People to watch this month: Robin Scholes, producer
It’s the precise way producer Robin Scholes counts out “three-quarter years” that really yanks at your heart strings when she talks about her latest film, Mahana. “This story is informed by my husband, my soulmate, who died two-and-three-quarter years ago,” she says forthrightly.
Mahana is an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha. The intergenerational tale of two feuding Maori sheep-shearing families takes place on the sun-bleached East Coast in the 1960s. Gradually, 14-year-old grandson Simeon unravels the awful truth behind the animosity. It’s a film that delves into many shades of love, even the darker ones.
Scholes has never shied away from thorny love stories. The first feature she ever produced was Once Were Warriors and she’s reassembled the core team behind the ground-breaking film — director Lee Tamahori, star Temuera Morrison and editor Michael Horton — for Mahana. It’s a film, she says, they would never have been able to make two decades ago after Warriors.
“Lee was much more interested in making international films,” says Scholes, who has stayed in touch with Tamahori intermittently but never offered him another project until Mahana came along. His parents recently passed away and Tamahori, who is Ngati Porou, felt the time was right to turn his lens on New Zealand.
“For Lee, it’s a kind of homecoming. It’s an appreciation for his family, what his upbringing gave him. For me, it’s got that sense of soulmates, enduring love,” says Scholes.
“Everything that I’m attracted to is about reinvention, redemption — the ability to take something really bad and turn it into something good. This story has it in spades. It’s all about the human ability to live with things that have gone wrong.”
“It’s a really good feeling to make stories like this in partnership … there is no other country where this can happen.”
Scholes was born in a maternity hospital in Richmond Rd and grew up in state housing in Orakei with a solo mother after her father died of tuberculosis. “My neighbours were Maori,” she says. “We’re lucky. In a lot of colonised countries, whites and indigenous people grow up segregated.”
She studied art history in Edinburgh and was a lecturer at Essex University when a job offer from Auckland University lured her home. “My soul craved being here, in a strange way,” she says. “I remember going out to the west coast and walking barefoot on the black sand and looking at the red filaments of the pohutukawa and just feeling so at home, so fulfilled.”
With the exception of a year studying film in New York on a Fulbright Scholarship, Scholes never wanted to live overseas again. She entered the male-dominated world of television, directing documentary programmes. “It was sexist,” she says. “You were very conscious that you had to prove yourself.”
Scholes credits Maori filmmaker Don Selwyn with setting her on the path to making Maori stories. “We were both on the board of the Film Commission and I was complaining about how difficult it was for women. He said to me, ‘You try to make a story about Maori people with a Maori cast and you will find how difficult it is to tell Maori stories in this country.’ It was a challenge and you have to respond to it.”
After Once Were Warriors, Scholes produced the contemporary western Crooked Earth, with Temuera Morrison as a man locked in a dispute with his brother over the fate of their tribal land. Scholes then consciously took a step back from Maori films. “I felt the time was right for Maori to take control of telling their own stories,” she says.
Mahana marks a return to working with storytellers like Ihimaera and Tamahori. “I’m much more comfortable about what I see in my own personal life as kind of like a Treaty obligation,” says Scholes. “It’s a really good feeling to make stories like this in partnership. I feel very proud that there is no other country in the world where this can happen. I’ve come full circle really.”
Mahana, in cinemas March 3.
Main image: Meek Zuiderwyk.