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Finally, a TV series that reflects intelligent young brown people – and foretells Ihumātao

 

In the eponymous TV series, Aroha Bridge is a fictional town which has eerie links to what is happening at Ihumatāo. This show, and another – Ahikāroa, are also satiating the need for intelligent young brown people to be shown on our screens, particularly women.

When a Hollywood production of Pania of the Reef comes to Aroha Bridge, Monty Hook, a millennial Māori and aspiring musician, protests the production. Monty reminds us that “we should tell our own stories, not Hollywood” and that “our cultural stories are not for sale.”

This is until Monty’s own accidental acting career picks up. He starts to play illustrious roles such as “hooded youth number 5”, “suspicious dude number 8” and “thug number 2” for the all too common pay rate of exposure. However, before long, his continual portrayal of the stereotypical ‘Māori and/or Pacific Island man’ made famous by programmes such as Police 10/7 starts to have negative impacts in the town, influencing young people’s hopes and dreams, increasing police profiling and shaping media bias.


Getting new and complex archetypes onto our television and movie screens seems to be something which happens at glacial speeds. While of course, it is getting better with time (and I am stoked that I have my own Pacific Disney princess Moana) for Māori, Pacific, Asian and the many other peoples in Aotearoa, too often our cameo appearances on mainstream TV programmes are tokenised and stereotypical – if they exist at all. And to rub salt into the wound, most Pacific- and Māori-made content on our main TV channels is relegated to the very inconvenient early morning, late night or weekend viewing slots.

While much of TV channels 1, 2 and 3 are stuck somewhere in the mid-2000s, two Māori Television shows seem to be a saving grace for those of us starved of seeing intelligent young brown people on screen. Season 2 of Ahikāroa has just wrapped up and season 3 of Aroha Bridge has just recently launched. While very different in style, Ahikāroa, a realistic drama first released in 2017, and Aroha Bridge, a cartoon and political satire started in 2013, both introduce strong young Māori women leads as new archetypes into our TV landscape.

Hard talking Smooch (Te Ahorangi Winitana) and party girl Geo (Turia Schmidt-Peke) are joined by Hemi (Nepia Takuira-Mita), to make up the fiercely loyal trio of friends in Ahikāroa. The bilingual series, produced by Quinton Hita and directed by Kiel McNaughton and Hanelle Harris, places Smooch and Geo as the two female leads in the series which reveals the layered experiences of “young, city, Māori mindsets.” The trio have grown up in Auckland, schooled in kura kaupapa and together highlight big issues facing young urban Māori, a first for TV. 

When Smooch is alone in the hospital room at the start of season 1, it may have been lost on some viewers what she was doing there, before getting dressed, discharging herself and driving off as if nothing happened. That is until the end of the season when it was finally revealed that she had an abortion. However, for many young women, myself included, the feeling of being alone in a room after terminating a pregnancy is actually very familiar. Who would have known that two years after that episode was released a conscience vote on abortion law reform would happen in Parliament?

The characters Geo and Smooch join another (albeit very different) young female lead, Kowhai Hook from Aroha Bridge. Voiced by Jessica ‘Coco Solid’ Hansell, Kowhai is a twin sister to Monty and one half of the musical duo Hook Ups. Created by Hansell who co-directs it with Simon Ward, it also focuses on urban Māori characters, delving “into the racial politics and millennial Māori anxieties that manifest in the animated hubbub suburb of ‘Aroha Bridge’.” It is worth noting that Hansell is also one of the writers on Ahikāroa. And shock horror, who would have thought that between these three characters, there are so many ways to be Māori and to be a woman?

Related articles:  To deal with Ihumātao, Jacinda Ardern must heed lessons from history | He Kākano is helping to bridge the disconnect between people and the land

Growing up in Henderson, loan shark trucks were a regular occurrence outside our window. When I went in one day it felt like Christmas. Mink blankets, clothes, kitchen supplies and household appliances lined the walls of the truck. Although, I can never remember if my mum actually brought anything. Loan sharks, as well as culturally-specific scholarships, representation and selling out to capitalism are key themes throughout season 3, which makes the show incredibly relatable for this Sāmoan scholarship student. Beyond telling relatable stories, it’s eerily prescient a series like Aroha Bridge written years earlier would mimic the events happening now at Ihumātao. Led by SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape) and fronted by Pania Newton, the point is to protect the untouched land at Ihumātao from a Fletcher Construction housing development.

In the season’s explosive finale, Kamo Kamo Corporation construct a wall separating Aroha Bridge from the rest of world. The residents of Aroha Bridge – the angry dads, the people monopolising the cause, those disillusioned and those trying to be woke – are divided in where they stand politically. That is until everyone starts to be impacted personally, whether it be through the inability to get burritos or the relentless corporate control of the suburb.

A clear reference to Trump’s 'wall', it also makes an eye-watering comparison to the Fletcher's development, and the way in which it has split people in their own political ideology. In the same way Jacinda Ardern has to eventually take a stance on Ihumātao, Tokouso, the overly idealistic mayor of Aroha Bridge, always thought he could please everyone, until he finds that he too has to eventually take a stance. An uncanny coincidence? Or a premonition manifested by the series’ writer?

Like that friend who asks you if you really want to do that, and then tells you I told you so, Aroha Bridge, acts as a shady pop-up window asking us if we really want to repeat history again. Aroha Bridge is the Co-Star app, sending oddly demanding alerts to your phone saying “don’t do this to yourself again.”

Aroha Bridge is intended to be something which all Kiwis can relate too and in the latest season that’s mostly true because it seems to so closely parody contemporary New Zealand society. Media coverage is shocked at the way the show is accurately representing current events in real-time. Perhaps this is what happens when – like Monty says in episode 1 – people tell their our own stories. Maybe the writers of Ahikāroa and Aroha Bridge pulled these stories from their crystal ball, or perhaps these experiences and storylines are pre-existing and have just never been brought to life before.

While a Pacific millennial in Rānui patiently waits for her archetype to be written onto the screen, these shows are satiating my thirst. Never-ending hustle, a mum with a bit of ‘jungle fever’ and aunties sipping tea, Ahikāroa and Aroha Bridge are relatable, ingenious and visionary.

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