New film highlights NZ’s failed housing crisis and state care system

By Jessica Tyson

A New Zealand-made film The Justice of Bunny King has put a spotlight on the country’s failed housing crisis and state care system.

The film, which is out now in cinemas, follows the character of Bunny King, played by actress Essie Davis, who is recently released from prison and fighting to regain custody of her children.

While battling the system to reunite with her children, a confrontation leads her to take her niece Tonyah, played by actress Thomasin McKenzie, under her wing after she has been sexually harmed by her stepfather.

In the film, New Zealand actress Tanea Heke plays the character of Trish, a caring social worker who gets caught up in Bunny's antics.

Trish is quick to judge Bunny but, after spending some time with her, soon realises that she is just doing her best in a failed system.

“When Bunny first walks in and meets Trish, Trish has pretty much got it sussed. She has read the files, she understands that as far as Trish is concerned we’re looking after the children. That is the job of the social worker, says Heke.

“But as time goes on, Trish does get to spend some quality time with Bunny. She gets to understand a little bit more about what makes Bunny tick, and that actually all she wants to do is be with her children and she is in fact caught up in a system that is less sympathetic.”

Fighting against the system

Heke says being part of the film made her aware of how easily you can fall into the system.

“At the end of the day, what I love about Bunny is that she is this real woman. At the end of the day, all she wants is her kids back. She’s a gritty individual with a heart of gold. In the face of adversity, she keeps on fighting and fighting until she finally gets what she thinks she wants, which is about her kids and honestly everything is stacked against her. She is just one little person fighting against the whole system.”

Heke says she hopes people who watch the film will get to learn that there are a lot of people living in the system.

“This is a pretty extreme example but that’s their truth of having to sit in these offices, of having their mana stripped back, all of those things. We’ve created this system and there are lots of people living in it.”

Bunny King and Tonyah, played by Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie. Source / File

The Justice of Bunny King is one of three films, funded through the New Zealand Film Commission's 125 Fund, which offered $1.25 million to films led by women.

The film was directed by Gaysorn Thavat and written by Sophie Henderson, Gregory King and Thavat and produced by Emma Slade.

“I have to tell you, the producer, the director, the director of photography, in fact, most of the crew and all of the decision-makers were all women, which was fantastic. But I’ve been really spoilt,” says Heke, who also acted in Cousins.

“I’ve had mana wāhine since I came off Cousins and it was absolutely the same experience too. There is something really empowering watching women telling their story, having sovereignty over their own story-making, so it’s brilliant.”