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Uproar: A heart-warming, heart-wrenching coming-of-age story

Saturday 28 October 2023 | Written by Joanne Holden | Published in Entertainment, Features


Uproar: A heart-warming, heart-wrenching  coming-of-age story
New Zealand feature film Uproar starring Julian Dennison (pictured) is screening at the Empire Theatre in Avarua, Rarotonga. The movie is co-written and co-directed by Rarotonga-based filmmaker Hamish Bennett. 23102750

As the credits rolled on the Cook Islands premiere of New Zealand feature film Uproar on Tuesday night, a packed Empire Theatre erupted in applause.

The comedy-drama’s co-writer and co-director, Aotearoa Maori filmmaker Hamish Bennett, has called Rarotonga home for nearly two years. Clapping intensified as he took the stage, quieting as he began sharing trivia and fielding questions from a moved audience.

Did you know Julian Dennison’s mother, Mabelle, plays Tui – an elderly Maori rights activist who sets his character on the path of re-discovering his indigenous roots? “They’re your people too,” she tells him, smile tender as he expresses sympathy for Maori after learning about the land stolen from them.

Did you know musician and actor Troy Kingi appears in photographs as the main character’s deceased father? Kingi and on-screen widow Minne Driver came together to record a cover of Vance Joy’s Saturday Sun for the film’s soundtrack, an acoustic version playing during the film’s closing scene.

The heart-warming and heart-wrenching Uproar stars Dennison as Josh Waaka, a teenage misfit too afraid to make waves in his life.

When the 1981 Springbok tour arrives in New Zealand – a pivotal moment in the country’s history, communities divided and games disrupted or cancelled as thousands took a stand against apartheid in South Africa – Josh finds himself pulled three ways.

The rugby-mad St Gilbert’s School for Men has banned its students from protesting the tour. Josh is willing to go against this directive as he finds belonging with a group of Maori rights activists – identifying with their cause opposing racism not just in South Africa, but New Zealand as well.

That is, until mother Shirley (Driver) tells him going against the school will jeopardise the family.

Rejected by both sides of the family because of the interracial union between Josh’s British mother and Maori father, and with both his dad and older brother Jamie (James Rolleston) being stand-out stars in the school’s First XV rugby team in their day – his family has been relying on the school’s support to survive.

Meanwhile, as Josh struggles to fill his dad and brother’s rugby boots, drama teacher Madigan (Rhys Darby) sees potential in his acting ability and encourages him to audition for placement in a performing arts school.

Attempting to reconcile with these opposing forces is what finally pushes Josh off the fence, and demonstrates how much of a difference one person can make in their community.

The film never loses its sense of humour as it provides a nuanced look at the attitudes surrounding the Springbok tour – from the unblinking, opposing stances of the Maori rights activists and St Gilbert’s principal; to self-confessed “coward” Madigan hiding his support for the protests; to the tour nearly tearing the Waaka family apart.

As Bennett says, “As much as it’s a coming-of-age story for a young boy, it’s a coming-of-age story about a country as well.”

Bennett concluded his question-and-answer session on opening night by expressing a desire to make a film starring the Cook Islands, in heavy collaboration with the people who have called the sub-tropical group of islands home for many generations.

If such a film has the potential to be of the same calibre as Uproar, it’s an exciting prospect.