Director Rene Naufahu fought his share of battles to get The Last Saint to screen, but tonight his film is up for nine gongs at the New Zealand Film Awards.
The Last Saint hasn’t had an easy journey. After being turned down for funding by the New Zealand Film Commission writer and director Rene Naufahu decided to crowd source its $100,000 budget from friends, family and other supporters.
After five years in the making, the film, Naufahu’s first feature, is up for for nine Moas at tonight’s New Zealand Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.
The film follows Minka (played by Beulah Koale), a Polynesian teenage boy, through Auckland’s underground drug culture. Forced to provide for himself and his P-addicted mum, he turns to his criminal father to raise some quick cash. Minka is pushed into the path of drug lord Pinball (played by Rene’s brother Joe Naufahu), a playmaker in the Auckland turf war between Tongans and Samoans.
Minka is dubbed “the Last Saint”, appearing to be the only one in the game left with a moral compass. He does his best to stay resilient through the sex, drugs and violence but he is no match for P-obsessed Pinball.
The story is gritty and heart-wrenching, and shows Auckland city after dark as dirty and dangerous.
Naufahu has had a successful acting career, appearing in Shortland Street, The Matrix Revolutions and The Matrix Reloaded, but he decided he had something he needed to share and stepped behind the camera. “I wanted to set up a story that had the elements of a criminal underworld but I wanted it to be true, very Kiwi and indigenous and natural.”
The Last Saint is a challenging film and Naufahu knew would not be for everyone. It covers dark themes and sometimes taboo topics, like methamphetamine addiction, which he says is a huge problem in New Zealand and is being ignored.
Rene says when he approached the Film Commission for funding it didn’t “get” his project. “They’ve got their own guidelines as to what they want to put their money into and support and obviously we thought we were within those guidelines and we weren’t.”
He says the process was extremely frustrating but was not prepared to let this get in the way of making the movie. “We were either going to let them tell us what to do or we were going to go our own way, so y’know, we had to go our own way.”
Despite the setback Rene never got angry. He says as a filmmaker you have to be honest with yourself and what you set out to achieve. “This is the route that you’ve chosen, this is the film that you’ve chosen to make so don’t complain when everybody doesn’t get it”.
Very well-known film distributors that said ‘My God this is an amazing film but it is just too tough for us, we can’t go near it’.
But there was more bad news to come after The Last Saint was made. Naufahu needed a distributor for it. “Very well-known film distributors that said ‘My God this is an amazing film but it is just too tough for us, we can’t go near it’.”
Then, once he’d found a distributor, Naufahu faced being turned down by cinemas.
Rene knew it was going to be an uphill battle but for the cast and crew, it was all part of the adventure. The further the production went, the more his team committed to it despite the challenges they faced.
The Last Saint finally premiered in late August, reviews have been calling the film a New Zealand classic and comparing it to Once Were Warriors. 3News reviewer Kate Rodger said: “The film and its story unfolds with a real sense of self and an unwavering, no-holds-barred determination to be told, with a passion that's hard to resist”. Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Francesca Rudkin said at the end of a screening “the audience took a moment to get their breath back, and quite possibly share a collective realisation they'd witnessed something special”.
Naufahu says he couldn’t have dreamed for better reviews, especially working with the limited resources that he had. He says their success was due to the hard work and persistence of a tight-knit film crew. “We really smashed it out the park”.
You sorta can’t get your head around when you are up against films that had budgets of $4 million and we had $100,000.
However, the director didn’t set out to impress critics. He made this for the people, hoping to affect the audience who understood it. “We’ve just arrived back from Aussie … we sold out in Sydney with a standing ovation. They did a haka for us in Melbourne, sung a Samoan song for us in Melbourne and in Gold Coast people were like weeping afterwards, like hardened gang members were coming up and hugging me and crying openly.”
Despite its humble beginnings, The Last Saint is set to be recognised as one of the best films to come out of New Zealand this year. “You sorta can’t get your head around when you are up against films that had budgets of $4 million and we had $100,000.”
He describes being nominated for the awards as like a club rugby team competing against the All Blacks. “We’ve never been allowed to sit at that table throughout the year and here we are now. We’ve already had more than our fair share of victories with every screening.”
Naufahu is proud of what he has achieved and says he has learnt a hell of a lot during the process. It was never going to be easy, but believes he has made a film that will stand the test of time and has affected its audience. “For me, it’s my favourite film and that’s not because I’m biased, I just think that the film does things that no other film tried to do this year and no one has really gone there.”
So where to next for the guy who was once Sam the ambulance driver on Shortland Street?
Naufahu says he is going to carry on travelling with the film as well as releasing it on DVD. He also wants to release the soundtrack, which was curated by P Money and includes the likes of Katchafire, SIX60 and Split Enz. But it all comes down to money, something they are still lacking.
He does have another project in the works, but isn’t quite ready to talk about it yet. “There is a really strong story that needs to be told now and I sorta want to do it, I’ve just got to get the guys’ permission to do it, and hopefully if he sees The Last Saint he’ll let me do it.”
UPDATE: Despite its nine nominations, The Last Saint missed out at the Moas with The Dark Horse sweeping most of the major categories.