Well this one’s been in the works for quite some time now. An interview with my pal Annelise Hickey. Who, in my opinion, is Melbourne's, no Australia's, no the world’s greatest film director.
I’ve watched Anno’s career grow from strength to strength. From winning an ARIA for Best Music Video with Vance Joy, to now a short film that debuted at Robert’s De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
It wasn’t just her professional skills that grew over this period, but Anno’s connectivity to her culture and her bravery in confronting past challenges.
We took some time to talk business with Anno and discuss the making of her short film Hafekasi.
S+W: Holy moly, a worldwide premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, a screening at Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), London International Film Festival, West Washington Film Festival, Hawaii International Film Festival, Hālāwai Film Festival (New York) and then rounding out the year at Brisbane International Film Festival. It may be shorter next time to write the festivals you didn’t make it into.
Your short film Hafekasi has been on quite a journey, and it’s not stopping anytime soon. Tell us when the idea of creating the film first began.
Thanks for the intro Sam! Haha. This is beautifully strange, being interviewed by my best mate for a label I love so much, so thanks for having me.
Hafekasi (Tongan for ‘half-caste’) is about a mixed Tongan-Australian girl Mona, living with her white Mum and navigating culture and identity in 90’s Australia. I haven’t seen this particular story on screen, especially mixed Polynesian-Australian and thought there might be other mixed folk out there who would resonate with the film, especially in Melbourne being the “melting pot of culture” that it is.
Living in between two cultures, I’ve never feel like an expert in one, so imposter syndrome would rear it’s head when I had tried to write this very personal story in the past. I’ve probably poked at it for over a decade. But things got moving after I went to Aotearoa for the first time and saw how brown culture was celebrated over there; more specifically Maori, Polynesian. People are really proud to be brown over there and so they should be! So, when I got home, I got to work and the script kinda poured out of me in a few days. I think I just needed to give myself permission and before that trip, I wasn’t ready to get real.
S+W: It’s such a long timeline, and all these accomplishments and celebrations must feel like you’re having 10 birthdays in the one year. How have you been dealing with all the excitement the film is generating?
Haha! It’s been a wild ride that has far exceeded my expectations. I’m trying to ride the big waves, to be as present as possible and taking all the opportunities that come our way. I think with that excitement, it’s easy to just keep wanting more so I’ve channeled that in to more writing for future projects.
I had some strangers in New York approach me after a screening, crying because Hafekasi resonated so deeply with them. I guess it just reinforced why I want to make films. Not to make people cry, but seeing yourself being reflected on screen is pretty powerful stuff.
S+W: The story of Mona (played by Izabelle Tokava) is based on your childhood growing up in a place where you felt isolated. You are a Hafekasi. Half brown, half white.
On one hand you had the undeniable love of your white Australian family, but were left somewhat abandoned with your connection to your Tongan lineage.
Was writing this film a really expensive therapy session for you?
HAHAHAHAHA! Yes sis. I joked on the last shoot day, that if this film went nowhere, at least we spent thousands on therapy for me. But in all seriousness, there’s been loads of healing with this film. That’s the beauty of art hey? I won’t lie, I cried each day on set, but in true Tongan style, laughed just as much.
Having this story out in the world has made me the most vulnerable I’ve been in my lifetime and has come with big highs and massive lows, but I’m glad we did it. The good outweighs the bad.
(Izabelle Tokava on the set of Hafekasi)
S+W: In what ways has the film contributed to your emotional connection with your family?
(Insert big inhale and exhale with a cheeky smile.) The film has opened up some really great conversations with both sides of my family so you could say it’s been family therapy.
At 10 years old, I didn’t have the emotional maturity to articulate what was going on (sometimes as an adult too), but this film is an expression of how I’ve felt as a Hafekasi in Australia and I guess it’s revealed something to my family, that I couldn’t always say out loud.
The general consensus within the family has been “I didn’t realise you felt like that” and perhaps offered a perspective that wasn’t obvious to everyone. It’s definitely brought me closer to my Mum, my broader Aussie family and even my Dad. It’s made us talk about things that haven’t been said before.
S+W: Few individuals have the ability to tell a story and talk of their emotions through a camera lens.
How has art assisted (or impeded) you in navigating life's challenges?
Making my own art has most definitely assisted me! Making works has always challenged me on what I believe in and what my voice is. I’ve made some good and bad choices on certain projects but every single one have always helped me become clearer on what I want to say.
In my formative years, consuming a lot of Australian media and TV contributed to some self loathing for sure, so in that sense, it has been an impediment in the past. Maybe it wasn’t exactly art, but close enough. I wanted to be a tiny, blonde, Roxy surf model in Dolly magazine when I was in primary school. Haha! So far from who I was. When Summer Heights High came out, I remember being excited that people finally knew where Tonga was because one of the main characters Jonah, was Tongan. I’m ashamed to say, my internal racism ran so deep and it’s taken a lot of unpacking to see how ignorant I was to think that a white man dressed up in brown face was ok. I think wanting to fit in and be accepted, you’ll take any scrap that is thrown to you.
But if anything, this sort stuff makes me wanna mess with the system and has given me clear purpose as a filmmaker; to make more works that represent what the world actually looks like, not what a bunch of old white dudes want it to look like.
S+W: The film was shot by Matthew Chuang, an amazing POC cinematographer renowned for his work in films such as ‘Blue Bayou’ and ‘Of an Age’ to name a few. How was your experience working with such a seasoned cinematographer like Matthew?
For real, it’s been a bit of a game changer for me, but don’t tell him that! That guy doesn’t muck around. He’s all in. Matt lives and breathes film, so collaborating with a filmmaker I look up to, who wants to be pushed and challenged on every project has definitely been a good influence on me. It’s made me want to be a better director for sure.
I think cinematographers can get caught up in composition or light and miss the story or performance, but Matt cares a lot about the narrative and manages to make it look beautiful anyway. He’s pretty intuitive in the way he shoots and he really understood what I was trying to say with the film. I feel very lucky that he came on board because it could have been a very different film otherwise.
(In between filming for Hafekasi)
S+W: Every detail in the film forced an emotional response from the viewer. From the chaotic movements of the camera in the market to the profound emotional tones of the music.
Could you elaborate on the process of determining what elements you needed to portray the story through the soundtrack. It’s not as easy as just picking some tracks on Spotify is it?
Haha, I wish!
There’s a beautiful song called “Coconut Dream” that Iki Finau sings in a cappella at the end of the film. I was in the room when Iki and collaborator Sione Teumohenga wrote it for the FAMILI project. The lyrics and Iki’s soulful voice moved me instantly. It’s a true celebration of Polynesian people so I knew it had to be part of Mona’s journey to self discovery.
In preproduction, Will Morrissey (our music composer) and I went through the script and mapped out where score could be placed, if any. We decided that score was always going to be subtle and support the story. Mona is an only child, so we wanted to still hear the silence of an only child household, rather than fill it with music or sound design.
By the time our editor Grace Eyre came back with some early edits, we saw how much emotion was already on screen. There were just some moments that we wanted to enhance Mona’s internal feelings because the dialogue in the film is intentionally stripped back. We wanted music to represent Mona’s internal struggle with identity so we looked at the way that score could suggest ideas of uncertainty, sadness or a longing for her culture.
By the time picture was locked, Will had created a collection of compositions and we went from there, each round of composition, the film changed slightly so we kept working at it until it felt like we got the balance just right.
S+W: Oh that Will fella sounds like a great guy.
Hafekasi has only just started with lots on the horizon and we can’t wait. You and your team have left a significant mark on the Australian and Pacific film industry paving the way for more stories like Hafekasi to be shared and celebrated.
Is there anyone you’d like to shout out to that has helped get the film to this point?
Absolutely! There’s been many good eggs along the way, including you!
But I do want to shout out to Jen Cloher who believed in me, when I didn’t. Thank you sib.
Shout out to Jarred Osborn from Wildebeest, our Executive Producer who has given me wings to fly in an industry that otherwise didn’t really want to hear this voice. Thank you for listening!
And the girls at Pacific Connections, notably Finau Manuofetoa, Ane Fifita, Lavi Pera, Kylie Puamau and Lote Schuster. I don’t think they know that they’re love and support has been one crucial step in me feeling comfortable in my hafekasi skin and actually making the film. Mālō ‘aupito.
Haven't seen Hafekasi yet? Whatchya doinnnn!? Don't stress you still have time to catch it. Hafekasi will be playing at the Canberra Short Film Festival (24/11/23) and for those Melbourne locals, there will be a special MIFF screening on February 1st 2024 at Bunjil Place.
Don't forget to stay up to date with everything Hafekasi at @hafekasi_short