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The almighty dollar: How church tithing affected this family

Give till it hurts: young performers adorned with New Zealand currency. Photo/Supplied.

Film-maker Vea Mafile‘o shines a light on church tithing in an affecting documentary about how the practice has hurt her family.

These days, Vea Mafile‘o finds tears are never far away. Often, when she least expects it. Recently, while waiting to pick up her mother from work at an Ōtara primary school, the director ran into the principal, and talk turned to Mafile‘o’s new film, For My Father’s Kingdom. Her mother arrived and joined in. Soon, all three were weeping in the street.

“Mum started tearing up. He started tearing up. I started tearing up. This is a principal … and we’re crying in public. It’s weird how this film can just start pulling the emotions out of people,” she says.

The New Zealand International Film Festival programme page for Mafile‘o’s first feature should come with a warning: it will tug hard at your heartstrings. It’s showing at the local festival as it moves around the country following screenings in the indigenous section of the Berlin International Film Festival in February and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May and heads to the Melbourne International Film Festival next month.

Vea Mafile'o. Photo/Getty.

The film was co-directed by Mafile‘o, who is of Tongan, Māori and Scottish descent, and her Samoan partner, Jeremiah Tauamiti. A fine arts graduate, Mafile‘o began her creative career making video installations, before she and Tauamiti started Pacific-focused joint production company Malosi Pictures, which initially made short films and did television work. Five years in the making, Kingdom is their biggest undertaking yet.

It’s also one of the more provocative inclusions in the festival’s line-up, because of the spotlight it shines on the church’s role in the Tongan community. It makes a compelling case that Misinale – the annual tithing event that sees church congregations making donations many can’t afford – should stop. To emphasise that point, Mafile‘o turns the camera on her own family, examining the effect her father’s financial contributions have had on her and her siblings.

The film begins by joining her retired dad, Saia, on his weekly paper run, which he does to raise money for his church. Mafile‘o and the rest of her family have spent years struggling to understand why he continues to donate money when he has very little to give.

“He’d ring all of us kids up: ‘It’s Misinale on Friday, do you have $1000 or $2000?’ We’d have to scrape together [the money],” she says. “We’re like, ‘Dad, you’re doing a paper run. Why are you giving all your money to the church?’ It was so upsetting to see how ridiculous he was being.”

Mafile‘o’s film not only addresses the problem, but also tries to understand it, heading to Tonga to dig into her father’s beliefs. It’s here her film opens up, discovering just how deep, and how complicated, the church’s ties to the community are.

“Church and culture can’t be separated, they’re intertwined,” says Mafile‘o. “They’re in the fabric of society.”

As her film travels from South Auckland to Tonga for her father’s school reunion, she reopens plenty of old family wounds. Saia’s refusal to leave Tonga and join his family in New Zealand as his children grew up is a particularly painful memory.

An emotional discussion between Saia and his adult son, shown near the end of the film, includes an apology. It was the first time the pair had discussed it. “Island dads don’t talk – they don’t talk to their sons,” says Tauamiti, who was behind the camera. “I’ve never heard an Island man say sorry – for anything. When I saw [that], I was crying.”

The filmmaker's father Saia Mafile‘o. Photo/Supplied.
It was important that her family – both parents, now separated, and siblings Robert, Emily and Elizabeth – agreed to take part in her film, says Mafile‘o.

Back in 2015, before shooting began, she told them: “You know what this entails. We’re not going to do it half-hearted. If we put all our shit out there, we’re going to do it properly. Because what’s the point of doing something if it’s going to be weak or half-pie?”

They agreed, and the results are intense and intimate. Saia’s charismatic personality adds a lighter touch, but several scenes show the kind of grief and anguish most families keep firmly behind closed doors.

“I didn’t realise how personal and how deep [we] would have to dig to get an authentic story, and a story that wasn’t coming from a place of telling-off, or saying, ‘Our way is better than your way.’”

It’s a dramatic family affair on-screen, but there was plenty going on behind the scenes as well. During the 18-month shoot, Mafile‘o and Tauamiti had their third son. The baby joined mum and dad on the shoot. “There was no separation between work and life.”

Mafile‘o relied on those she was filming to help make her movie.

When she was heavily pregnant, her brother carried sound equipment for her.

Late one night, while he was shooting the preparation for a church feast, Tauamiti fell asleep after a long day behind the camera. She picked it up and kept filming. “I just took over. I’m a hoarder. I’m like, ‘Film everything, now,’” she says.

With many family members invested in her film, combined with the touchy subject, Mafile‘o says the stakes are high. She hopes the right people see it, that it sparks discussion and that it helps shift attitudes.

“Church plays a very special, important role in Tonga, but there needs to be not so much pressure on the community. We could just give what we actually have … not take out loans to do this.”

Mafile‘o says discussion has already been happening following a few preview screenings. Several church elders have seen the film, she says, and given it their approval. It’s had her father’s blessing, too. “It was about understanding him, and he was all for that,” she says.

After a screening for family and friends, Saia told her: “I’m going to go visit my ministers and make sure they come.”

She and Tauamiti are now used to seeing people burst into tears once the credits roll. Viewers have told them it’s sparked discussions and reunions within their own families. A film that opened wounds for the Mafile‘o family has helped close them in others.

Mafile‘o welcomes it, and often ends up crying with them.

“I feel like we’ve been crying for the last three years,” she says. “We’ve been sitting behind the camera bawling our eyes out.”

She says it’s been “cathartic”, but, “there are no answers. It’s not like we’re healed now – it’s an ongoing thing.”

Reaching for another tissue, Mafile‘o says: “It’s still really raw. Look at me, I’m crying just talking to you about it.” 

For My Father’s Kingdom screens at the NZ International Film Festival (Auckland from July 30 and Wellington from August 6 before heading to NZIFF events in other centres).

This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.