Few sports bring communities together as much as rugby. Tribalistic fervour, a powerful sense of belonging, an outlet for one’s emotions, following a team unites people in a big way; when one’s own country involved, the emotion involved is hugely heightened.
A new film, Red, White & Brass, wonderfully captures this fulfilling joy and camaraderie, and focuses on one of the most passionate rugby nations of all: Tonga.
Directed by Damon Fepulea’i in his debut feature, the film – based on a true story – follows the underdog account of a community of Tongans who form a brass band as the pre-game entertainment in a desperate bid to get their hands on tickets to the 2011 Rugby World Cup game between Tonga and France. It’s amazing what people will do when they have a shared goal.
And it’s far from a spoiler to recall the eventual result in that battle: Tonga defeated their much bigger European counterparts 19-14 in what remains one of the biggest upsets in Rugby World Cup history. Red, White & Brass, then, is a remembrance of an unforgettable day in the lives of Tongans around the world.
Backed by Piki Films, who have a strong track record of producing great Kiwi films (The Breaker Upperers, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Red, White & Brass was shot in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, features a stellar ensemble of Tongan acting talent, and received a national cinema release on March 23rd.
Perhaps nothing sums up the feel-good spirit of Red, White & Brass more than the sight of the cast conducting surprise meet and greets at recent cinema screenings, proudly waving Tongan flags and thanking those in the audience for supporting the film.
To celebrate the release of Red, White & Brass, Rolling Stone AU/NZ caught up with one of the lead actors, the multi-hyphenate John-Paul Foliaki, to discuss the making of the film and what it means to the wider Tongan community.
Rolling Stone AU/NZ: How exciting is it for the film to finally be released?
John-Paul Foliaki: Yeah, I’m excited. We started filming in the second lockdown, from October to December 2021. So I’ve been sitting on it for a little while.
That’s a long time!
Yeah! And your family is like, ‘ok, so you went away and filmed this thing during lockdown? Where is it?’
Did you worry they thought you were making it up or something?
Yeah, it’s good for me to have something to show for it. I was like, ‘hurry up so I can show that I was doing something!’
So you started out in music before moving to acting?
I actually started with the whole uni thing. I studied law and arts at the University of Auckland and I graduated in 2019. I worked in corporate for just under a year and figured out that wasn’t for me. That’s not what I wanted to do, and I’d always been interested in the arts.
It’s that thing – my parents are migrants and going to uni and getting an education was how you honour their sacrifices. I’ve got a few aunties and uncles and stuff who all were fortunate enough to get to go to uni, so that pathway was kind of clear for me.
I started doing music towards the end of the school, just recording music. I forgot how much I love singing because obviously I loved it in high school but just didn’t pursue it because it wasn’t something that you would think is the norm.
I get that – there’s so much pressure when you land a corporate job straight from university.
And there’s so much pressure where I’m from to go into that lifestyle, it’s just kind of dumb. My parents were like, ‘we never pressured you to do it,’ and I’m like, ‘no, not pressured, but no one said do what you love doing either.’
So I jumped out and did music for a little while and it was cool because I got to open up for some really bomb local artists, and Eric Bellinger and Sean Kingston came over and I got to open for them too. I pursued my career after uni and I worked for, I think, just under a year, and I was just trying to do both. So I stopped doing music for a little while.
View this post on Instagram
You’ve got to be focused on one thing, don’t you?
Yeah. You think you can do everything until you’re trying to do everything and then you’re just like, ‘what the hell is going on?’ Then I saw this ad for the acting for Polynesian Panthers which was coming out. I didn’t know what it was, but I saw the ad and just put my name forward. Long story short, I got told at the audition that I didn’t get that role, but the writer for the film, Noah, had my contact and I guess he saw enough in those auditions because I ended up being able to be an extra with like two lines.
I was like, ‘oh, I think this acting thing is kind of cool.’ Then he hit me up to come back and audition, and I was like ‘what for?’ I didn’t even realise that it was the lead role, you know! Obviously I got the role and that’s been cool, but I’ve been doing more acting gigs ever since.
What did you think about the Red, White & Brass script when you first saw it? Did you immediately think it was going to be big?
Well, they actually wanted me to audition for another character, and I was like, ‘I actually kind of relate more to this one and I feel like I’ll do a good job of this.’They were like, ‘ok, do you know the lines?’ And I was like, yeah, ‘I learned both lines, just go for it!’
When I finally got to read the script, I thought it was gonna be something really special because obviously I’m Tongan. I’m a New Zealand-born Tongan. I can relate directly to that character. I think his journey of trying to get to the World Cup and round up his friends and family to help him do that is something that I’ve always had to do with my music – budgets, limits, lots of talent, and a lot of the family, throwing people into these roles.
I could really relate to the overall storyline, given the history of Tonga winning against France in the rugby World Cup. The story is obviously relatable to Tongans, but I think it’s relatable to wider New Zealand as well. You know, New Zealand is well known for being a small country but being able to go out there and battle the big dogs.
Do you remember that game well then?
Yeah, I was in Year 12. I was in town and I had a Tonga flag tied around my neck. I was dancing up and down Queen Street riding the bus with my friends up and down for no reason, just for the hype of it.
I’ll never forget those moments where it looked like we were gonna win the game and it was crazy. I think it was cool because I was so mad that my parents didn’t let me miss school to go and be amongst it. I was like just being a die hard fan in my own way with my friends.
I’m from Scotland and I think we’ve got passionate sports fans, but I’d say Tongans love rugby even more than us!
Yeah and there’s so many different reasons for it as well. It’s like a feeling of warmth and the overwhelming combination of excitement, joy, pride all coming together. It’s like the catchphrase on the posters: “Follow your heart, leave your brains at home.” It really is just about having fun, you just go with how you’re feeling. If you feel like waving a flag and jumping over here and getting emotional, you just follow your heart and do that.
For Tongans too, we still have a king, and we’re still very patriotic and we respect our monarchy. Rugby is one of those things where we can come together regardless of who you are in Tongan society.
Was there any difference in watching that France game as a New Zealand-born Tongan?
I think that’s also why this film was so cool because it touches on that conflict that you can have from being born overseas, away from your home country and trying to do things that are different from the traditional way of doing things, which is a strong story line that comes through in the film.
I think being a New Zealand-born Tongan it made it that much more special because I could relate to it. I don’t even speak Tongan that well but I can fully understand it. I wasn’t born in Tonga but, you know, sport is one of the few ways those born outside of the home country can actually show love and their pride.
How has the Tongan community reacted to the film?
I think there’s a lot of excitement around it. When you have heavy hitters like Piki Films backing it, they just add that finish to really lift the standard because they’ve done that in the last decade for films in general in New Zealand.
So for them to have this for Tongans, to see not only is there a film about us, not only is it based on a true story, but there’s people who aren’t even Tongan that are in positions to help and make this happen that are really keen and believe in it as well.
Seeing the film released across the country must also feel great.
Yeah, and depending on how it goes, looking at hopefully taking it overseas.
Did you also work on the soundtrack?
Yeah, there’s another artist on the track that I did. It’s called “Ta’U Koula”. Three Houses Down, who did a lot of the arrangements for the film, rearranged this traditional Tongan song that was originally written for the King’s 70th birthday. It’s just about being happy and celebrating, being Tongan and honoring your king and being proud.
When people hear that song, that’s the first thing they think of – how proud they are to be Tongan and to celebrate someone that’s so important to us. General Fire sings on it with me. It was so cool thinking back to how I stopped doing music for a little while and then getting this opportunity to jump to cover such an iconic Tongan song with artists that I’ve looked up to for ages.
What’s next for you after this film? Are you going back to music?
I’m currently working on an EP and I’m hoping to get more music underway. I’m hoping to get some funding so I can do things that I want to do. After we finished Red, White & Brass, I was on a TV series Far North. That’s coming up later this year and then there’s another web series. I was really lucky to be able to get some jobs back to back after the film. There’s a few things in the works and I’m excited for everyone to see it.