Friday, February 17, 2012

Berlinale: First Fame

Have you ever watched someone become famous in a 90 minutes? The fascinating thing about being with my sister Pietra  and her film Maori Boy Genius at the Berlin Film Festival is seeing the first, but sure, rays of fame, shine on her and 17-year-old Ngaa, the subject of her documentary.

Ngaa and Pietra, Premiere

Ngaa, me and Pietra
Pietra's film follows 18 months in the life of Ngaa who was chosen at birth to lead his a time when young Maori men are over-represented in the number of High School dropout, arrests and incarcerations. As film reviewers are already saying: it is as if a documentary maker has tracked the young Barack Obama. Growing up in the language and tradition of the Maori culture, Ngaa only learned English at age four, completed a university degree at 13 and devoured philosophy while his classmates were talking about pop stars. At 16 he traveled to Yale for summer school.

After their first sell-out screening in the 1,000-seat theatre, Ngaa and Pietra were surrounded by people asking questions and wanting autographs. Within hours the word was out and I noticed passers-by taking photos of the two of them. Slightly disconcerting for Ngaa who at one stage put up his hood. They even attracted a mad-fan semi-stalker who had to be asked to leave! 

Of course this is not the fame of Meryl Streep, also at the festival, or Taika Waititi, Academy-nominated writer and director of Boy, one of the most gorgeous movies I've seen this year and coming to the US in March.

Pietra and Ngaa at the Meryl Streep premiere

and with Taika Waititi
"I really would like to meet Ngaa" an NZ Embassy staffer told me "but I don't want to interrupt him, could you introduce me?" Normally this recognition is reserved for the subject of documentaries, not for the directors. But you can't miss Pietra, 6ft and that's without her usual high heels, with loads of red hair, bright red coat and blue faux fur neckwarmer, and it was great to see many young women asking her advice.

To introduce the first screening Pietra gave the traditional Maori call "karanga" and she and Ngaa sang a song written by Maori soldiers stationed in Germany about missing their loved ones. The audiences here laugh more loudly and cry more profusely than any I've seen.  Ngaa too wept, overwhelmed by the film, which he had seen for the first time. Afterwards, wiping away tears, he thanked the audience and explained that it was not only he standing before them but his family (whanau), his iwi (tribe) and his ancestors, who were always with him.

One man stood up in the audience and was actually sobbing. He said he was moved that Ngaa stood so proudly with his forebears behind him. That has been taken from us, said the man, because of the atrocities committed in WW2. They could never again be proud of their forefathers. Another man stood up and echoed this.

From the QandA it became evident that that even the children in the audience had done a lot of research before they arrived. It also became clear that some thought it was a film and Ngaa was an actor. "What is your next film?" they asked.

Question and answer time for Pietra and Ngaa

Pietra and Ngaa got off the plane with a one paragraph in a Wall Street Journal article and two requests for German radio interviews.  But after the first screening there followed a great review in Variety, more requests for TV, print and radio interviews and an interview with Pietra for an art installation in a top Paris gallery.

Being with doco makers from breakfast till the small hours I noticed how they supported each other, sharing contacts and information. (That apparently is not true of the movie industry) "If one is successful, it makes it easier for the rest of us." says Pietra. Like Pietra, many of them have to use their own money, re-mortgaging their apartments and maxing out credit cards. Even the most famous of doco makers often do their own filming, editing and marketing.

It's been refreshing to walk around Berlin with Ngaa who has never seen snow. There are not many 17-year-olds I would hang out with all day and all night but he was great company and always very appreciative. Brought up by his grandparents - as is the Maori custom - he has an innate respect for his elders. As I am an elder - one of "the olds" - this is awesome. But because he's so polite we often found him cornered by someone and in need of had rescue.

Getting out of cabs he called to the driver : "Good night, thank you and have a good sleep, sir!" Looking down at his black slip-on shoes he says: "I have to polish these with nugget before I go out tonight."

Ngaa had never been interested in clothes but started noticing the classic style: "I really like those coats, whatever they are called" he said pointing to a trench. The morning I left he was heading off to budget store H&M to look at trenches, leather gloves and dark wash jeans. Oh and pick up a Russian hat from the vendor on the corner. So off shopping, just like any other teen...just not for the usual teen hoodies and baggy sweats. But that's how he rolls.


  1. What a fun trip! And I can't believe he's only 17. He looks so mature for his age. Hopefully I can see that documentary one day. I love docs.

  2. Such an interesting must be so proud of your sister, and he sounds like a remarkable young man.

  3. Thanks so much for this wonderful record of whats been happening over there for you all.
    Sounds fantastic and exciting and im just sooooo proud.
    Nancy (back home) xxxx

  4. What an amazing story--- I have loved following your sister's journey with her documentary!

  5. I am so happy for Ngaa and your sister Pietra! Thankyou so much for sharing this, it all sounds so amazing.

  6. What a great success story. I hope they'll really benefit from it. Ngaa is a born leader. Good for him, and good on Pietra for making the documentary and telling the world about him.

  7. Just catching up with your two Berlin posts - fascinating, amusing and enlightening as always.
    Loved your Fozzie Bear coat in the previous post ;-)

    (by the way, having real trouble understanding the captcha today - they seem to be so much harder to read of late on people's blogs)

    1. Hi Trish, thanks for letting me know. I've noticed this in other blogs too. Also where its making you do two words which seems excessive...

  8. You must be so proud of your sister! What an exciting time!

  9. I really enjoyed this post. Congrats to your sister.
    My Father-in-Law gave us a painting (he painted) of the Maori's discovery of NZ. I am more interested now, after reading your post, of learning more about them. Perhaps I'll wait for your sister's documentary.

  10. so incredibly interesting... him, your sister, the entire process, the reaction... how cool that you were able to capture it (and to spend so much time with him)- up close and personal.

  11. When I first read the title, I thought this would be about Berlin ale. (Something, perhaps for Exmoor Jane's husband.)

    Instead, I discovered a thrilling story about a delightful young man, and a very creative documentary film maker.

    Kudos for both of them.

    That said, and since Germany is a great nation of beer-makers and all, when will you tell us about Berlin ale?

  12. What a fascinating time this must have been - congrats to your sister, as well as the young man. Thanks for sharing this story!

  13. How fantastic! Will we get to see this film in the UK?

  14. What an amazing story. How lucky you are to have spent time with such an extraordinary person!!

  15. Amazing!! Working on documentaries is such a fantastic experience. Can't wait to see this.

  16. wonderful story! i enjoyed the images. happy Tuesday!

  17. I am so happy for Pietra and Ngaa I could cry! What a beautiful post Jody, I'm so glad you went and I can't wait to see the documentary. Please let me know when it will be screening!

    xo Mary Jo


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