Apr 17, 2021


Maori News & Indigenous Views

Maori Boy Genius: First Fame | About Last Weekend Blog

4 min read

The fascinating thing about watching my sisterPietrashow her filmMaori Boy Geniusat theBerlin Film Festivalis seeing the first, but sure rays of fame, shine on her and 17-year-old Ngaa, the subject of her documentary.

Pietra’s film follows 18 months in the life of Ngaa who was chosen at birth to lead his people…at a time when young Maori men are over-represented in the number of High School dropout, arrests and incarcerations. As film reviewers are already saying:it is as if a documentary maker has tracked the young Barack Obama.Growing up in the language and tradition of the Maori culture, Ngaa only learned English at age four, completed a university degree at 13 and devoured philosophy while his classmates were talking about pop stars. At 16 he travelled to Yale for summer school.

After their first sell-out screening in the 1,000-seat theatre, Ngaa and Pietra were surrounded by people asking questions and wanting autographs. Within hours the word was out and I noticed passers-by taking photos of the two of them. Slightly disconcerting for Ngaa who at one stage put up his hood.Of course this is not the fame of Meryl Streep, also at the festival, orTaika Waititi,Academy nominated writer and director ofBoy, one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve seen this year and coming to the US in March.

“I really would like to meet Ngaa” an NZ Embassy staffer told me “but I don’t want to interrupt him, could you introduce me?” Normally this recognition is reserved for the subject of documentaries, not for the directors. But you can’t miss Pietra, 6ft and that’s without her usual high heels, with loads of red hair, bright red coat and blue faux fur neckwarmer, and it was great to see many young women asking her advice.

To introduce the first screening Pietra gave the traditional Maori call “karanga” and she and Ngaa sang a song written by Maori soldiers stationed in Germany about missing their loved ones. The audiences here laugh more loudly and cry more profusely than any I’ve seen. Ngaa too wept, overwhelmed by the film, which he had seen for the first time. Afterwards, wiping away tears, he thanked the audience and explained that it was not only he standing before them but his family (whanau), his iwi (tribe) and his ancestors, who were always with him.

One man stood up in the audience and was actually sobbing. He said he was moved thatNgaa stood so proudly with his forebears behind him. That has been taken from us, said the man, because of the atrocities committed in WW2. They could never again be proud of their forefathers. Another man stood up and echoed this.

From the QandA it became evident that that even the children in the audience had done a lot of research before they arrived. It also became clear that some thought it was a film and Ngaa was an actor. “What is your next film?” they asked.
Pietra and Ngaa got off the plane with a one paragraph in a Wall Street Journal article and two requests for German radio interviews. But after the first screening there followed a great review inVariety, more requests for TV, print and radio interviews and an interview with Pietra for an art installation in a top Paris gallery.

Being with documentary makers from breakfast till the small hours I noticed how they supported each other, sharing contacts and information. (That apparently is not true of the movie industry) “If one is successful, it makes it easier for the rest of us.” says Pietra.) Like Pietra, many of them have to use their own money, re-mortgaging their apartments and maxing out credit cards. Even the most famous of doco makers often do their own filming, editing and marketing.

It’s been refreshing to walk around Berlin with Ngaa who has never seen snow. There are not many 17-year-olds I would hang out with all day and all night but he was great company and alwaysvery appreciative. Bought up by his grandparents – as is the Maori custom – he has an innate respect for his elders. As I am an elder – one of “the olds” – this is awesome. But because he has so polite we often found him cornered by someone and had to be rescued.

Getting out of cabs he called to the driver : “Good night, thank you and have a good sleep, sir!” Looking down at his black slip-on shoes he says: “I have to polish these with nugget before I go out tonight.”

Ngaa had never been interested in clothes but started noticing the classic style: “I really like those coats, whatever they are called” he said pointing to a trench. The morning I left he was heading off to budget store H&M to look at trenches, leather gloves and dark wash jeans. Oh and pick up a Russian hat from the vendor on the corner. Off shopping…a typical teen, that’s how he rolls.

1 thought on “Maori Boy Genius: First Fame | About Last Weekend Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.