23 Apr 2017

Beyond the Battalion

From Standing Room Only, 12:15 pm on 23 April 2017

The survivors and descendants of the 28th Māori Battalion who in 1977 travelled back to the European battle sites and cemeteries of WWI – and the forgotten Kiwi filmmaker who documented their journey – are the subject of a new documentary airing on Māori Television this ANZAC Day.

Beyond The Battalion, directed by Wellington filmmaker and sometime-actor Julian Arahanga, focuses on two little-known documentaries by Michael Havas, Once Upon An Island and Sons of Tūmatauenga.

Julian Arahanga tells Lynn Freeman about the project.

Arangaha says that while he was working on a TV series about the painter Gottfried Lindauer and his subjects (Beyond the Brush) Havas sent him an email out of the blue.

"He said 'Julian, I'm an expat New Zealander, but live in the Czech Republic, and I'm really interested in making something about Gottfried Lindauer.' I said 'That's interesting, I'm already making something and in fact I'm going to be in the Czech Republic in three weeks."

Havas joined the production, acting as a translator and cultural advisor. While they were together he suggested Arahanga check out a couple of films he'd made in the '70s.

When Arahanga got home, he headed along to Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision to see them.

"I had to reply to him immediately and say 'Wow, Michael, these films are something special. You've captured something in these films that I think the rest of New Zealand would be really interested in seeing."

"Essentially, [the survivors of the Battalion and their descendants] chartered a cruise liner. Five hundred of them in total went on a cruise liner around the Mediterranean, to North Africa, to the Middle East, to Italy, to Greece and even to the UK on this ocean liner. Essentially, it was a floating marae."

Julian Arahanga with writer Patricia Grace before her interview for the film

Julian Arahanga with writer Patricia Grace before her interview for the film Photo: Useful Media

Havas's two films include interviews with Batallion members Ned Nathan and the first commander George Dittmer.

"Michael captured some really, really important information from these guys. And they were at a time in their lives when they could openly share a lot of these things where previously they might not have. And Michael being a young innocent filmmaker, maybe they thought 'This is a time that I can open up.' Some of the things they say and the way they say them are really quite stirring."

Arahanga says it was a real eye-opener for him to see how the people in the films spoke and presented themselves.

"They're wearing very suave clothes and they've got a lot of panache and they're speaking this really eloquent English."

"People will be able to see their fathers, their grandfathers, their uncles, their mums, their aunts, for the very first time in a way they've never seen them before. Every time that we get to see these things builds another part of our understanding and appreciation of them and what they did, what they achieved. Hopefully we can contextualise that and take it into our own daily lives."

Havas will be watching from the Czech Republic with a big group of expat New Zealanders and Australians when the documentary goes to air, Arahanga says.

Beyond The Battalion, Māori  Television - Tuesday April 25, 6.45am and repeated at 7pm.