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Tuesday, 13 November 2018 09:40 am

From Pacific Island beginnings to movie screens


HEAD TUTOR: Sima Urale is into her second year of teaching at the Film Shool, working on her own creative ventures on the side.

Life is more certain now for Sima Urale, as head tutor at the New Zealand Film and Television School, but she can’t help but dive back into projects on the side.

After two years at the school, Urale is enjoying the structured existence which is so different from her life in the film industry and its uncertain pay days.

She is now inspiring the next generation of New Zealand film makers, drawing on her 20 years working on commercials, short films, feature films, television, and documentaries.

But having the steady job in Wellington has not stopped her working on her own independent projects, which keeps her passionate.

“They have accepted me as the film maker who is also the head tutor, which is a good thing because I think we need to be active in the industry to keep up the energy and the verve for the sake of the students.”

Born in Savai’i, Samoa, at a time when there was no electricity on the island, Urale migrated to Wellington in the 1970’s with her family at the age of six.

Overcoming the challenges of adapting from simple village life to the western world, she has gone on to become one of New Zealand’s most influential women in film, having won numerous national and international awards.

Her feature film, Apron Strings, opened the 2008 New Zealand Film Festival and won best actor, best actress, best cinematography, and production design at the Qantas Film and TV Awards, as well as the Diversity Award at WIFT international in Los Angeles.

Her short films – O Tamaiti, Still Life, and Coffee and Allah – have won awards at festivals in the United States, Venice, Canada, Switzerland, Russia, Hawaii, Australia and NZ.

Velvet Dreams won best documentary in 1997 at Canada’s Yorkton Film Festival, and her music video for King Kapisi’s Sub-Cranium Feeling, which was filmed underwater, won a handful of awards in NZ.

Coming from an island without white people, and where only one car would drive through the village every three months, New Zealand was a major culture shock for Urale.

The hustle and bustle of a big city, with strange looking people speaking a foreign language, was worlds apart from her existence in Samoa, where all houses are open-air without walls.

“That was really quite significant – noticing that walls were up – and then TV, this little box with what I thought were miniature little people in it.”

Urale says she remembers watching cowboy and Indian movies, and thinking it was strange to see how the Indians kind of looked like Samoans but they were always getting killed off.

Her mother, a school teacher, embraced this new world with electricity, and used it as an opportunity to expand her children’s minds. She exposed them to documentaries on war, prostitution and drugs.

“We couldn’t watch Batman and Robin.

“We had to try and squeeze in any after school programmes quick before mum came home and then we had to sit there and watch all this quite heavy stuff.

“She would call us kids in and say ‘come and watch and learn something’.”

Urale describes her parents as liberal and outspoken, and says that is probably what opened doors for their six children, who now all have successful careers in media and the arts.

Urale’s younger brother is well known New Zealand rap artist King Kapisi, and her older brother, Tati, is a senior producer at TVNZ.

Her sister Makerita is a documentary film-maker and works at Creative NZ, older sister Natasha is a singer and younger sister Maila is a successful artist.

“I love it that we came from a different world and are able to work with both. It’s been a real bonus I think, creatively too.”

Urale says she did not feel suited to the mainstream school system so her parents encouraged her to explore her artistic side.

She ended up studying drama at Toi Whakaari, and for the following two years after graduating she had a successful stint acting in a diverse range of roles and shows.

Although she loved working as a professional actor Urale wanted to tell her own stories instead of other peoples so applied to film school in Melbourne.

After graduating in 1994 with the student of the year award, she returned home to make her first short film, O Tamaiti (The Children), which has been one of the most widely screened New Zealand films around the world.

The 35mm black and white film was told from a young Samoan boy’s perspective and reflected the responsibilities and pressures face by the eldest child in traditional Samoan culture.

All of Urale’s films explore different cultural and political issues.

“I’ve had offers to go to Hollywood but I’m not interested, I don’t think it’s my route.”

Urale attributes her film success to recognising the kind of filmmaker she is, and being true to herself.

“I do it for myself first and foremost. That sounds selfish but it’s not.

“It’s actually about sticking to your guns, having a strong sense of self belief without being arrogant, hopefully.”

Whitireia arts faculty dean Kaye Jujnovich says what Urale has brought to the film School is her story-telling ability.

“She is just a creative, and that creative process she instils in the students.

“Filming is about storytelling and a creative way of doing that, and that’s what she does extremely well.

“She brings the whole parcel to the project of film making.”

Urale’s key advice to students is establishing good relationships with others, always giving it 100 percent, and accepting that in the film industry there will be times you will be without work.

“It’s part of the artist life.”

Urale remembers watching television as a child and only seeing brown faces – usually in a negative light – while watching the six o’clock news.

This is one of the reasons she got into film making.

“You didn’t see them in commercials. There was no way you were going to see them on a toothpaste add.”

“For many indigenous people that’s actually one of the major problems. Media has marketed a certain image of the majority to the majority so that’s all they are used to.”

She says TV has a huge responsibility in programming shows to try and convey the positive stories about minority groups, and not programme them at “ridiculous” times like they so often are.

Having grown up in a western world, one life ambition Urale says she has yet to achieve is dealing with her cultural family traditions.

Despite her early success with O Tamaiti, she says she feels like an amateur when it comes to her Samoan side.

“Eventually when I am mature enough, I probably won’t do it until I’m in my 70’s, I will deal with my cultural stuff.”

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