Poi E: Tearepa Kahi on learning

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There is no escaping the warmth and charm that exudes from Tearepa Kahi the instant he enters a room, even one as spacious and, dare I say, soulless as the cafeteria where we met to converse. That charm, that beaming smile, have been there ever since I first met him at the turn of the millennium when he was cast along with his partner, now wife, Reikura, as the sub-plot lovers Roreneto and Tiehika (Lorenzo and Jessica) in Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Weniti (The Maori Merchant of Venice).

The film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was shot over the summer of 2000–2001, the first-ever feature film made totally in te reo Maori. Tearepa was one of many young Maori who were inspired and mentored by director and producer Don Selwyn, known as “The Don”, the godfather of Maori film-making through the 1980s and ’90s.

Although at the end of our conversation Tearepa offers to provide some “tech specs” if we’re interested, it’s been patently clear throughout that he has no great interest in discussing these. His focus is on the importance and joys of storytelling, of bringing the essence of the story to the fore.

It’s equally clear that Tearepa knows his visual craft, and how to use it to enhance his storytelling. For example, it was important to him to show the community within which various aspects of the story are set – and so he insisted on holding the camera back a little from the people he was talking with, avoiding the conventional MCU and close-up in favour of a wider lens, letting people pass in and out of the frame, going about their ordinary lives, to reveal the interviewees as part of their community and not as isolated individuals.

“It’s really easy to compose artistic frames, it’s really easy to understand positive and negative space, it’s easy to understand how to load a frame, how to minimalise a frame for the purposes of focus and attention,” Tearepa said. “But what’s very difficult is to present a person who is comfortable in that world, in their world, and to be themselves truly. So I was always interested in having more than one person in the frame, we wanted a community spirit, so there were always two or three people – it was about people in a frame, rather than a person.”

It was also to create a feeling that the camera just happened to be there by accident, that it was just people having a conversation, just being themselves. Hence the single wide two-shot of the chat with Stan Walker and Taika Waititi, for example; the single frame was always reserved for Dalvanius.

Poi E was and has always been recognized as an earworm since its first release in 1982. For Tearepa, at the age of seven, it was the feeling of pride in being Maori that first created his affinity for the song – but it was the beat and the chorus.

“I didn’t know all the words – I’ve learnt the words through the making of this film. But it took me a year to figure out the meaning of the song – and the meaning of the song came from understanding the relationship between him (singer-songwriter Dalvanius) and Poi E co-writer Ngoi Pewhairangi.”

Tearepa Kahi shooting Poi EPhoto: Geoff Short

Tearepa Kahi shooting Poi E
Photo: Geoff Short

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