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Frank Newman

Chiefs at War

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Chief of War is an action drama set in 18th century Hawaii. The story line is about four warring tribes uniting against a much more powerful colonial invader. Presumably the plot will be along the lines of a heroic chief using super-human qualities to unite the proud and virtuous tribal folk in order to defeat the imperial evil to establish the utopian happily-ever-after Kingdom of Hawaii. It is actually based on some truth in that the Kingdom of Hawaii was formed in the late 18th century. The rest is fiction. The actual history following tribal unification was one of decline until Hawaii was annexed to the United States 100 years later. Needless to say, a sequel is unlikely to feature this aspect of history.  

That aside, Chief of War appears to be a good yarn commercially suited to a woke audience and Harvard university academics.

It has been billed as “the biggest Indigenous series ever made”. There is no question it is a big deal financially, with a production budget of US$340 million for the nine episodes.

The lead actor is Hollywood superstar Jason Momoa, best known for his roles as the titular character in Aquaman and Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. Big name Kiwi actors include Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis.

The movie is of relevance to New Zealand because parts are to be filmed on location here. Filming started in October last year in the Bay of Islands which welcomed the cast and entourage with great celebration and cultural fanfare at a powhiri. Filming is also scheduled to take place in Auckland and was to take place at Kauri Mountain which is on the east coast near Whangarei. The scenery is spectacular, albeit little known and appreciated more by locals than tourists.  

In January this year the Northland Regional Council granted a resource consent for the filming, and construction of the temporary props and buildings was underway. It all came to an abrupt halt a few weeks ago.

What the producers of Chief of War had not counted on was the warring tribes of Northland!

The irony of a film plot of indigenous tribes defending themselves against colonial oppressors being chased away by indigenous infighting would have been amusing if it wasn’t for the unfortunate consequences and what it reveals about New Zealand today.

A journalist from the Northern Advocate heard about the real-life drama and got onto the story. Although the key players were not especially forthcoming about the reasons for the sudden turn of events, it was reported to be due to “confusion around consultation between local iwi and hapū groups.”

Details on what that “confusion” has been the hot topic of chitter-chatter by locals. The question on everyone’s mind is whether the disagreement was about money or mana.

What is more certain is that the locals are not happy. 

The Advocate picks up the story:

Canning the shoot is understood to have taken away tens of thousands of dollars from the economy, denying hundreds of Northland extras the chance to appear in a major production and curbing international exposure the district would have received…

According to reports, around 300 extras from the Māori and Pasifika communities, many from the Whangārei area, were to feature…the local community is reeling after the loss of significant revenue and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

One accommodation provider [said], “It’s a significant thing…A huge loss to the community, and it needs to be talked about.”

They described it as a loss of the positive exposure for the Whangārei District that would have resulted from the filming, also referencing the 300 extras who were set to participate in the filming, many of whom were from the area and would be paid up to $300.

They also said a myriad of hospitality industries will have missed out, including local restaurants and cafes.

Award-winning producer and New Zealand Order of Merit recipient for Services to New Zealand in Technology for Film and Television, Rhonda Kite, (Te Aupōuri, Ngai Tākoto, Ngāti Kuri) said the presence of an international film shoot is a huge economic and social opportunity.

For the last 30 years, Kite has been campaigning hard to get large-scale productions filmed in Te Tai Tokerau.

She said productions such as this often bring in “above the line” people such as cast, crew and directors, but often those “below the line” are sourced locally, which she said “is where the win is in Northland”.

Some sources are unable to comment about the filming cancellation due to non-disclosure statements in place.

The Northern Advocate has also reached out to Te Waiariki, Ngāti Kororā, Ngāti Takapari Hapū Trust, Ngātiwai Trust Board, as well as The Department of Conservation (DoC) for comment.

DoC is due to provide a response under the Official Information Act near the end of next month, and the Advocate has so far received no response from Te Waiariki, Ngāti Kororā, Ngāti Takapari Hapū Trust or Ngātiwai Trust Board.

That story appeared on the 22nd of April. Nothing more has been reported, and the legacy media has not picked up on the story. Presumably, they are of the view that “there is nothing to see here”.

There is actually something to see here – a turf war between iwi and hapu.

It did get a brief mention by Watea News on the 26th. It reported:

“New Zealand First Northland candidate Shane Jones says the younger generation of three Northland hapū has shown all the judgment of barroom brawlers in chasing away a television production that would have created jobs in their area. Mr Jones says the producers through go-between Cliff Curtis has secured the support of kaumatua Taipari Munro and Hori Parata, but objections emerged from a new group under the banner of Te Waiariki, Ngāti Kororā, Ngāti Takapari Hapū Trust.”

More revealing is a post on the Trust’s Facebook page dated 31 March which says (emphasis added):

“An urgent hapū hui will be held this Sunday 2nd April 2023 at Parua Bay School Hall from 9.00 – 11.00 am to discuss the film production which is being undertaken at Nukurarangi (Kauri Mountain).

The Te Waiariki, Ngāti Kororā, Ngāti Takapari Hapu Iwi Trust has only just been informed this week by Haukainga of the set up and film preparation being undertaken for the Television series Chief of War entitled YENEDAKINE at Nukurarangi. As of yesterday, a site visit was done by our kaitiaki and a stop works notice has been issued to the film location and crew in order for our Hapū to come together to discuss the matter. Hence, we feel this is a matter of urgency that we call a hui to provide an update of the works being undertaken at Nukurarangi and a further discussion and decision as to whether this project will continue. This is a site of cultural significance to our people, so we urge you all to come along…”

Clearly, hapu believes they, not Ngatiwai, have status of the area and the authority to decide whether the filming could continue or not. 

This “barroom brawl” as Shane Jones calls it, is not an isolated fracas but in this case decades of work trying to attract large-scale film productions to the North has come to nothing because of a turf war promoted by “a younger generation” of Maori.

Clearly things came to a head and reached a point where the film-makers said, “get stuffed – we’re off”.

It’s a very bad look for Whangarei and it is highly likely the word will have gone around Hollywood folk that New Zealand has an indigenous problem that one needs to either avoid or at the very least, be wary of.

Sadly, this is not a new thing. In 2014 Sir Bob Jones explained what it was like consulting with iwi when he wanted to restore a window in a commercial building in central Auckland that had been removed by a tenant. The work required a resource consent because the building was within 50 metres of one of thousands of newly designated Maori heritage sites introduced by the Auckland Council’s Maori Statutory Board.

To gain that consent, Sir Bob had to seek the approval of 13 iwi, ranging from Taranaki to Whangarei. Letters were duly written.

Sir Bob explains:

“Five replied stating they had no concerns while others said they were considering the matter, presumably calling huis to weigh up this window crisis. One respondent bearing that fine old Maori name of Jeff Lee, representing something called Ngai Tai Ki Tamaki, contacted the planner… After advising the planners verbally that no Cultural Impact Assessment Report was required for the window, he nevertheless asked them to consider it – brace yourselves – given his ancestors, centuries ago, gathered in the vicinity. Lee then wrote, outlining his terms for ‘assessing the window’s cultural impact’ which, he said, would take him ‘a total of six to eight hours’. For this he sought $90 per hour plus GST and ‘travel expenses of 0.77c per km’.”

Bob Jones told them to get stuffed.

Regrettably, too few respond as he did. Most find it easier and potentially cheaper to give in to cultural blackmail.

For a time, I was a member of what was then known as the Judicial Committee of the Whangarei District Council. Essentially it was a three-person committee of councillors to hear resource consent applications. As chairman, I was also required to review and sign off non-notified resource consents.

The council practice at the time, and I am sure it remains, was to deem local iwi an affected party for all applications and as such they were given an opportunity to object to proposals. It was not uncommon for the local iwi to demand the applicant engage them to obtain a cultural assessment report – for a fee paid by the applicant. Having prepared the report the iwi would decide whether they would object to the proposal. Rarely did I have to actually read the report because it was usually just a three or four-page photocopy of a standard report!

Not once did the applicant object to the report or refuse to pay the fee, knowing that a signature was required to avoid a hearing of the Judicial Committee and a potential appeal to the Environment Court and beyond. Given the choice between making the payments or incurring the costs, the uncertainties, and the delays of not doing so, the applicants invariably made the logical commercial decision to pay what many would privately refer to as a ransom.

Exactly which iwi or hapu has status in a particular area was always a contentious issue. As Bob Jones found out, there were often multiple interests claiming affected party status, so they too could have their “mana respected”.

Council staff of course usually obliged and granted the requests and simply added the Maori group to the list applicants were required to consult.

Clearly the “confusion” regarding Chief of War is that the Te Waiariki, Ngāti Kororā, Ngāti Takapari Hapu Iwi Trust was not recognised by the Northland Regional Council as having status. What the Trust representatives said to the film makers or what demands they may have made is unknown but whatever it was was so unacceptable that they demolished the structures they had erected, packed up their gear, and left. One imagines they waved goodbye with a one-finger salute as their vehicles departed the car park.

Sadly, this debacle has deprived the local community of much-needed income, prevented hundreds of aspiring actors from having the opportunity to showcase their talent (or at least allow them bragging rights to say they were in a famous movie), deprived the opportunity for Whangarei to showcase its spectacular scenery to a world audience of many millions, and sullied New Zealand’s reputation as a great place for overseas movie makers.

While we do not know if financial demands were involved – and no allegations to that effect are being made – what we can say is the cultural appeasement industry is damaging our economy and harming everyone. It needs to be tidied up.

There is also now clearly emerging inter-generational conflict within Māori between more moderate iwi elders intent on working within the system and a younger generation of activists intent on destroying the system. Perhaps what we are seeing is a new generation that is the product of radicalised education who will not be satisfied with anything less than sovereignty over Aotearoa and all of its inhabitants. The Māori Party is the flag bearer of that cause.

The real question is whether any politicians are brave enough to confront these issues. Perhaps we need our own Chief of War type action hero to restore cultural sanity. 


Northern Advocate, Jason Momoa’s Chief of War series had to pull filming at Northland’s Kauri Mountain, 22 April:

Te Waiariki, Ngāti Kororā, Ngāti Takapari Hapū Trust Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/tewaiarikingatikororangatitakapari/

Watea News, Hapū drive away film pūtea, 26 April: