12 Mar 2023

Red, White and Brass: New Wellington Tongan film on screen

From Sunday Morning, 3:00 pm on 12 March 2023
John-Paul Foliaki stars in Red, White and Brass

John-Paul Foliaki stars in Red, White and Brass Photo: Supplied

If you've ever been in Auckland or Wellington when the Tongan national Rugby Union or League team is playing you'll know how passionate their fans are. Cars are decked out in red and white, there's always lots of music and entertainment.

A new feature film shot in Wellington is bringing that passion to the big screen. Red, White and Brass is the story of a die-hard Tongan rugby fan who misses out on tickets to a Tonga versus France world cup game, but promises to deliver a band for the pre-match entertainment - only that band does not exist and he has just weeks to create one.

It is inspired by a true story.

Co-writer and co-producer Halaifonua (Nua) Finau and lead actor John-Paul Foliaki who played Maka, talked with Sunday Morning about how the movie came about and the themes running through it.

Nua said the anticipation and reception for the film have blown him away.

He began writing and developing the idea after being surprised at seeing a Tongan band performing in a Royal Edinburgh Tattoo performance in Wellington.

But it wasn't until discussing the idea with a friend that he took away the advice that: "It's always better when it's seated in truth, and honest, authentic stories', and was redirected back to draw on his own real-life experiences in a Tongan church brass band. "And the more we went down the path I did realise that it was unfolding to be quite a special story," he said.

In 2011 when the Rugby World Cup was held in Wellington, Nua missed out on the ballot to get tickets: "I couldn't go - I was pretty gutted.

"Then when Tonga arrived in Auckland and you saw the craziness - I think even Richie McCaw said: 'It wasn't until the Tongans came that we realised that - oh shucks, this is a pretty big deal, the world cup'.

"All of us in Wellington were pretty eager to go, and the tickets were kind of expensive. So I don't think many of the people at our church really thought about buying tickets (if you know Tongans we've got big families) - and we managed to hustle [a spot performing at the] gig.

"We had no instruments, no band and really no idea of what we were doing. But we had one guy from Tonga ... he was studying at Victoria University, and he taught us how to play the instruments, and taught us an 8 minute set... and we went to Tawa Boys' Brigade and got our first batch of instruments and did some fundraising and got some real instruments."

That band, the Taulanga U Brass Band, still plays every Sunday at the Wesleyan church in Wellington.

Nua said the film really picked up pace once it had the backing of Piki Films, which brought them the "well oiled machine" of executive producers Carthew Neal, Ainsley Gardiner and Taika Waititi.

"When the Piki Films team came on, kind of the seas parted and it happened really quickly in feature films timelines ... from signing the contract with them to here it's two years - it happened really fast," Nua said.

Foliaki's starring role as Maka was his first after the realisation he wanted to pursue a career in the creative industries - a big switch from his former role as a management consultant.

"It was surreal, it was quite overwhelming as well, but it was really exciting to see the world that we know so well just come to life - and seeing so many people who aren't Tongan be so invested in this story as well," Foliaki said.

"It was cool because it just shows that your culture and the limited things that you have and the stories that we just take for granted - when you put that down on paper and you explain it to people who aren't Tongan ... people start to fall in love with the story.

"And I hope that's what the rest of the nation gets when they come and watch this film - even though it is based on Tongans, the themes are so universal. It's really something beautiful that shows on screen."

The film portrays mafana in action - an important Tongan concept, Foliaki said.

"Mafana literally translates to warmth, or a state of something being warm. But it's more like a spiritual feeling of being overwhelmed with those feelings and emotions of pride, joy, excitement that just all come together and reaches that peak.  

"That's why you see so many Tongans being so patriotic and excited for their country and having flags all over their cars, all over their houses. If you know Tongans celebrations, they'll randomly jump up and celebrate and scream and cheer for whatever the cause is, whether it's their church, their family.

"It's that feeling that overtakes you - and there's a line on the poster: 'Leave your brains at home'. It's about that, you just follow your heart and how you feel and go with the moment."

Nua was invited to take the film to a showing for the Tongan queen and members of the royal family.

"That was a pretty special experience. I think for many Tongans they'll agree we're a pretty patriotic country and proud people, and the royal family ... we don't normally get an audience from the queen," Nua said.

"So to be able to take something over there and show her and kind of get the royal seal, was a pretty emotional experience for me and my family."

Red, White and Brass was created as a family film, and Nua said seeing three generations of the royal family enjoy it underlined his hopes that it is story everyone could enjoy.

He especially hopes the story will be accessible for children and young people, and the team have organised showings for Wellington schools.

"I was never really academic - I think a lot of us Tongans, Taika said it - indigenous people ... we're the original story tellers, and coming from New Zealand, we're known as a yarning culture, and I don't think for me as a kid it was really fostered so knew it was one of the talents that I was given. We're always pushed into the tried and true pathways," Nua said.

"That's something I want kids to understand, is to look in themselves and go: 'What's special about me?'

"That's what the messaging of the film is, Maka learns what's special about himself, but also what's special about his community, and what can be achieved when you back yourself, and then when your community backs themselves you can achieve some pretty awesome things."

"It was a dream come true to be able to show kids not only the messaging of the film but also my personal journey - I didn't even really know how to do it, I just moved forward in faith and let God work ... follow your dreams and not really worrying - knowing my destination but not really worrying about the how-to, just moving forward with a positive mindset."

Red, White and Brass premieres on 21 March, and will be released on 23 March.