OPINION: Take a drive up a winding coastal highway. Then a hard turn up a gravel road, past a handful of weathered houses, until the end of the road where the gate says 'private - locals only'. You keep going.
Welcome to Toke, a movie that’s set in a kiwifruit orchard in a fictional town that could be any forgotten small town in Aotearoa. Only the people who are from there know the secret. It’s actually paradise, the best place in the world, because it’s home.
As a Māori, home is a loaded word. For someone who usually works in Auckland or writes overseas, it’s framed in questions like: "Can you make it back home for the hui?" or "When's he going to bring those skills back home?" or "nice to be home cuz?"
In te ao Māori (the Māori world) where you’re from comes before your name. You don’t have to live in your kainga (homelands) but you have to know where it is and you must be proud of it, verging on patriotic. Home for me is my beautiful marae Ngahutoitoi in Paeroa.
I’ll also happily lump in all of Hauraki and the Coromandel’s beaches, rivers and forests. My birth town, Thames, is the place people stop to gas up their boats before heading to more glamorous areas on the Peninsula.
When searching for locations to film this movie there were many contributing factors, but after one road trip up the barnacled Thames Coast, the team were sold on the Coromandel for this story.
World-class scenery, creaky salty character towns with a heart of gold. Coro town locals would approach to tell us that the last film they remember in town was Sleeping Dogs. Parts of Crooked Earth as well I hear. Both excellent movies.
Tokerangi, or Toke, as the locals call it, is the small very colourful town at the centre of this movie. Reading the script, you can picture yourself there. As the writer, I made the town up.
Only weeks out from production we had to find that village. So when the directing team drove onto the gravel roads of Manaia we were fortunate to meet an awesome example of a strong Māori village and a supportive community. Manaia is a kaupapa-driven papakainga, where the council’s influence ends around where the tarseal does.
The idea was always to tell the story of Toke from a Māori world view. A hyper-local experience that’s universally relatable. Particular attention was paid to the dialogue to make it authentic to Māori, rural life, orchard workers and Hauraki style.
Everything from the choice of lenses to the set design and costume was done to ensure Toke felt real, though so much of it was already present in beautiful Manaia.
Unlike the plot of the movie - where a big juicy action caper hits their small town and they’re totally not ready for it - it was incredible how the kainga of Manaia expertly handled all of the crew and the shoot. We even had big floods on some days but it was managed so the action and drama could continue on screen.
Even just to see ourselves on screen in a new cool way is huge in a comedy action caper.
We brought some international attention home with Hollywood heavyweight Lucy Lawless coming on board along with Aotearoa superstar Troy Kingi.
The story's premise is about bringing some new energy and enterprise to a small town.
Yes, Toke is a story about weed, but weed is one of those things that you do in town because you’re bored, when there’s nothing happening.
The big killer in town for people is boredom. Getting up to no good, drinking and smoking because there’s nothing to do.
I personally believe Aotearoa should be a free land for weed. Let people smoke it. Too many brown people are getting locked up and criminalised for weed.
I’d prefer to give more dollars to education, addiction services and health programmes, and to make sure those services and resources are in the kainga.
If, like me, you don’t always live back home, you have to find ways to stay connected. Keep showing up and doing some mahi, contribute, bring something useful home. It’s your turangawaewae. It’s how the place survives. That’s why I feel so lucky to be able to make my first movie in the Hauraki region.
The plan is to make a full series. As long as people watch the pilot and love it and want to see more, I’ve already written the next episodes. It would mean expanding all the energy from the movie into a production that works in the region for months at a time.
I hope that this movie is a place where people can hard out relate to their best feeling of home. It’s also about keeping it real in the regions – the regions are calling out for love. If we can bring more drama, arts and creative opportunities to the regions then I know we’re on the right track.
Toke is a David and Goliath story. Plucky small town growers vs big corporate players. It’s the same big smile attitude of the local who gives you directions to drive through two rivers to scout a filming location. "It'll be alright, your rental will make it."
Then you finally get to the isolated location and see that your good friend is living there. And it looks and feels like home.
Kewana Duncan (Ngāti Tara Tokanui) is the creator, writer and co-director of Toke, which will be broadcast on Monday, September 14 at 8.30pm on Toru/Three, before being available via ThreeNow.