Sima Urale
Sim Urale, 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Burr/Tatham Trust Award
31.08.19

An interview with Sima Urale

An interview with the 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate receiving the Burr/Tatham Trust Award.

How did you get into film?

I started out in acting and I got consistent work in professional theatre. Back then there was no Shortland Street, so there wasn't that much screen work for actors, but theatre was very busy.

I went into film because after two years acting, I thought it would be great to have more say, to be able to create my own work and write stories that I'm familiar with. Acting was great, but it was Shakespeare and other people's plays. I thought being a filmmaker would be a great skill to have in terms of writing, exploring ideas, and directing. So that's when I studied film. Back then it wasn't digital. It was all film, 16 mil and editing and splicing films. But I had to go to Australia, and I went to Victoria College of Art. It was an amazing film school, the oldest film school in Australia.

Did you act in any of your early films?

People kept asking me for years and I'm, “no, no, no!” But I did come back to theatre years later in 1995 to do a play called Think of a Garden, which won the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards back then. It was directed by Nathaniel Lees. Now and then I do return to the theatre. I also acted for my sister Makerita, who wrote Frangipani Perfume, which is quite a well-known play now, and One Thousand Ropes by Tusi Tamasese, I loved the spirit in that film. I go back into acting for very special projects, I don't do it all the time. And that's because writing and directing and creating your own projects is so time-consuming. I love acting, but I prefer being behind the camera.

Do you produce as well, or do you work with producers?

We can't make our films without producers, it's like a marriage. I am always thankful for them, because they’re incredible, they make it happen and they do everything that I hate doing in the film industry, which is so awesome.

You immigrated to New Zealand from Samoa. How did this experience impact your work?

In 1974 my family came over. Everything was so foreign and new. We came from a little village with grass huts. In my village, even today, a lot of people haven't even talked to a white person. I remember back in the day a car would drive through the village once every month or so and the kids were so excited, they would run to try and touch it. We came from living by the fire surrounded by plantations, we had no electricity, that's the island life, to suddenly complete culture shock.

I loved it. As a kid, you don't really recognise or realise all the suffering that your parents are going through because it's so new. I had a wonderful experience in terms of being an immigrant taking in all the new sights. My mum didn't censor anything. She was a teacher, but she didn't shelter us, because she was taking it all in and she was hungry for what was happening in the world. So when the news was on we had to watch the news with her and when a documentary was on, she'd say "you guys need to watch this,” so we'd sit there and watch these programmes on drugs and prostitution and protests uncensored, which is quite bizarre. But that's part of my mom's outward look into the world – she really wanted to get to know where we lived, because we came from an island that was totally isolated and insular, to this world we didn't know.

I think part of us opening into the arts, because as kids we're all in the arts and media, has to do with mum's openness to everything and anything, she’s really liberal. We are not your normal Island family for sure and never have been. Even when we lived on the island, we were always a bit different because mum and dad raised us that way. And coming here we were odd because we didn't go to church like other families. It's a bit sad we missed out on some things; we didn't participate as much as our cousins in Pacific Island things. But that's okay, and we love that side of our culture. But we recognise that we are a bit different, breaking out into the arts was odd back then.

Who have been some of your mentors along the way?

Rangimoana Taylor was a wonderful mentor. He was well known as an actor and tutor. He's Riwia Brown's brother. They are a well-known family as they were all in the arts. So was Sunny Amey, who is prominent in the theatre. She was the director of the New Zealand Drama School. She's like our kaumatua of theatre and she's incredible and supported a lot of us.

I was really lucky. I went to drama school in a brown year. We were the biggest intake of brown students they had ever taken in, Cliff Curtis, Julie Edwards, Toby Mills and me. And we had Tim Balme, Michael Galvin, and Emily Perkins in our year as well. I'm so impressed with my peers; they've done amazing stuff and I'm proud of them. We graduated in 1989 and I still have my theatre family, my friends and connections from the acting scene around me even though I've moved into film.

How do you feel when you make a film?

I'm thankful. I feel like I'm really privileged to be doing what I do. Even if we go broke for months on end freelancing – I always feel thankful. Because we get to tell stories, we get to express ourselves in the most public way and people let us and sometimes they disagree with us and sometimes they love us. I want to have a say about society, if I'm angry about something, I can tell a story and write about it and maybe get funded. It's an incredible place to be.

Coffee & Allah by Shuchi Kothari was the first time I directed someone else's work. I put my name to it because no one had done a positive story about a Muslim family living in New Zealand. There's a responsibility that goes with being a filmmaker at times and sometimes it's not all about my stories. Sometimes you have to be the conduit for other people to get their stories told or have their voices heard. Coffee & Allah might not have gone ahead if I didn't put my name to it. We might not see a Muslim story for another 50 years. Sometimes you do think about the political context of what's happening within the country.

Apron Strings written by Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor is another example of a film that I knew was important to put my name too. How many of us have grown up with Indian neighbours or Indian friends at school? Yet we rarely see them on our screens. It's so weird.

For a long time seeing Polynesian faces on the screen was rare. There were not enough of us involved in the arts. It's different now, but having experienced what it's like to be a minority and not seeing yourself being part of the landscape in a film, I can understand. I think it's important for other minority groups to also come through.

Is the spaciousness that you brought to your film from your theatre background?

Theatre definitely influences the way I compose filming, composition, framing, but also art because I love art. Most people don't know I paint, but I do paint. All of the art forms I do feel like they blend together.

What are you working on at the moment?

I put aside writing about 12 years ago for directing, because in general there is sweet stuff-all money in screenwriting. And it was all too much. It's very hard to write and direct because they both take so much time. So, I set aside writing thinking, I'll just wait for other people's writing to come along. But I've discovered it probably would have been just as fast had I done it myself.

Last year, I decided to go back to writing. It’s been good taking that break. You learn so much working on other people's scripts, to come back has been amazing. And it means I can instigate projects again. I applied to the New Zealand Writers Guild and got funding to write the first draught of a feature film. So that's what I'm currently working on.

I also have this wonderful feature project and an offer from another company for another project. I do projects for various companies and have probably worked with most of the major companies in New Zealand throughout the years.

How do you survive in between films?

I do commercials and all sorts. I have turned down projects because it's two years of my life. Will I love it? Will I get on with the producer? Is the story there yet? Am I the right director? I do take all that into account, because I think you can do a project a disservice if you're the wrong director for it, or if you're not in the right frame of mind.

Every story is so important, it's got its purpose. And every one of them is someone's baby. You do have to think carefully whether you can do a good job of it. Sometimes I've had to turn down projects, and some of them have been featured projects, fully funded, ready to go and I'm like, "no, I'm not the right director for it".

Do you know that instinctively, or is it something that you learnt over the years?

I don't know. I'm cautious. I don't want to let a project down if I know I'm not the right person for it. It’s is about matching up a project and a director, it's really important.

You mentor others in the filmmaking community.

Probably one of the most fulfilling times was when I went back to Samoa. A guy wanted to start up a company doing commercials and had never done anything like that. I started shooting these little commercials for him and showed him how it's done with one little camera and a group of village men and I trained them up. Every year I went back it got bigger and bigger, I upskilled them and showed them different techniques and he grew his business into a big company.

Training and transferring the discipline to other people that wouldn't necessarily have the option of going to film school is really fulfilling. They don't have polytechnics nearby to go and study. You're making an impact, opening them up to something that they've never thought of before. It's really, really cool.

Congratulations on your Laureate Award.

Thank you. I got a gender scholarship from the New Zealand Film Commission around the same time as I was told about the Laureate. $50,000 for a filmmaker to work on a project, it’s a bit like the Laureate that there is no pressure, it’s just to support the artists.

It's incredible to be a Laureate. But at the same time, I know so many incredible people that have yet to receive it. I'm very self-critical, I always think, oh my gosh, someone else's more deserving. I'm always like that.

What are you trying to achieve through your art?

I consider success making films until the day I die. Making every project is a struggle and that's part of it. It doesn't matter if you had a big hit last year. You still need to get the next one off the ground. It never ends, we're constantly learning, and you're faced with new challenges making your art.

What is art to you and why does it matter?

It's a form of self-expression. It matters because it can move people; it can change people. It can influence and change society. I think that's what art does for me.