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Sima-5Sima Urale is a film­maker, a writer and an act­or. Born in Sam­oa, and ini­tially raised in the vil­lages of Fagamalo and Matavai, she migrated with her fam­ily to New Zea­l­and in 1974 and grew up in Island Bay, where her moth­er was a teach­er at Wel­ling­ton South Primary School.

She was encour­aged into act­ing in her teens, and audi­tioned suc­cess­fully for Toi Whakaari, where she was in the same year as Tim Balme and Cliff Curtis. After gradu­at­ing, she was cast in the Gib­son Group com­edy series Skitz and then its spin-off, The Semis­is, while at the same time win­ning Chap­man Tripp Theatre Awards for work like John Kneubuhl’s Think of a Garden.

Sima was accep­ted at Melbourne’s pres­ti­gi­ous Vic­tori­an Col­lege of the Arts (VCA) School of Film and Tele­vi­sion (formerly Swin­burne), win­ning the VCA Encour­age­ment Stu­dent Award. After gradu­at­ing in 1994, she returned home to Wel­ling­ton and made O Tamaiti (1996), which won the pres­ti­gi­ous Best Short Film award at the Venice Film Fest­iv­al, as well as Best Short at the New Zea­l­and Film Awards. Her doc­u­ment­ary Vel­vet Dreams (1997), on the arcane art of vel­vet paint­ing and espe­cially its prac­ti­tion­er Charlie McPhee, screened inter­na­tion­ally and also picked up sev­er­al awards, while her second short film — Still Life (2001) — won the top prize at the Montreal Film Fest­iv­al. Her first music video — for her broth­er Bill Urale (aka King Kapisi) —took out the best New Zea­l­and Music Video award, almost as a mat­ter of course.

Sima has also worked with her sis­ter Maker­ita on the tele­vi­sion arts show The Liv­ing Room, and with her broth­er Tati, and sis­ters Nata­sha and Maila, who are all employed in the arts.

In 2008, Sima’s debut fea­ture, Apron Strings, opened the New Zea­l­and Inter­na­tion­al Film Fest­iv­al, and since 2012 she has been the head tutor at the New Zea­l­and Film and Tele­vi­sion School in Vivi­an Street.

Sima-4We meet in Sima’s office. It’s a stand­ard space: white-walled, fluoro lights. Her desk is awash with papers, notes, scripts. It is a place of admin­is­tra­tion and man­age­ment, clearly some­where to do a cer­tain type of work, but not some­where Sima wants to spend any more time than is neces­sary. When I men­tion that our pho­to­graph­er Car­oline will be arriv­ing in an hour, Sima imme­di­ately says, “Let’s not do pho­tos in here. Let’s go into the stu­dio. They’re build­ing sets in there now… it’s great.”

 “Film-mak­ing, you have to think quite selfishly, y’know? When you’re mak­ing the film, it has to be gen­er­ous, and com­pas­sion­ate, and all that stuff. But when it comes to actu­ally get­ting a film off the ground, you have to be single-minded and selfish. I think every­one who’s ever made a film would have found that. It’s not like oth­er arts, where you can pick up a gui­tar, or a sheet of paper, and cre­ate. With a film, you’re going to need people to fol­low you, and you’re going to need a cer­tain amount of money — and that’s nev­er small — and you’re going to need some infra­struc­ture behind you. And put­ting all that togeth­er… it takes an act of will, and it takes two or three years every time you try to do it. That’s my exper­i­ence any­way. And it gets tir­ing. So once in a while it’s good to put your energy into some­thing else, and for me, it was good to have an oppor­tun­ity to pass on a few things, and to put some­thing back into the film community.

Pri­or­it­ies change. At heart I’m a Sam­oan girl, and my par­ents were get­ting older, and I wanted to be avail­able to help take care of them. When you’ve got people to love and to care about, it changes everything. And sud­denly that life­style, of being a film-maker… it had to change. So I saw this and I applied, because I could see that I could be a good fit for it, and I got it. So this job became about pri­or­it­ies. And now I’m here, I love it. I’m sup­posed to be here inspir­ing them, and they just keep on inspir­ing me.” 

We talk for a while longer, about the school, and the focus of this inter­view. Sima is adam­ant that if the inter­view is ‘about the school’, then there are oth­er people I should also talk to. But I assure her that the piece is about her, more than the school. She pauses, and then tells me some­thing I per­haps should have known before I made the call to set up this meeting.

Dad passed away, just two weeks ago,” she says. “It was a beau­ti­ful tangi. All the kids, all the grandkids, every­one play­ing, every­one helped paint the coffin. It was quite amaz­ing. All the kids got to lay their hands on the coffin.” 

She repeats that last line sev­er­al times as she speaks. “All the kids got to lay their hands on the coffin.” On my record­ing it almost takes on the qual­ity of a rev­er­ie, of a line from a poem wait­ing to be writ­ten. Or just maybe it’s a moment in a film that hasn’t yet been made.

Dad was amaz­ing. He was just the fun­ni­est, hard­est-work­ing guy. It was impossible for a part­ner, cos Dad was always fun­ni­er than they were… bet­ter company.”

He could hardly speak any Eng­lish, but it seemed like every­one in Wel­ling­ton knew him. He’d be at all the open­ings, all the first nights. Wherever the kids were put­ting some­thing on, Mum and Dad would be there. Com­ing over here I think he dreamed of his kids being doc­tors and law­yers, but instead every one of us went into the arts.


We were Wel­ling­ton kids. Dad worked at the car­pet fact­ory, and Mum was a teach­er at Wel­ling­ton South. We couldn’t walk down the street without people want­ing to stop and talk to Mum. She was an amaz­ing teach­er. Really strong, really intel­li­gent, an amaz­ing motiv­at­or. Even today, it feels like she must have taught half of Wel­ling­ton. Tell you what, a couple of years ago I was vis­it­ing the hos­pit­al, and one of the doc­tors there, he’s look­ing at me, and he says, ‘Is your name Urale?’, and I think I know what’s com­ing, he’s seen some­thing me or Maker­ita was in, but no, he says, ‘Can you tell your Mum that I did become a doc­tor please? She said I could.’”

Sima laughs long and hard at this, and lit­er­ally shakes her head at the memory. It’s a won­der­ful moment, in a con­ver­sa­tion that has me grin­ning pretty much from begin­ning to end.

I think you’ve got to be a bit mad to even try to make a film. I know every­one says that about whatever their job is, but in film, I genu­inely think it’s true. I mean, what it takes to put a film togeth­er… it’s prac­tic­ally aut­ist­ic levels of per­sever­ance and focus. And then there’s the actu­al mak­ing of it, and all that, for this incred­ibly insec­ure, unstable life. It’s amaz­ing to me that people want to do it. But here we are, run­ning a film school, turn­ing away 80 per­cent of the people who apply.

Sima-7            “I think the stu­dents get that edge-of-the-seat feel­ing. Once they’re here, they have to know that any­thing could hap­pen, and that a pro­ject could present itself at any minute. Because that’s real world in film. The phone rings, or the weath­er changes, and everything’s on. So we try to get them ready for that. And that’s not really some­thing you can teach, but if it’s already in them, I reck­on you can devel­op it, encour­age it, hone it.”

Sima has that envi­able strength that comes, I think, from being raised in a large and ram­bunc­tious fam­ily, of being a child from a vil­lage — wheth­er it’s the vil­lage in Sam­oa, or a vil­lage of the spir­it that she car­ries wherever she goes. And also a strength that comes from grow­ing up in New­town and south Wel­ling­ton, hanging with the tough kids and the brawl­ers, at a time when the city could be a lot more dan­ger­ous than it is now… (“You lit­er­ally knew which gang had which pub. Tell that to the kids in Cour­tenay Place now. Hah!”) In a theatre, or on her own film sets, she brings com­munity with her, and she seems to cre­ate it where she works. It’s a fab­ulous gift. I can’t help but envy these stu­dents a little.

I don’t know how much you can teach really. They’re not here to train to do a 9–5 job. And we’re try­ing to get what should prob­ably be a three-year course into one year. So we can’t pos­sibly just sit them down and tell them stuff. People nev­er really learn like that any­way. But I think you can show. And I think that’s what the good teach­ers do. Y’know, I nev­er tell any of the stu­dents that we expect them to be here at the week­ends. Because we don’t, well not offi­cially. But if they’ve a big pro­ject on, then they’ll see me in here. And they might get it from that.” 

I ask Sima what she might look for in a script, and she answers imme­di­ately. I guess it’s a ques­tion that she’s been asked many times already, but her answer is any­thing but rehearsed, just tested.

It’s the theme. It’s not enough to just have a story, and some char­ac­ters run­ning around doing stuff. Any­one can write that, and that’s all half the stuff you see is. But if you want to make some­thing good, you’ve got to know what it’s really about. You’ve got to have a theme, and you’ve got to under­stand what it is you’re say­ing. Without that, it’s all a bit point­less eh? But unless I can see a theme, I’m not going to be able to make the film.

I’m not really that pro­lif­ic. There’s a lot of dir­ect­ors who have made a lot more than me. But I think the few pro­jects that I have made, they’ve been noticed a bit. Because of the themes, or some twist or angle that I bring to it. So, maybe people think of me as being pro­lif­ic, and that’s great, but really I just try to make them count.”

Just for a moment, Sima holds a ser­i­ous face. And then, like she has a dozen times in the last hour, she dis­solves into a storm of laughter. Car­oline the pho­to­graph­er arrives, and we head down to the studio.

Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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