by Gill Pringle at Toronto International Film Festival

New Zealand filmmaker Halaifonua Finau was shocked to only discover a major part of his people’s history after he was already well into adulthood.

“I’m from Wellington, born and bred, and I didn’t know about the Polynesian Panthers until very recently,” says Finau, a proud Tongan, born and raised in Aotearoa (NZ), who today is bringing awareness to his kin as co-creator/writer/producer/showrunner of popular streaming TV series, The Panthers.

The Panthers co-creator/writer/producer/showrunner Halaifonua Finau

If this episodic drama broke all kinds of domestic records when it began streaming in New Zealand on August 15, then Finau and co-creator Tom Hern are excited to premiere their show at Toronto International Film Festival’s Primetime section, from whereon it will begin airing globally.

Their revelatory series retells the fascinating story of how – inspired by the US’s 1966 Black Panther Party – the Polynesian Panther Party (PPP) was founded by six young Pacific Islanders in 1970s Aotearoa with the goal of bringing about social change in response to the racial injustices against Māori and Pacific Islanders, fueled by former PM Robert Muldoon and his National Party.

“Our show was actually the most streamed drama series in its opening week ever in the history of New Zealand streaming platforms. It broke big time records and we’re hoping that’s just the beginning in terms of the show’s international launch,” says Hern.

As co-creators of The Panthers, Hern and Finau’s stated mission is to build awareness of the PPP’s formation and work, and the often-ignored Dawn Raids of the 1970s, in which Pacific Islanders were systemically profiled, harassed, and deported.

“You can imagine how shocking it was for me, as a Polynesian living in New Zealand, to suddenly learn about this integral part of my history. For my own people to be putting up this fight all these years ago and for us to not even have been taught it in schools, was shocking. We learn about the history of Europe and Captain Cook and all that stuff, so why not the PPP and our own history of New Zealand?” asks Finau.

“This lack of knowledge about our history was a huge part of the excitement of being able to play a part in retelling the story and getting it out to the masses,” adds Finau, who was compelled to tell this story after PPP co-founder Will ’Ilolahia called out of the blue about six years ago.

“He had seen a film we had produced and really liked it and decided we were the right people to help tell his story,” recalls Hern, who cast newcomer and TIFF “Rising Star” Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi as Will, the star of the series.

“Will has been an integral part of the process right through, along with a number of other original Panthers who were all involved. It’s been a real privilege for us to get to know them all,” he adds.

The filmmakers didn’t need look far for Schuster-Koloamatangi. “He was a day player on our film Jonah, and there was just something about him, like a 17-year-old with such energy and charisma. When Tom and I were writing the role of Will and the complexities and the layers to the character, we were like, ‘Man, where the hell are we going to find an actor to play this?’ That can embody all these different layers of the character; someone who call pull off the university student but also is cool enough to look like he could lead a street gang but also stand in the Tongan world because he’s from a line of Tongan nobility. We knew straight away that Dimitrius was our guy,” recalls Finau. “He’s a really good kid and hopefully has a long career ahead of him.”

Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi in The Panthers

Hern believes there is no better time than now to re-tell the story of the PPP. “This year, there was an apology from PM Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party on behalf of the government of the mid-‘70s for the Dawn Raids, which were racially-targeted inhumane attacks on so-called immigration over-stayers at the time, so that’s brought a lot of public awareness. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the PPP this year, which has driven further awareness. But one of the key things that the PPP are really pushing for now is an ‘educate to liberate’ policy, whereby the school syllabus throughout New Zealand starts to integrate some of these unknown parts of our history to make sure that future generations are aware. I do believe our show has played a small part in shining a light on this important story too,” says Hern.

With The Panthers, the filmmakers have made a sexy, cool show, creatively inspired by the ‘70s funk and hip hop era. “The PPP were naturally inspired by American hip hop culture and the ‘70s,” says co-producer Crystal Vaega. “Obviously, being brown people of colour, they found a lot of similarities and inspiration. So, we use that to make it very cool and swaggy, but also to appeal to a younger audience through the fashion and production design. But, even so, it’s not too far from the truth.”

Hern agrees, “I remember Will telling me how there were a lot more people walking around with guitars on their backs than actually knew how to play guitar. They were very influenced by Jimi Hendrix and the musicians coming out of both the UK and the US at the time. Even the fact that they took their inspiration so directly from the Black Panthers in the US – and re-framed that struggle into a Pacific context – it makes sense that there’s a fashion, music and cultural influence as well as a political one.”

Thrilled that their fellow countryman Taika Waititi is flying the flag for “brown” New Zealanders just as part-Samoan Dwayne Johnson is a former local, the filmmakers hope that The Panthers awakens the world to the rest of the country’s prodigious talent.

“It’s wicked to see one of our indigenous story-tellers heading into the world and doing so well for himself. It’s very cool because when Taika was coming up, he didn’t have anyone to follow or set the path for what’s possible for someone from our part of the world for this industry. For him to be a few steps ahead of us, paving the way, it’s inspirational to know that there are cats out there,” says Finau who is collaborating with Waititi on his next project.

“Even though Taika is out there doing the $100 million Marvel movies, he still comes back home and looks out for the ones coming behind him which is so important.”

As a Samoan New Zealander, Vaega Identifies more strongly with Johnson, noting how he attended the same primary school in “Little Polynesia”, Richmond Road, Ponsonby, as her own children do today. “Hopefully my kids will be the next Dwayne Johnson,” she says. “Dwayne has such a connection to our story, so it would be great to have his support on this show, if he ever gets to see it,” she says.

For everyone involved in The Panthers, the positive feedback has been gratifying. “It’s been received really well by the Maori/Pacific community and also by the younger generation who are more open-minded and surprised to find that these events occurred in our history. And then you’ve got older members of all races who have never heard of it so it’s really hard for them to come to terms with the fact that it’s part of our reality. Not a lot has changed up until now and I think we’re still fighting the good fight, and the show is also a part of that; and making sure that people are aware of our history and how we are racially discriminated as a society. I think what the show does the most is that it’s a call to action to do better and to acknowledge our wrongs and make them right,” says Vaega.

Not that the filmmakers intend to shove a history lesson down audiences’ throats.

“I believe all good art should achieve some sort of shift in its nature, as well as entertain. We don’t want this show to be a lecture or a history lesson. Our job is to compel through human drama and for the medicine of that message to be snuck in there with it,” argues Hern.

“My only hope is that young people are inspired to carry on the fight,” adds Finau. “It was important to hire young actors, around the ages of 18-20, who were the same age group as The Panthers so that when the audiences watch it, they see themselves reflected. Not only in New Zealand but around the world; that they see our young minorities standing up and fighting for change.”

As a proud Samoan New Zealander, Vaega enjoys inspiring other young people of colour. “It’s important for me, for them to be seen and heard. New Zealand Polynesians are so talented; they’ve been performing on stage here since they were three years old in church and other places, so it’s a natural part of their make-up. It’s really cool to celebrate that with the world and I hope that the minorities one day become the majorities and that they remain humble and remember that the fight never ends. It’s incredibly exciting to think that the world is soon going to see Samoans, Tongans, Maoris and all other brown people from New Zealand that aren’t The Rock or Taika Waititi because there’s so many more of us who are just as awesome,” she says.

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