatua like  Rikki Ellison and Hōhua Tūtengaehe. And especially the kapa haka of the time like Te Kotahitanga with Tihi and Willie Puanaki. My discovery of the Māori world was made with security in Christchurch  – but the challenge for me, was that my own iwi roots were outside of Christchurch.

Although I grew up in Christchurch and was schooled there, I didn’t discover anything about my own tribal identity until I went seeking it, and found that I  am of the Te Rarawa tribe in Ahipara. In a way part of my early story was to escape Christchurch because I knew that a lot of the clues to my identity were in the top of the North Island. I wanted to learn the language, I wanted to immerse myself in the Māori world and by definition that meant going to look actively for my own tribe.

So you really needed to leave this city find yourself?

When I left Christchurch I was in my very late teens and I did so with a great deal of sadness and a  sense of gratitude for what it gave to me as a town, I felt very secure.

I’d had a terrific schooling – my parents actually divorced when I was in third form – and we gave notice that we would be leaving St Andrews – but St Andrews wouldn’t have a bar of it. They said my brother and I     were the  first  Māori  who had been at the school since Primer One and they didn’t want our family circumstance to interrupt our education so they let us stay on at school at half price and pay the fees when we could.

I was always grateful for that continuity of a good education and for the aroha in encouraging that to be so. All my life I’ve felt I had a good upbringing in Christchurch because of my family, my education, and even     discovering ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’  in a safe way! So from that platform I went off into my world.

Who did you look to for inspiration back then? I’ve heard you talk about the importance of representation for Māori – being able to see yourself reflected back to you in media – so who did you look to at that time?  Was it there any representation at all?

No, it wasn’t there at all. It was all in the community around me, not in the media. I looked to local leaders like Aroha Crofts, Monty and Kaa Daniels, Hori Brennan and Tip Manihera,  or teachers like Bill Nepia and Bill  Hōhepa. There were some terrific Māori who were my immediate mentors. When I grew up, left town and explored the world,  I knew what to look for in new mentors and exemplars.

And yet of course there was creativity happening – particularly among Māori – at that time.  It  just wasn’t shown.     

It wasn’t until I was at the University of Canterbury Māori club that I began making connections with communities and individuals and came in touch with proactive groups like the fledgling Māori Artists and Writers  Society.

One of my early trips to the North Island was with Māori artists, and having my eyes opened by just the depth of writing talent, carving talent, painting talent, musical talent, oratorical talent.  That was all so inspiring. Because I was looking for the Māori world  I discovered a real love and affection for Māori oral literature as much as the love for English literature that had been fostered in me in Christchurch.

I knew where the gold was, and whether it came in the English language or the Māori language I  knew it was gold.


“We talk about knowledge being power, and it is, but only if you share it. We share through stories.  They are critical to our life, to our existence. At our most essential, the only story we can tell is our own. There’s something spooky and genetic that gets unlocked when people are allowed to – and given the freedom of technology – to tell their own stories in a way that feels right to them.”

What you’re talking about there, seems to be the best kind of amalgamation of the concept of bi-culturalism really – the two halves. How important is it for those two sides to be in tune, and how difficult is it to get those two sides in tune with each other?

Well, there’s the rub. I don’t think it is the ‘two halves’, I think it’s a bit more enmeshed and integrated than that.

I used to think I was fully bicultural because I could sit down at the piano and play my Beethoven as  much as I could thrill to the oratory of  kaumatua when I sat by their feet. Those are only expressions of aspects of culture. It really starts to count when you drill down into the behaviour of people in life’s big moments. Whether those are moments of life or death, there are times when you have to make consequential decisions like ‘bugger this job, I have to go to this tangi’. Or if  you have a child and you want to speak Māori to that child and you’re the only person in that household who speaks the language, you have to effect some sort of compromise with the non-Māori speaking parent. That’s difficult.

It’s hard to live a bifurcated life and perhaps say “Now I’m doing English. Now I’ll put this hat on. Now I’ll put that  hat on.’ It’s more integrated that that. One way I look at it, is that “when you marry the Māori mōhio and the Pākehā clever you get magic!”

Is that as easy as it sounds though?

Well for me I know what the Māori mōhio is, and I know what the Pākehā clever is – and when you see the best fusion of them, whatever the endeavour, whether it’s artistic or political or in areas of social wellbeing, things can really work beautifully. That to me, is one way to approach our biculturalism. It’s easier than thinking about being split into two halves.

But that also points out the dilemma doesn’t it?

It does point out the dilemma because as a country we claim to be bicultural and we are, to many  significant degrees, but we have to be properly bicultural if we are to fully function in the multicultural world.

The fact that Māori live seven to eight fewer years than the average Pākehā lifespan says something. The fact that Māori are more imprisoned or less educated than their Pākehā equivalents says something. Not just about New Zealand but about the human condition and New Zealand’s own take on a sad story – but too, it’s one with  huge potential.

One of the things I really notice when I travel around the world and go into indigenous areas is that New Zealand and Māori are looked to as an example of cultural acceptance, where two races of considerable difference can live side by side in a mutually beneficial relationship. People overseas see that. I see it here too – there’s no  doubt about it – I’m very much a half glass full type of person and I think New Zealand, like  it or not, is an exemplar for the world –  problems notwithstanding of  course.

And we are also an exemplar in many art forms.  New Zealand art is, in a lot of instances, Māori art.  The thing that we put out into the world that’s unique to us, that makes us         distinctive,  draws inspiration from te  Ao Māori. Look at our visual artists, our writers, our opera singers. There is a distinct Māori voice in the art we send out into the  world.

And you can see a parallel in film too. A few years ago Sam Neill made a documentary called ‘Cinema of  Unease’ and offered somewhat moody reflections on the New Zealand character as represented in film. A lot   of that centred around Pākehā feeling of unease, of guilt, those sorts of things. But now I think Māori and indigenous filmmaking is one of the stand out characteristics of New Zealand filmmaking. I think Māori films top 6 of the top ten most popular films in our cinema history.

I can imagine. When I think New Zealand film, it’s often  Māori films that spring to mind.

I saw ‘Daffodils’ when it came out and I thought ‘Shit, what a  fantastic Pākehā film!’ It’s an excellent  Pākehā film. There’s nothing Māori in it and it’s proudly Pākehā. And it’s interesting because over time you can see Pākehā  identity shaping itself in response to living side by side with Māori. The differences are made apparent in modes of behaviour that are always changing and  growing. There’s nothing  wrong about telling stories from any cultural perspective. I say to Pākehā, “You  should spell Pākehā with a capital P like Māori is spelt with a capital M’.

You can see this in a lot of art forms – we’re trying to feel our way through.

These things take time. We’ve traversed a lot of country together and we continue to do so.

This idea of storytelling as being important to identity – your  career has been very much centred on storytelling, albeit lots of different  stories, how much of the storytelling has been   reflective of your own story?

It’s not a secret that storytelling can be cathartic. You do reveal your own story. I look back at my  output over my career – many hundreds of hours of screen time – and I think I’ve actually only told a few stories.

I boil them down to three themes: Identity, war and music. In all my work these themes have shown up.

Do those three stories have a parallel in your own life?

Very much so. They reflect the things I discovered in my own identity. It’s such a core journey for any human being.  But through making work that reflects those themes I’ve been able to self reflect to a great degree    as well as reflect more widely on what it is to be human. In terms of the theme of war, you really see the human experience at its very best and worst. The Māori Battalion of  WW2  plays an important role in our family story. I’ve learnt about humanity in the way we have fought for peace and also in the way we have lost peace. As for music, discovering music as a teenager in the 1970’s was really a glorious time. My own private joy has been in making music an intrinsic part of the work I do. Whether it’s with dear friends like Michael Houstoun, Billy Kristian (another Christchurch Boy) or Whirimako Black – I just want to be where the music is.

Music is so evocative. I think of all the art forms it’s probably the form that directly connects to the  human experience. Music, even a few bars, can bring you to tears almost        unconsciously.

If we speak words to one another, we don’t necessarily understand all that’s being said, but if we listen to music, the meaning is as clear as a bell.


“Whether it’s a melody or a tone that can make the heart soar, or just make you relax, music can bridge the vast range of human experience.  There is a Ngāi Tahu proverb that in essence refers to the sound of creation. I like to think that the Māori view of the big bang is that it was actually a big hum. That resonates with me. With the little I know about physics, vibrational energy is definitely a thing. Music clearly has a vibrational energy but so too does the best oratory – the rhythm of it, the meter of it – no matter what the language.”

Does music have the ability to bridge cultures?

Absolutely. Whether it’s a melody or a tone that can make the heart soar, or just make you relax, music can bridge the vast range of human experience. It’s fascinating to me that the tonal system of western music is so different to that of indigenous music, and yet it still connects. There is a Ngāi Tahu proverb that in essence refers to the sound of creation. I like to think that the Māori view of the big bang is that it was actually a big hum. That resonates with me. With the little I know about physics, vibrational energy is definitely a thing. Music clearly has a vibrational energy but so too does the best oratory – the rhythm of it, the meter of it – no matter what the language.

Music tells a story, often without words, but what about conventional storytelling? How important is it to tell your own story, to be able to give voice to your past, your present, your      experience?

That’s a deceptively simple but really big question. We talk about knowledge being power, and it is, but only if you share it. We share through stories.  They are critical to our life, to our existence. At our most essential, the only story we can tell is our own. There is a difference and uniqueness about every individual  – in many ways it’s very elemental.  We’re all just molecules bouncing off each other in a giant petri dish. What we tell ourselves and each other about those experiences and interactions is important.

In Māori we say “Ko wai ahau?” Who am I?   But it’s not just a question, it’s also a statement. And as a statement it says “I am water”.  How we identify ourselves is very important. Before Pākehā came we called ourselves tangata whenua. We didn’t call ourselves Māori, we simply viewed ourselves as people of the land – this view of the world helped me understand myself as a human being.

And what happens when other people tell your story for you?

That’s oppression. That’s colonialism. That’s cancel culture. If you deny other people the opportunity to tell their own stories, you deny their existence. That’s the worst kind of  repression.

How then do we ensure our own stories are told?

The internet has generated a revolution of storytelling. The digital space has meant there’s a changing of the guard, and the most recent keepers of the stories such as television and newspapers, are now under threat. We now have the ability to tell our stories without having to go through a gatekeeper, there are fewer barriers. We’re now resetting the default position.

Are there still barriers though? Particularly for Māori?

Overall, things have got better but there are still difficulties to be addressed. I still despair at wilful ignorance. In terms of the Māori world itself, I see some internal barriers becoming apparent as in the gap between the cultural haves and the cultural have-nots.

What do you mean by that?

Over the last few decades we’ve seen the rise of Kōhanga Reo which has meant that a generation, actually nearly three generations now, are now bilingual, bicultural and bi-capable, which is a fantastic thing, but it’s important to remember that most Māori haven’t had that. There’s still a lot of sorrow and even shame from Māori who have not had access to their language or other aspects of culture. The new generations with             all the confidence and knowledge of their identity could, unless they’re aware and careful, embody a kind of cultural elitism. There are so few resources in the creative industries, and this can lead to tensions as Māori authenticity becomes ever more recognised as important. The saving grace will be our tikanga. As long as we can communicate, as  long as we can hui, as long as we talk face to face – as long as these tikanga exist, we  can solve anything.

In terms of other difficulties, what about appropriation?  I know this happens but what do we need to do  about it? What is the best approach?

It is an issue, and it’s definitely an issue in the film world. From many sides actually. I’m currently making a film on Dame Whina Cooper and my producer partner is a Pākehā chap, Matthew Metcalfe.  He is really, really good at what he does and we’re a team.  But he got a lot of flak about the fact that he was a Pākehā producer working on a film about Whina Cooper. The critics ignored me the Māori producer, and the fact that it is a collaboration along the lines I was talking about earlier, marrying the Māori mōhio and the Pākeha clever. I think all too oftenwe can get caught up in looking forward, that we don’t look back at the whakapapa of the past and the lessons it offers.

I want to ask you about digital film making, which seems to be a new frontier in filmmaking and one where Māori are again excelling, what’s your take on this new media?

Their skills just blow me away. Young people grow up fast these days, and their thinking has expanded exponentially. And yes, a lot of rangatahi Māori are exceptionally good at it and I think this is simply the truth of our whakapapa. There are certain  artistic genes that carry on. There’s something spooky and genetic that gets unlocked when people are allowed to – and given the freedom of technology – to tell their own stories in a way that feels right to them.

And what about the reinterpreting of traditional stories? We have a couple of Māori led design studios here in Ōtautahi who are doing amazing work that reinterprets what we might think of as traditional Māori characters or stories.

When I was working on Mai Time, we had Guy Moana an expert carver, carve all our set in polystyrene. It became this amazing hip hop, urban, bright colourful set, that reinterpreted traditional techniques with modern design. There is an amazing capacity in Māori art to retain the integrity of its origins, but to be able to look so far forward into the future.

What’s your advice to young creatives? What’s the one thing you would tell yourself if you were able to speak to your younger self?

In some ways the advice I did get couldn’t have been better and I’m glad I listened at the time. A lot of it has to do with gratitude and mana and utu – and I don’t mean utu as in revenge – I mean it as a kind of karmic thing. I also say to young people that we live in such a highly competitive world these days, the main challenge is simply to be seen. The people who I notice or ‘see’ are often those who simply do what they say they’re going to do. If someone ‘reaches out’ for example, you may ask them to send an email, or do this or that. When they agree, you expect it to be done.  You’d be surprised at how many people don’t.  Doing  what you say you’re going to do gives you a head start. So the best advice I have is to invest every word that falls from your mouth with your mana.

E mihi maioha tonu nei au ki a Ngāi Tahu mā. Heoi, mauriora ki a  tātou.



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