Todd Karehana didn't grow up with much. Most kids from Kawerau don't. Raised by a single mother of 10, he was forced to entertain himself a lot of the time. When other families had takeaways—and his mum couldn't afford them—Todd would pretend slices of bread were fish and chips. The white part was the fish, and the crusts were chips. That's the thing about having a creative mind. You can make believe anything you want.
One day, Todd and his brother had a disagreement over a video game. They were split up to let things cool off. Todd stayed inside and his brother, Mitchell, was sent outside. It was the last time Todd ever saw Mitchell alive. Todd was told to get Mitchell for dinner, but says that he and his sister were "too spooked" to go into the garage to look for him. Instead it was their uncle who discovered Mitchell's body. He'd been killed in a freak accident. As a child, Todd never got a chance to grieve the tragedy. It's often hard for kids to understand what's going on in these kinds of situations. He couldn't even cry at the funeral.
Years later, whilst studying film and television at the University of Auckland, Todd came across the Kelston Kweenz, a group of transgender youth who all attended Kelston Boys' High School. They became the subject of Todd's first film exploring the hardships faced by the transgender students at an all boys school. Todd now sees film making as an outlet for emotion and grief, among other things.
After directing The Kweenz of Kelston, he dipped into his own childhood memories for The Spectacular Imagination of the Pohara Brothers, an optimistic, sweet story of two poor brothers in Kawerau. The short film screened at imagineNATIVE Film festival in Canada and won five awards at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival.
For his latest film, My Brother Mitchell, Todd is returning to his childhood once again to tell the story of his brother's death and the impact it had on his family. VICE sat down with the 29-year-old for a chat about his work, and this next project that is so close to his heart.
VICE: Hi Todd. So how'd you find yourself being involved in the film industry?
Todd Karehana: I had previously been at university studying film, television, and media, only as a minor, and realised I really enjoyed it. Once I moved on to post-graduate study, I could study Advanced Documentary Directing. It gave me all the skills I needed to make my ideas a reality and I haven't looked back since.
Then, I was at a queer camp a few years back. I met an inspirational group of transgender youth from Kelston Boys' High School. Their resilience and pride in who they were was really inspiring to me. I became friends with them and felt that their story needed to be shared with others. With the help of a few classmates and only a $200 budget, we completed filming in four days. I knew from then on that this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Only a $200 budget!
Yeah, I only had to buy the girls a feed each night, haha! But it was a huge help having my classmates' support. It ended up being screened at four film festivals alongside my second film, The Spectacular Imagination of the Pohara Brothers. It was amazing to think my films were being screened as far away as Canada and Hawai'i. The Spectacular Imagination of The Pohara Brothers collected a total of five awards including three audience choice awards.
Awesome. How did the idea for your film, The Spectacular Imagination of The Pohara Brothers come about?
I knew I wanted to make a film based on my upbringing. Being raised by a single mum in Kawerau really forced my siblings and me to use our imaginations as we didn't have money to do things. Almost everything in the film is inspired by a true event. Some of my most vivid memories from my childhood are included in the film.
One example, although not in the film, is when all the other families in the community would have fish and chips on the regular, but my family wasn't always able to afford them. My brother Mitchell and myself would wrap bread up in newspaper and pretend we were eating fish and chips. We used to save our pocket money just to give it to mum. We once had a Christmas without power. It wasn't always easy growing up like that, but these are all examples of times that poverty and imagination intersected.
I knew there would be a lot of people out there in similar circumstances and realised I could help inspire them to fly and chase their dreams.
You mentioned your brother named Mitchell. I understand he is the subject of your next film, My Brother Mitchell. What is it all about?
Yeah that's right. I unfortunately lost my brother quite a few years ago. It was a surreal feeling that day. At his tangi, I couldn't cry. I didn't quite understand what was going on. To be honest with you, I thought he was going to wake up again.
Some of my family, including myself, thought to ourselves what we might have been able to do to change the course of events. But I now realise that accidents happen, and you can't change the past. Making this film has allowed myself and others to grieve.
Mitchell and I were the closest in age out of all our siblings, and naturally we became good mates. We did almost everything together, pretending to camp, going to the pools without mum and getting dropped home by the police, eating our pretend fish and chips. Losing him was devastating and I hadn't properly dealt with my emotion as I was young and confused. Reaching an age where I could properly understand what had happened, I knew that film making could help not only myself but also my family, community, and anyone else who had lost a loved one.
The film is all about Mitchell's passing and the effects it had on my family. I've tried to keep at as genuine as possible. It deals with some of the emotions I couldn't deal with back then. It illustrates some of the difficulties youth face when dealing with the loss of a loved one.
What was the response like from your family when you told them you were making My Brother Mitchell? I imagine it was difficult at first for everyone to accept?
When I was first thinking about making this film, I definitely had some doubts. Being a mama's boy, I sat down with her and she told me that it was a good conversation to have and that it would help us all to deal with the emotion. I really needed that support. I also had the help of my brother Julian, who is an editor. It was special for the both of us. Also, having my sister singing in the film was special for me. It was nice to be able view the event from my siblings' point of view. They added more depth to the film and made it that much more realistic.
And it was filmed mainly in Kawerau?
I decided that this would be a great way to give something back to Kawerau. I also held auditions for the lead and a few other roles down there. We had around 35 people try out for only four roles, which was awesome. The boy who ended up playing lead was a perfect fit. His name is Poroaki Merritt-McDonald and he had previously gone through an ordeal really similar to mine. His emotion was raw and real, I knew I wanted him to be lead.
We had some locals come and help out as well as professionals. It was awesome to find out people were donating their time because they had all been through a similar scenario to myself, and that of the movie. It once again showed the power of film and how it provides an emotional outlet for some people.
Wow. Sounds like it meant a lot to a lot of people. If you could instil one thought into the minds of everyone who watches the film, what would it be?
It would have to be to remember that your loved ones are always with you.
My Brother Mitchell is due for release soon. See the Facebook page for more details.