New Zealand film A Boy Called Piano – The Story of Fa’amoana John Luafutu chronicles one man’s journey from abuse in state care to gangs and prison, and his healing. Louisa Steyl speaks to those involved about their aspirations for the film’s tour of prisons and youth facilities across the country.

The story of the Luafutu aiga is both an extraordinary story, and one that’s far too common.

From abuse in state care to gangs and prison, the family’s story is also one of healing.

The Luafutu aiga has shared that story in a powerful documentary that is now being screened in prisons, hoped to help others to break cycles of generational trauma, and understand that they can build a better life.

The family collaborated with The Conch to create A Boy Called Piano – The Story of Fa’amoana John Luafutu, directed by Nina Nawalowalo ONZM.

The film’s title is a reference to Luafutu’s childhood. As a boy, Luafutu was called Piano by his mum, who nicknamed him after her first love, and he has childhood memories of the sound of her playing.

Together with Nawalowalo, three generations of Luafutu men have since been visiting prisons and youth justice residences, for screenings of the film, after which they run workshops.

The eponymous Fa’amoana Luafutu, patriarch of the family, is a man shaped by the injustice of abuse in state care, but not defined by it.

He came to New Zealand from Samoa with his family as a child, but like other young island boys, he struggled to fit in, feeling safer spending his days in the park with his peers than at school.

The state saw this as a sign that he was uncontrollable, he says, and so he was 11 when he became a ward of the state.

The abuse he suffered in state care filled him with anger, fuelling a path into gangs, drug addiction, violence and imprisonment.

But as his son Matthias Luafutu says: “In these darkest places is where you look for the light.”

For Luafatu senior, that came from books.

Isolated in the prison library as librarian, he came across the Albert Wendt book Sons for the Return Home, and it flooded his heart with imagery from his childhood in Samoa and the hopes and dreams his parents had for his future.

He started writing as a way to make sense of things and put out A Boy Called Broke – My Story, So Far, before going on to become a pioneer of Pacific storytelling.

Matthias ended up in the same prison as his father, but the theatre would come for him too.

He saw acclaimed actress Dame Miranda Harcourt perform her stageplay Verbatim during her prison tour. “I was just totally inspired,” he says.

Matthias signed up for drama school after leaving prison and got to study under Harcourt before embarking on a career as a stage and television actor.

For him, it’s exciting to go back to the environment that sparked this passion.

He’s also proud that his son Tāne has broken the cycle. Rangatahi (young people) connect to the stories of Matthias and Fa’amoana, but they particularly relate to Tāne, playing the role of his own grandfather.

“One person gets the ball rolling for the rest of the family,” Matthias says.

His father is often asked how he took those first steps. “My dad’s response [is] ‘you have to get up, look in the mirror, and forgive yourself. If you don’t forgive yourself, how do you move on?’”

Pacific film and theatre production company The Conch have a 20-year relationship with The Luafutu family – going back to when Matthias studied at Toi Whakaari under executive producer Tom McCrory, then Head of Movement, and gave him a copy of his father’s book.

“I was no good at saying goodbye, so I left the book,” Matthias says.

The film received funding from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care because they saw the work as a valuable tool for opening conversations with survivors.

Nawalowalo uses poetry and Pacific imagery alongside archival footage to bring A Boy Called Piano to life on screen.

“They’re so courageous and brave for telling their stories,” she says, adding that some of the father and son’s experiences were difficult for them to discuss, but also powerful.

Around the tours of corrections facilities in New Zealand, Nawalowalo has been grabbing hold of every opportunity to screen the film around the world.

Because, as the Fijian New Zealander points out, there are communities of Pacific migrants all over, and many fall through the cracks.

Producer Katherine Wyeth says the dialogue that flows after prisoners and rangatahi watch the film has been inspiring.

Nawalowalo’s film has been selected for 18 international film festivals since its release in 2022, winning five awards.

Oranga Tamariki deputy chief executive of service delivery Rachel Leota says the film brings to life experiences that many people face in a way that’s also visually beautiful.

So far, the agency has welcomed the team into youth justice centres Te Puna Wai ō Tuhinapo in Christchurch, and Te Au rere te Tonga in Palmerston North. Leota says the conversations following the screenings have been as important for kaimahi (staff) as for rangatahi.

For kaimahi, it’s about “understanding just how important the way we engage with rangatahi is”, she says, while rangatahi are able to draw hope from the Luafutu story.

Fa’amoana and Matthias have led conversations encouraging young people to share “so things don’t get left unsaid”.

“It’s been extraordinarily beneficial for everybody,” Leota said.

The film has earned the stamp of approval of Oranga Tamariki’s youth advisory group and the VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai advocacy group, and will be rolled out to the agency’s remaining youth residences in 2024.

It was also screened at Mātāpuna Special Treatment Unit (STU) at Christchurch Men’s Prison – a high-intensity psychology programme for men with a high risk of reoffending.

Department of Corrections psychology and programmes general manager Jessica Borg says there’s huge value in using such films as a learning tool, and it had a noticeable impact on the prisoners who watched it.

During a question and answer session following the screening, men shared their own stories and realisations, talking about how seeing someone with the same background turn their life around gave them hope, Borg says.

“It was very powerful.

“Discussions included hopes for change, sparks of aspiration, acknowledgement of the importance of whānau connection, and gratitude for the documentary team.”

The department is open to taking the film to more prisons where psychologists and programme facilitators are readily available onsite to support the men if they are affected in any way by the experience.