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Dawn Raids: Short film tackles one of New Zealand’s darkest periods with fearless intent

Mary Afemata

'Stories are watered down to please everyone...that's not the purpose of storytelling'

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Tight cramped spaces, hours of discomfort, desperately hiding behind furniture or in freezers - all to evade police raids in the middle of the night.

This is the painful, reality for Iulia, the main character of Tusi Tamasese’s latest film: Freedom Fighters.

For many, the 1970s dawn raids conjure up dramatic images of police barging into homes, hunting down Pasifika overstayers.

But for Toi Whakaari graduate Luz-Eliana Folau-Tovine, playing the part of Iulia was also important to portray the mundane reality of hiding for hours.

The 21-year-old says Tamasese’s direct style means Freedom Fighters shows the humanity of the people caught up in the controversial Dawn Raids.

“These people were sitting, cramped up in freezers, behind cupboards for hours…

“That’s not the big spectacle that everyone wants.”

Iulia is an overstayer struggling between protecting her own freedom and her obligation to keep others safe.

Throughout the film, other characters can be heard pleading: “Iulia, please hide me” before police officers enter the home searching for illegal overstayers.

The film won the Auckland Live Spirit of The Civic award at this year’s NZ International Film Festival.

Tusi Tamasese’s short film Freedom Fighters has won praise for its ''purely Samoan'' perspective. Photo / NZ Film Commission

The festival is presenting films across 17 towns and cities until September 10.

Folau-Tovine also won a NZIFF Special Mention Award for her performance that the jury described as “the centrepiece of a film that tackles one of New Zealand’s darkest periods with fearless intent”.

The jury also praised Folau-Tovine for her passion and soulfulness, which they said left an indelible mark on this year’s jury.

Importance of telling stories from a purely Pacific perspective

“It’s important to tell our Pacific stories, the confrontational themes shouldn’t take away from the story and its authenticity,” Folau-Tovine says.

“Stories are usually watered down to please everyone, but that’s not the purpose of storytelling.”

Director Tusi Tamasese is well-respected in the industry and within the Pacific community.

Some of his most well-known films include The Orator (O le Tulafale), One Thousand Ropes and Va Tapuia.

Of Tamasese, she says: “His style is just more....the truth of it, the truth of what you’re trying to do”.

“You’re doing a disservice to the people that are actually going through it that still remember being dawn raided having to hide - hide family that got sent back and never came back.”

It is also important to tell Samoan stories, she says, because there was zero representation for her, growing up.

“There wasn’t anyone that looked like me and there wasn’t anyone that was a positive representation of our people.”

Luz-Eliana Folau-Tovine won an award for her performance that the NZIFF Jury describes “as the centrepiece of a film that tackles one of NZ’s darkest periods with fearless intent”. Photo / Mary Afemata

Folau-Tovine describes herself as an extremely emotional person, so it was easy for her to tap into feelings of isolation and the feelings of loneliness.

In the film, Iulia waits for her visa the longest and it is heartbreaking each time a visa is approved - but it is never hers.

‘We still have to work hard to get our stories told’

Folau-Tovine describes Freedom Fighters as a very raw and honest portrayal of what our people were actually going through back in the day.

“There’s a kind of commodification of Pacific stories where they’re made with a palagi audience in mind.

“We still have to work very hard to get our stories told and to get them told in the right way with the right people,” she says.

“What is special about Tusi’s work is that his perspective is purely Samoan and comes directly from his experiences.”

Themes of hiding and speaking your truth relate to Folau-Tovine, who hid the fact that she wanted to be an actor, from her family.

It was easier for her to tell her father she wanted to be a nurse because it was financially secure.

“A nurse is...very secure and you’ve got a very straight path and you know exactly what you’re doing.”

Acting is not without its challenges and she acknowledges she can pass for a Palagi.

She questioned whether audiences would accept her as “being Samoan enough” to represent the historical trauma of the dawn raids.

However, the accolades and audience reaction to Freedom Fighters suggest viewers are emotionally engaged with Iulia to the very end.

Hero image: Toi Whakaari graduate Luz-Eliana Folau-Tovine, 21, plays Iulia in Freedom Fighters. Photo / Matt Henley

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