Film honouring celestial navigator Sir Hek Busby in cinemas

By Jessica Tyson

Thirty years ago there were no waka hourua, no ocean-going canoes and no surviving knowledge of celestial navigation in Aotearoa but thanks to Sir Hekenukumai Ngaiwi Puhipi Busby we've come a long way.

This week a documentary, Whetū Mārama – Bright Star, co-directed by Toby Mills and Aileen O’Sullivan will be in cinemas honouring the life and work of master navigator Sir "Hek".

“He was the boss of the waka. He was the man. He felt at home on the ocean…Through his reconnecting with all of that knowledge, it's brought all of us with him as well and now it's been reclaimed for Aotearoa,” says Mills, of Ngāti Hinerangi.

Sir Hek’s story is captured in Whetū Marama through recent interviews, waka hourua voyaging, archival footage and dramatic reconstructions.

The directors started shooting new footage for the film three years ago but, for Mills, the journey began a lot earlier.

“I started filming with Hector some 15 years ago and traveling with him around the world to build canoes", he says.

“It was such an experience traveling with him, being with him and around him. It was really an honour.”

O’Sullivan says she has always been fascinated by Sir Hek “not only by the character of the man but by the knowledge that opened the world up, the knowledge of celestial navigation, the connection with other waka builders and master navigators throughout the Pacific, throughout Polynesia," she says.

Behind the scenes interview with Sir Hek at his home at Aurere Beach in the Far North. Source: Whetū Mārama

Sir Hek began his career building bridges in the Far North, completing more than 200 before quitting to pursue his true passion, ocean voyaging.  

“At the age of 50, he changed streams and became a waka builder and a celestial navigator. I mean, that's really remarkable in itself. That's the lesson he's given me is that just because you do what you do now, doesn't mean you have to do that forever. You can do whatever you want and he did it.”

His canoe building was entirely self-taught. He went on to sail around Aotearoa and other Pacific islands, becoming the first Māori to be appointed a Polynesian master navigator.

Thousands arrive to farewell Sir Hekenukumai Puhipi - Te Ao Marama, May 2019

In 2019 Sir Hek passed away at 86 and was laid to rest at his beloved marae Te Uri o Hina in Pukepoto. At that time, shooting for the film was still being done so the tangihanga was included in the documentary.

“It was shocking. I remember, I got so used to Hek being old. I just got used to it and every time we went up, he was the same. It was the same energy. It was the same bloke. Then Toby rang and said that he'd passed. And I really got a deep, deep shock,” O’Sullivan says.

Mills says it was also a loss for the Far North community.

“He's an icon of the North and he'd been around for so long and leading in his own way.”

But before he died, Sir Hek left a to-do list for each of his loved ones.

“Everybody had things that they had to do and everyone would talk to each other about it … He had all the gaps filled for everyone to carry on his legacy.”

Behind the scenes filming dramatic recreations for the film. Source: Whetū Marama.

Mills and O’Sullivan were given a to-do list by Sir Hek. On it, they were tasked to finish the film.

“I'm just so happy that we've managed to collate this material that I collect and then go and capture new stuff before he passed away and actually put it together and have this tribute to him really. And something that we know now they'll live on forever,” Mills says.

That legacy includes building New Zealand’s first waka hourua in record time, sailing the Pacific triangle, building his own star campus and a new celestial navigation school to open.

“All these dreams he had are starting to come to fruition. He didn't get to see them. I think that's a thing, when you have such big dreams, you don't necessarily get to live to see those things,” Mills says.

“The most valuable thing is that now our tamariki know about navigation and they realize we were the greatest navigators in the world. We traversed the vast expense of Polynesia and it's not a theory or a myth anymore, it's reality.”

Whetu Mārama - Bright Star will be in cinemas across Aotearoa from June 24.