A local Māori film collective that helped produce the new television series ‘Vegas’, filmed in Rotorua, is defending the show after it was criticised for portraying themes of gangs, drugs and crime.

The Steambox Collective defended the show’s importance, saying it contributed to its dream of building a sustainable Māori screen industry in Rotorua.

The comments come after Rotorua screen producer Hōhepa Tuahine wrote a blog post calling the show “harmful” and saying it was the reason he and his wife left the collective.

He said the show portrayed themes of gangs, drugs, and crime.

Tuahine’s main concerns were centred around whakapapa, messaging and representation and tikanga Māori.

The post was on the website for Tuahine’s content production company, Long White Cloud.

Tuahine said he was a 20th-generation mokopuna of Kahumatamomoe – the son of Tametekapua, who captained Te Arawa canoe from Hawaiki to Maketū around 800 years ago.

“In fact, I am one of thousands of his mokopuna and our people have been living here in Rotorua for a very long time.”

Among the views he expressed was the series would negatively impact the self-image of Māori rangitahi [youth] and undermine efforts for te reo revitalisation.

He also asked why a Te Arawa-wide hui was not held before show production. He said the “correct time” to wānanga was before production.

‘Vegas’ premiered on TVNZ 2 on April 19. The series was filmed in Rotorua and had a 65 per cent Māori cast and crew, according to Steambox.

Steambox joined ‘Vegas’ as a junior partner to Greenstone TV and 10,000 Company in the latter stages of the show’s development. The show was led by Te Arawa writer and director Michael Bennett.

In promotional material, TVNZ said the story was one of love and brotherhood, against all odds, inspiring hope, and redemption.

But Tuahine questioned why the show creators didn’t consult Te Arawa tribes before creating a show about drugs, crime, gambling, and gang culture in Māori-centred Rotorua.

“Your show was filmed in Rotorua and you filmed our landmarks of cultural significance, our likeness, our people, our language, and our tikanga,” he said.

“Do not create stories that connect Te Arawa and the Māori language to gangs, drugs, and crime, and then showcase it onscreen as a harmless ‘story of change, a story of hope’.

In his view: “‘Vegas’ is harmful to the minds of our rangatahi. ‘Vegas’ will have a negative impact on the self-image and identity of our Māori youth, particularly those from Te Arawa.”

The use of te reo within the series also concerned Tuahine, who said he did not want the language associated with the show’s themes.

“As a father of three Māori-speaking children, we are constantly trying to embed the belief in the hearts of our girls that our language and culture hold the key to our success and freedom.”

Tuahine said, in his view, it also took away from the hard work being done to revitalise te reo Māori.

“Do you think that embedding the language in a show about drugs, violence, crime, gambling, and gang culture helps support the last 50 years of Māori language revitalisation efforts?

“This inept use of the language unravels the hard work by many to revitalise and regenerate our language since the early 1970s. I too am one of those who fight every day to lift the status of the Māori language.”

Steambox Collective said in a written statement the conversation ‘Vegas’ had generated over Māori representation, Māori story sovereignty and creative license was important.

Steambox Film Collective’s Lara Northcroft, an associate producer on ‘Vegas’, said they expected ‘Vegas’ to generate commentary and conversation. She believed concerns expressed around the show were valid.

“A part of our community have valid concerns about the show and we are planning a hui to continue to discuss those issues in a tikanga-based environment.”

The Steambox Film Collective was also planning an industry panel discussion to explore these concerns at the Rotorua Indigenous Film Festival in September.

‘Vegas’ associate producer Piripi Curtis said: “We want to create the space to have the hard discussions with our industry peers and share the lessons we’ve learned from ‘Vegas’.”

However, Curtis said they wanted to do it without, what in his view, was the ”mana-demeaning and reo-shaming divisiveness that can happen online.”

Curtis said the show had also generated an overwhelming amount of positive feedback.

“‘Vegas’ is already proving popular with New Zealanders, with more than 120,000 watching the show in real-time in its scheduled Monday night slot, with an even larger audience watching on-demand.”

Northcroft and Curtis agreed bringing the production to Rotorua had contributed to Steambox’s dream of building a sustainable Māori screen industry in the region.

‘Vegas’ had a 65 per cent Māori cast and crew and 52 mana whenua were employed from around the region, along with 50 locals as extras.

The statement said the filming of ‘Vegas’ in Rotorua contributed to the Provincial Growth Fund’s decision to award $800,000 towards the establishment of a permanent film studio facility in the Rotorua region.

“‘Vegas’ has enabled us to build capacity and train a large number of our people in high-end drama production,” Northcroft said.

“It has created jobs and a range of new and different career pathways for rangatahi, all while presenting Rotorua as a viable film location for producers across the country and around the world. The potential impact of this cannot be over-estimated.”

TVNZ, Greenstone Media and 10,000 Company did not want to comment as the companies were happy for Steambox Collective to provide comment on their behalf.

Renee Kiriona (Te Arawa) took to social media on Thursday to say she was surprised by the reaction to ‘Vegas’. Kiriona said she could relate to the many stories told in the show.

“The scathing response by so many well-educated and high-profiled Māori commentators to the ‘Vegas’ television series surprises me.

“I could relate to every aspect of the ‘Vegas’ story, so much so that I watched all three episodes one after the other.

“I know what it’s like to have parts of my whānau consumed by meth. I also know what it’s like to be connected to the whenua and the desperate measures we will take to ensure that connection isn’t severed.”

Kiriona saluted the creators of ‘Vegas’ for bringing realities affecting “too many” of their whānau and mokopuna to the forefront.

“If we want to put the ugly underbelly of crime to bed for our people, let our storytellers tell the stories of our most marginalised. Unlike the lawyers, corporate warriors and politicians among us, they don’t have a voice on nationwide television unless filmmakers and journalists hear them.

“And yes, let’s have the backs of our Māori storytellers involved in ‘Vegas’ by fighting for them to have more control in the cut-throat industry that is film and media.

“I wouldn’t go so far to say that the ‘Vegas’ crew have done Māori proud, but if there’s one thing I’m sure about it’s this – they have brought to the forefront realities affecting too many of our whānau and mokopuna. And I salute them for that.”

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