One Question Quiz
Te Arawa writer Michael Bennett (Image: supplied/Tina Tiller)
Te Arawa writer Michael Bennett (Image: supplied/Tina Tiller)

OPINIONĀteaApril 21, 2021

The writer of Vegas responds: ‘Vegas is a story of change. A story of hope’

Te Arawa writer Michael Bennett (Image: supplied/Tina Tiller)
Te Arawa writer Michael Bennett (Image: supplied/Tina Tiller)

An essay published by The Spinoff Ātea editor Leonie Hayden on the new drama series Vegas, and Māori representation on screen, prompted an overwhelming response from Māori working in the sector. Here, the Vegas co-creator, writer, showrunner and executive producer Michael Bennett (Te Arawa) defends the series and his authorship of it, and talks about ‘the how and the why’ behind the show.

Ko Ngongotahā te maunga
Ko Te Arawa te waka
Ko Te Arawa te iwi
Ko Ngāti Pikiao, ko Ngāti Whakaue ngā hapū
Ko Michael Bennett tōku ingoa

I am the creator, showrunner, executive producer and screenwriter of the six episode series Vegas, screening on TVNZ2 on Monday nights. My company, 10,000 Company, is one of the three production companies who produced the series. I write in response to this week’s essay in The Spinoff. That essay’s central conclusion about our series comes in the fourth paragraph, which states – after the author viewed two episodes – that while there is outstanding Māori creativity on screen:

“What I didn’t see was any story sovereignty”.

Well – you can’t see what you don’t look for.

It is perplexing that The Spinoff would reach conclusions about the control over story creation in the series, without doing due diligence in the research by speaking to, uh, the Māori creator of the series (I wasn’t approached for comment or clarification or an interview).

I am delighted Spinoff was looking for many of the truly important things in our show. The extraordinary contribution by the many brilliant Māori creatives – in costume, in design, in direction, in production, in music composition, in cinematography, across the board. I am over the moon The Spinoff recognised the wonders of the 90% Māori cast revelling in no longer being the one brown face in a sea of white, who were devouring roles of substance and relevance to them, who delivered a tsunami of Māori magnificence in front of the camera that simply demands that the NZ Television Awards has to add an “ensemble” category this year. It’s awesome The Spinoff acknowledges the stunning work of the Māori cast and Māori crew and Māori trainees across all the departments. Ngā mihi!

But it would have been great if The Spinoff had taken half an hour to talk to the Māori creator of the show about the process of creating the show – they would have discovered I adapted the book, that this adaptation is credited as “inspired by”, because the overwhelming majority of the storytelling is original to the series. I created the “series bible” that establishes the DNA of the narrative and thematic arcs of the series. I solely wrote every draft of all six screenplays of the series. I did this with the extraordinary input of the remarkable and majority Māori story table (including Cian Elyse White, also the star of the show, Tim Worrall, Riwia Brown, and others) – with the advice and input of a number of respected Māori thinkers and knowledge-holders of reo and tikanga including Ngamaru Raerino and Tihini Grant. I also had the extraordinary input of co-creator and producer Harriet Crampton, a true treasure of drama in Aotearoa, with the aroha and support of Steambox Collective.

I don’t expect The Spinoff to go out of its way to celebrate the fact that Vegas is one of the very few (if not the only) high-end drama series on the planet with a Māori showrunner, creator and writer, though that is maybe worth celebrating? But if the role of Māori at the very hub of story creation and development and the telling of this show was acknowledged, it would inevitably challenge the assertion in Tuesday’s article that Vegas is “a story about Māori told through a Pākehā lens”.

But – you can’t see what you don’t look for.

If I had been given the opportunity to discuss the how and the why behind this series, here’s some of the things I would have talked about.

Teina and the president

Two events rank among the most transformational moments of my life, and are pivotal to my reasons for telling the story of Vegas.

Monday March 7, 2011 was the first time I saw a series of police evidence videotapes from nearly two decades before, of the interrogation of a 17 year-old Māori teenage boy, a young man I had never met – Teina Pora. On those shitty, degraded police tapes I watched a young, fresh-faced kid sit in a small yellow room, without a lawyer present, with a $20,000 reward notice placed in front of him. I watched as the kid tried to convince the cops he was involved in the murder, to get the reward money.

Watching those nine hours of tapes was devastating. Step by step this confused teenage boy made a nonsensical, ridiculous confession that would send him to jail for two decades. It filled me with disbelief. It made me cry, more than once.

A week later, I met Teina Pora in Paremoremo Prison. A lot of what Teina talked about, despite all evidence to the contrary, was hope – hope that maybe some day he would get out of that place. While we were talking, a ladybird landed on the table between us. I watched the bug crawl towards Teina. He didn’t stop talking, he lifted his hand, and I thought okay, that bug is about to be squished. But very gently, Teina put his finger down next to the ladybird. It crawled up onto his finger. Teina lifted up his finger, looked at the bug, and he blew – pffff. The bug spread its wings and flew out through the prison fence. To freedom.

Teina Pora in 1993. (Image: supplied)

After that first visit with Teina, I went home and told my partner Jane and my family, I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an investigator. I’ve got no idea how to organise protest marches or organise petitions. But what happened to this guy is fucked. Teina doesn’t have a violent bone in his body – he literally couldn’t hurt a bug. I became part of the fight for justice for Teina; my family became close supporters of Teina and his daughter Chanelle. But most of all, I knew what I could do best for Teina. I am a storyteller. Telling Teina’s story over the following nine years, in a documentary that would lead to the uncovering of a piece of evidence that became key to Teina’s exoneration, in a book and in a feature-length television film, would become the most important thing I will ever do in my career.

The second transformational moment is from April 2016, attending the tangi of a gang president in South Auckland. The gang leader’s story is intricately linked with Teina’s. Teina in his desperation to get the reward falsely named the man as the killer. As the fight for justice for Teina grew, the president not only forgave Teina for what he had done but, incredibly, he gave a crucial affidavit that would prove pivotal to the success of Teina’s appeal. The tangi was an extraordinary event. The commissioner of police was there. City councillors were there. Every major gang was there, as well as the Salvation Army in full uniform and the New Zealand Police, in full dress regalia – side by side, peacefully paying respect to the president and his achievements.

The fictional Te Toki gang haka at the tangihanga of their recently deceased leader. (Image: Vegas, TVNZ)

They were there because in the mid 2000s, the president had fundamentally and irrevocably transformed his whānau. On the walls of his home were the framed photos of numerous young women and men who had died using crack, making, selling or buying the drug, or in battles over the drug. The president looked at those photos and he made a decision. He told his national hierarchy that his whānau was turning its back on the drug. No one in his chapter would have anything to do with the use or the creation or the importation or the sale of the drug. He faced intense blowback. But he stood up. He stood by his decision. At the same time the president instituted a raft of other changes, making his whānau a supporting place for the children and families of members, creating food programmes and legit employment initiatives. When the president died, the Salvation Army posted on their Facebook page: “It is with great sorrow that we pay tribute to a visionary, like Moses intent on leading his people into the Promised Land.”

Vegas is the story I sought to tell, having had the privilege of coming to know and love Teina Pora. Vegas is the story I sought to tell, having learned about the extraordinary gang president who said no to crack.

Many kinds of heroes

There are many kinds of heroes. My dad and six of his brothers went to World War II. Dad was a Spitfire pilot, and the other brothers were spread across the 28th Māori Battalion, the navy, medical corps and the chaplaincy. Their story is absolutely a story of heroism, a story I intend on telling – the story of the seven brothers who went to war and who all seven returned.

The story of my dad’s family is the story of young men who come from a loving, supportive family background. Young men who were cherished by their parents, who were given education, security, ambition and aspiration. A sense of pride in culture, a sense of responsibility. From this place of security and strength, different members of the family achieved truly great things, including founding kōhanga reo, leading the Māori Battalion, becoming a high commissioner, leading the Labour Party, changing the country and the future of Māori in significant and profound ways.

But there are other kinds of heroes. Heroes who don’t come from a background of security and aspiration, as my dad’s family did. This different kind of hero comes from tougher, darker circumstances. But they find a way to reach out from the darkness and to move towards the light.

For me, Teina is this kind of hero. A man who could have given in to anger and bitterness, who could have given in to despair and loss of hope. But he didn’t. Teina chose to fight, to rise above. And he emerged from prison, against all odds, a man with his humanity utterly intact. The gang president is this kind of hero. The easy, lucrative, painless thing to do would be to keep his whānau in the crack trade. To keep on making shitloads of money. To take the path of least resistance. But he chose to fight, to rise above. He chose to do the hard thing.

To me these are is the most compelling hero stories of all. The stories of those with the greatest distance to traverse in their journeys of transformation.

Gangs are part of the landscape in Aotearoa; they are part of the landscape in Rotorua; they are part of the landscape in the fictional town of Waitoki, where Vegas takes place. As storytellers it is our responsibility to hold a mirror up to our world and say, this exists, it’s real. Otherwise why the hell do we even do this job? I believe it is false and fake and a betrayal to pretend that gang issues do not exist in our country, in our neighbourhoods, in our communities, in our whānau. If there is a problem, deal with it. But before you can deal with it, face it. And facing it means talking about it. And telling stories about it.

Vegas acknowledges that many young Māori women and men are drawn to gangs, not because they are mad or bad, but for a raft of complex and layered reasons, for things that are missing in their worlds. Vegas recognises that young Māori women and men find solace, love and whānau in gangs. Vegas isn’t a glorification of gangs, far from it. But at the same time, Vegas doesn’t depict those who are drawn to gangs as abhorrent, animalistic or lowly. The opposite!

In the first episode of Vegas the dying leader of the Te Toki whānau takes his heirs apparent to an area in the forest that was long before appropriated in historic land grabs. The old man speaks with a fierce passion about how the ancient forests were stolen. How the dispossessed are left, generations later, to be the ones in orange vests cutting down the forests. Or the ones clearing the rubbish from the streets. Or the ones in the unemployment lines, or behind prison bars.

Or wearing patches, because instead of the world saying you don’t belong, a patch says fuck you, you thieving bastards. We don’t wanna belong in the world you made. We’ll wear our own uniforms and live our way and if you have a problem, go fuck yourself.

The fiery words of a dying gang leader are a discussion, of course, of colonisation – the disempowerment caused by the loss of land and self-determination for Māori, the long-term inter-generational trauma and damage perpetrated on us by colonisation, articulated by a senior gang member, someone living the experience of the damage and mamae he is talking about. And his insights and understanding become pivotal for those he leaves behind, and for the viewers of the series.

Vegas depicts young women and men who have found their way into gangs as people of value and worth and potential and intelligence. In Vegas, the gang members are fiercely smart, they are eloquent. They speak with the same unexpected poetry that I so often hear coming from the mouth of my friend Teina. They have layered discussions about morality, they grapple with profound existential questions. They are men and women of character, intellect and potential who find themselves, for their own many and complex reasons, drawn to the world of gangs.

Importantly, in the story-telling of Vegas, life in gangs is not defined as destiny. It is the place where these men and women with their endless potential are currently at. Or, where they believe they want to go. But Vegas treats life in the gangs as a collision of circumstances for our characters, not as preordained destiny. Had the coin been tossed and landed a different way, they would be business leaders or viticulturists or poets or lawyers. But the coin landed as it did, and these young men and women of huge potential walk down a very different path. The only characters in Vegas treated with anything like contempt is the white supremacist gang. I haven’t lost sleep about that!

Meeting Jim Moriarty who plays a key role on Vegas was a moment of utter fandom for me – but it was also a moment of profound affirmation. One of our acting pantheon, Jim stepped away from acting for many years, to establish Te Rākau Hua O Te Wao Tapu Trust, healing and empowering exactly the people we portray on screen. I hoped Jim would embrace this story. I feared he might condemn it. Jim could barely contain himself when he spoke about the series. Jim said Vegas gives dignity to the women and men he works with. It’s a story of change. A story of hope.

I often talk about my aspirations for Vegas as being “Sopranos in Rotorua”. It’s an aspiration, I’m not pretending for a moment we’re anywhere near that level of masterful storytelling. But the point is, the gangster genre has produced some of the most wonderful and challenging and morally layered stories in television and film history. I hope we’re grown-up enough in Aotearoa today to tell stories in any genre, including this. And if so – let’s tell stories that take on the big themes and issues, let’s talk about where we are today and who we are today and how we got here and where we might be going, and let’s do it boldly and unblinkingly.

Keep going!