Award-winning filmmakers deliver fantasy series featuring top Māori performers

By Jessica Tyson

A new dramatic fantasy series airs this week on Whakaata Māori, made up of three tribal stories of the ancient Ngāi Tara people delivered all in te reo Māori.

The series Untold Tales of Tūteremoana was produced by three wāhine: award-winning filmmaker Hiona Henare and producers Ricky-lee Russell and Sharlene George.

Henare, from Mūaūpoko and Ngāi Tara, directed and wrote the series to help teach people about her iwi. Growing up, when she told people about her whakapapa, a lot of people didn’t know about Ngāi Tara.

The series is broken up into three parts; Toiroa, Oriori and Whiro.

“They're Ngāi Tara oral stories. So that’s what binds the three together but we jump into different timelines and that’s what makes them different.”

Toiroa is about when a father's comfortable life is threatened when his daughter discovers footprints in their remote homelands in the mystical Tararua mountain ranges.

Oriori follows a character named Tamatea, who is chosen to find a revered tohunga living in seclusion in the hills, and a supernatural force beckons his little brother Tiaki to follow him.  

The final story, Whiro, is about a young character named Whiro who is blamed for putting a curse on the village when strange things begin to happen in the sand dunes after her grandmother's burial.

Behind the scenes with actor Lawrence Makoare. Source: Screenshot from video by Keelan Walker.

'The best of the best' Māori actors

The series features some of the country’s top Māori actors and actresses including Lawrence Makoare, Mabel Wharekawa-Burt, Tania Heke, Mere Boynton and Whirimako Black.

When I wrote the script for Toiroa I knew in my head that I wanted Lawrence Makoare and, of course, he went into retirement. He was just overacting. So I reached out to him anyway and I sent him the script. In half an hour he got back to me with a thumbs up,” she says.

“It’s just jammed with all of these beautiful Māori performers. We’re talking about the best of the best. It’s just been a real experience working with these professionals.”

Filming behind the scenes. Source: Screenshot from video by Keelan Walker.

All three episodes were filmed in Aotearoa but with Toiroa they couldn't get up to the Tararua Ranges, so went to the Nelson Lakes in the South Island to shoot there instead.

“We had everything we needed. We had the snow. We had the mountain range. We had the terrain. We had the lakes," says Henare.

Māori take over the fantasy-drama space with new series.

Oriori was shot in Whakaoriori, Masterton and Whiro was shot in Horowhenua at Foxton Beach.

Henare was also grateful to work with veteran cinematographer Fred Renata.

“He is an outstanding cinematographer but he also gets it... in terms of the story, of being Māori and all of the different layers our Māori stories have because we're not just in this realm. We’re in a few different realms so his ability to bring everything into that frame for that moment for that whole film.”

The first of the episodes Toiroa aired on Whakaata Māori on Monday, December 5. Oriori will air on Monday, December 12 and Whiro will air on Monday, December 19. All will be available on demand.