No. 2

English Title: No. 2

Country of Origin: New Zealand

Studio: Colonial Encounters & Southern Light Films

Director: Toa Fraser

Producer(s): Philippa Campbell, Tim Bevan

Screenplay: Toa Fraser

Cinematographer: Leon Narbey

Art Director: Phil Ivey

Editor: Chris Plummer

Runtime: 94 minutes

Genre: Family Drama

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Rene Naufahu, Miriama McDowell, Xavier Horan, Taungaroa Emile, Ruby Dee, Mia Blake

Year: 2006

Volume: Australasian

Nanny Maria, the elderly matriarch of a Fijian family living in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill, plans a feast in celebration of her family and to announce the name of her successor (or ‘No.2’) as leader of the group. Almost all the film’s events take place at her house on a single day as the family helps her prepare for the banquet. Grandchildren Erasmus and Charlene offer the steadiest and most practical assistance in preparation for the meal, while another grandson, Soul, is groomed by Nanny Maria as her successor. Nanny Maria gets on with her grandchildren far better than she does with her own sons and daughters because, in varying degrees, she finds these children either obstructive or distant or lacking in fidelity to family values and the mores of their Fijian heritage. Finally the feast takes place, attended by the whole extended family along with friends, and it becomes a big success and a warm, loving occasion. Nanny Maria is delighted at this celebration of life but when, after the meal, she slips away to the quiet of her own room, she dies peacefully, dreaming of the past.

Toa Fraser first wrote No.2 as a one-person stage play starring Madeleine Sami. When adapted into film form and released in 2006, it was praised (along with Sione’s Wedding, released at much the same time) as marking a step towards greater maturity in the representation in New Zealand’s film culture of Pacific Island stories and characters. Many of the observations made about the cultural impact of Sione’s Wedding could also be applied to No.2. The latter film made only a fraction of the box-office income of Sione’s Wedding ($NZ700.000 vs. $4.1M) but that is largely explained by No.2’s genre status as a relatively-serious arthouse drama in contrast to the broad comic appeal of the other film.

Fraser adapted his own stage drama into a screenplay designed for a conventional cast of actors and then directed the film as well. He based it on the Fijian part of his background and centred it on the figure of an old woman, Nanny Maria, who is the matriarch of a large, disunited family. Sad that her own children seem to have drifted away from both her and their Fijian heritage (and feeling her advancing tears weighing heavily on her), Nanny Maria becomes determined to hold an old-style family feast that will bring the disparate parts of her family together and allow her to announce her choice of new family leader.

Through this storyline, which adheres to the classical unities of time and place, Fraser is able to explore several themes. These include generational conflicts and tensions along with family dynamics. Attention to tradition and ceremony are very important, as is reconciliation. Much of the film has a warm emotional tone, which is often conveyed by music, especially the song ‘Bathe in the River’ sung at the climax of the feast. It could be argued that Fraser perhaps squeezes in too many themes: one instance is the rather obscure curse that is associated with the sealed-up front door of the house, a curse whose significance remains cryptic.

At the centre of the film is the dominant figure of the bossy Nanny Maria, who cajoles and scolds to achieve her goal of the short-notice party, but who has a great sense both of occasion and humour. As played by African-American actress Ruby Dee, she emerges as one of the warmest, most charismatic protagonists in recent New Zealand film. Some predicted Dee’s casting would be controversial because Fraser brought in an ethnic outsider to play a Fijian character, but no such debate ever eventuated and all found her contribution to the film admirable. With great dedication, she even returned to New Zealand to complete No.2 after her husband Ossie Davis died suddenly during production and she flew back to New York for his funeral.

The couple had appeared together in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Fraser has acknowledged his debt to that film in his conceptualization of No.2, which is a paean to the suburb of Mt Roskill similar to Lee’s treatment of Bedford-Styvesant in Do the Right Thing. Mt Roskill becomes a virtual character in No.2, a languid paradise and ethnic melting pot markedly different from the hellish wilderness of South Auckland in such films as Once Were Warriors. The characters of No.2 clearly like living in New Zealand and the film bears no resemblance to the stereotypical ‘cinema of unease’, where characters are tortured figures in an alienating landscape.  Some of its performances may be uneven, but No.2 remains a funny, emotional ensemble piece and an impressive debut by Toa Fraser.

Author of this review: Brian McDonnell