Toa Fraser's private battle and public triumphs
Toa Fraser - on a battle with disease and knowing what’s important.
Fijian / Samoan Toa Fraser is one of Aotearoa’s most prolific film directors, with a huge raft of incredibly varied feature film works, documentaries and tv drama series. He’s also one of the most undercover, in his professional and personal life - until an extraordinarily brave message on social media this week told the world of this struggle of the early onset of Parkinson’s.
“People used to say I look cool. These days, people ask me why I look so serious. Mine is one of the many of faces of Young Onset Parkinson’s, an (as yet) incurable brain disease. I was diagnosed five years ago. I've kept it quiet until today..
It hasn’t been easy. It’s hard on relationships, it’s hard on my kids. Those closest to me have been unfaltering, discrete and kind. I’ve also learned not everybody can come on this journey with me. For the last five years I’ve kept it quiet. Buried it as much as I could.
But now I’m sick of hiding. I guess ParkinsonsAwarenessMonth is as good as time as any to start talking more widely about it. It sucks but it doesn’t define me.
It affects my movement, but over the last few years of living with it, I’ve worked with some the world’s best actors, dancers, stunties and athletes all over the world in the pursuit of stories to transcend this bullshit.”
Most of you will have watched some of Toa’s work in some way shape or form - maybe without realising that it was made by a kiwi director much less a Pacific person. Many of you will also remember his iconic plays ‘Bare’ and No2 - that later became his first movie, and the fact he made history in 2017 by being the first kiwi director to have two films in the New Zealand International Film Festival.
“The Dead Lands, Daredevil, Penny Dreadful, The Rookie, Titans, The Affair, The Terror … all stories about misfits, outcasts, heroes struggling against the odds and striving to survive and thrive. I’m deeply grateful to all the showrunners, producers, execs, writers, cast and crew who have looked beyond the stern face, the shaking, the dyskinesia and the quiet voice, choosing instead to see the soul, the joy, the athleticism, the grit and the strength I bring to my work.”
“The disease makes me a better director. I focus on what’s important. A producer in LA said I’ve got a “quiet power”. I like that. But on this, I’m not going to be quiet anymore. 9 in 10 people who live with PD experience discrimination. There is no cure. There is work to be done.
Today, I’m stepping out to join the millions of PD warriors with quivering hands who confront this challenge. And in the meantime, I’m going to keep doing what I do because as the big man said, art makes this challenging life a little better.”
And in one of the coolest tributes to his art, Toa’s iconic movie ‘No2’ came to life again recently with an unexpected twist of history. His family home where the movie was filmed was converted into a stage for a week of public Pasifika storytelling, before going on the chopping block for demolition. The story of the ‘No 2’ aiga keeps connecting communities decades on from when Toa dreamt it up as a play and then the first feature film directed by a Pacific Islander.
“I went to a couple of high schools last year in South Auckland and the kids there were 17, studying No. 2 and they weren’t even alive when I wrote the play. For me that feels you know, scary and weird, but I’ve just done one thing after another and they don’t feel like decades ago - but those are the moments when I feel the most proud. When I see kids who weren’t born when I was writing and those things are still speaking to them.”
For so many Pacific writers, directors and filmmakers, Toa has been a shaman like figure of inspiration - guiding the way by osmosis because of the sheer extraordinary fact that a Pacific person was at the helm of all these amazing projects.
Another little known fact about Toa is that he has taken the time to nurture and develop a raft of new Moana talent coming up through the ranks. On the recent Pacific mini series ‘Teine Sa’ he took 5 young directors under his wing to help bring their stories to screen.
On hearing the news that while he had been giving them the gift of his time, he was dealing with an incurable illness they have these words to offer in alofa:
"Wishing you so much alofa Toa, a director so generous with your time and wisdom, and a staunch supporter of indigenous story telling across film, television and theatre. When we think of Pacific directors across these platforms it’s easy to forget that Toa has already worked on big Hollywood budget projects. he may be quietly spoken at times but his work speaks volumes of the regard Netflix and co have toward him. The man is a Pacific treasure.” - director Mario Gaoa.
Award winning actor and stage director Anapela Polataivao speaks of how much this experience meant to her: “I loved working with Toa. He was incredibly astute, generous and free with his offerings on the world he’s mastered - he lifted my confidence in this arena. Toa was simply brilliant and we send him all our alofa, always’"
For budding young director Mario Faumui who was thrust into directing his first drama piece, Toa is a beacon of hope in the stressful oasis of film production.
“During pre-production of the ‘Teine Sa’ series I was very fortunate to have shared space with Toa to unpack a little bit of his approach to his craft as a filmmaker.
Never felt such peace, calm and grace from a director of his caliber before. I always had this idea of what a director is/should be - loud, firm, assertive but he totally shifted that idea and showed me another side of what a filmmaker can be and that being your authentic self was enough.
He talks alot about his care for actors and performers and creating a space for them to be at their 100% and as a performer myself it definitely inspired the kind of director I wanted to be.
From one Roskill boy to another, thanks Toa for helping me find my voice and reminding me that doing me was enough. Your work speaks for itself and is a reflection to the genius and excellence you personify. Thank you for uplifting the misfits and outcasts like myself."
Your battle is OUR battle Toa, as much as your wins have been ours,
Malo Lava le Tauivi.
Ever your biggest fan since ages ago