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The Convert: Actress calls on non-Māori to see film to better understand Māori views

Riria Dalton-Reedy, Te Rito Journalism cadet

The lead actress of new film The Convert says it is not only for Māori and encourages all New Zealanders to immerse themselves in its Māori worldview.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

The film is fronted by Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tūhoe), who plays the role of Rangimai - daughter of chief Maianui.

The historical drama is set in pre-colonial Aotearoa and follows the tale of Rangimai and Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) - a British soldier turned lay preacher - in the small settlement of Epworth.

The Lee Tamahori production explores the early trading partnerships between Māori and Pākehā, the tense rivalries between local iwi and a grappling internal battle between Munro’s past and present lives.

Despite being set in the early 1800s, Ngatai-Melbourne believes the film is still relevant to the issues Aotearoa faces today.

“It’s not only for Māori to go and see. It’s based on true events, but I think [non-Māori] should see it because it’s quite eye-opening.”

Ngatai-Melbourne says the film delves deep into the pre-colonial history of Aotearoa, particularly showcasing the impacts of colonisation on Māori.

“Back in those days, [Māori] were so open to new ideas, to even being one or side by side [with Pākehā]. We were open enough to bring them in.”

The young actress rose to fame in 2016 after her appearance in Taika Waititi’s Hunt For the Wilderpeople.

Eight years later, she has scored her first lead role in a feature film, saying she felt overwhelmed.

“I didn’t really realise what I was getting myself into until we had the table read. I love seeing the words coming alive and that was the day, for me, that the words were lifted off of the paper.”

The actress acknowledged her many kōkā (mother/aunties), who she drew inspiration from to bring her role to life.

“I think they’re all an example of what Ngāti Porou women are like.”

More Māori needed to tell Māori stories

She says the name of her character, Rangimai, was also inspired by a local kuia from her home of Reporua.

“I’m also similar to [my character] because we’re both present and standing our ground when it comes to being Māori.”

When asked about the theme of converting to Christianity in the film, Ngatai-Melbourne believes her character developed a great understanding of foreign concepts over time.

“I don’t think Rangimai fully converted, but she understood Munro’s whakapono (faith).

“[Which] I feel is a really Māori thing [to do] - understanding people, understanding why they do certain things.”

The actress also credits the success of her role to her rural East Coast upbringing - particularly her parents - who guided her in portraying tikanga appropriately on screen.

“I don’t think I would be able to pull that off if I didn’t have my mum and dad to guide me all the way.

“I am still playing, I guess, a Māori tīpuna on the world [stage]. I wanted to do it properly and I wanted to do it right.”

Ngatai-Melbourne hopes to branch out to other streams in the film industry.

“There are a lot of films about Māori out there, but there’s not many written, directed and produced by Māori. I want to go international with my acting.”

The Convert is now showing in cinemas around Aotearoa.

Hero Image: Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne. Photo / Facebook

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