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'The Convert' offers new view

Bishop John Bluck reports a different view on iwi Māori relations with an early Pākehā missionary in Michael Bennett and Lee Tamahori's new film, 'The Convert'.

John Bluck  |  02 Apr 2024  |

Once in a great while, a New Zealand film emerges that shows our country as somewhere that didn’t begin in 1840; that portrays Pākehā missionaries sympathetically, and treats Māori with dignity and complexity.

You can count such movies on the fingers of one hand. They baffle the critics who, cut adrift from trading on historical cliches, complain about storylines, airing their knowledge about narrative arcs, rather than looking for authenticity.

Rotten Tomatoes for example was bemused by the film, unsure whether it was “a swashbuckling action movie or a mild mannered costumed drama”.

They might better have started with the question the film addresses head on. What was it like to live here as Pākehā in the early 1830s, as a tiny minority group numbering less than 2000, amidst a confident Māori majority 40 times larger and hugely more skilled and sophisticated?

Lee Tamahori’s new move The Convert gives us a taste of how it was, through the eyes of a Wesleyan lay missionary, come to serve a fledgling community of settlers called Epworth. They teeter on the edge of survival, surrounded by iwi at war with each other.

The opening titles tell us the 1830s were marked by the arrival of the musket and Christianity. The new missionary Thomas Munro embodies that faith and eventually joins Māori as they make it their own, becoming less and less welcome by the settlers he came to serve. The old creed of utu is confronted and changed by the new power of forgiveness, subtle and bloody though the transition is.

The brutality of the Musket Wars is graphically portrayed. Only a Māori film maker of Tamahori’s skill could do that as authentically and respectfully. The production takes great pains to represent te ao Māori faithfully and sets new standards for Kiwi movies venturing into bicultural territory.

The use of Te Reo is especially impressive; sometimes constantly interchanging English and Māori speakers (but always using subtitles) to give a taste of how it must have been to live everyday between two languages. If you couldn’t do that, you wouldn’t survive, unlike today where we kid ourselves that being bicultural is an optional extra.

The film is based on a novel by Michael Bennett from the family of Bishop Manu Bennett of beloved memory. Michael has an impressive list of books and scripts to his name, including a publication called Christianity Explained. With a sympathetic screenplay, an impressive line-up of actors across the cultures, led by Guy Pearce, Te Kohe Tuhaka and Tioreore Ngati-Melbourne, beautiful images from cinematographer Gin Laone and the sure hand of veteran director Tamahori, this is a movie that stays with you.

At a time when our colonial history is being traded as a political pawn, with politicians telling us we are free to forget it, The Convert anchors us back into a legacy that continues to shape us. We ignore it at our peril.


John Bluck is a retired bishop of Waiapu and author of ‘Becoming Pākehā – a journey between two cultures (HarperCollins)’. His other publications can be downloaded free from