Samoan actor Maureen Fepulea’i’s new film tackles confronting issues for her Pacific community. She hopes the film will help spread a message of tolerance and love.
Maureen Fepulea’i’s new role is in the Kiwi film Mysterious Ways. She portrays Aunty Nola, a caring relative who supports her gay nephew. She accepted the role because she knew it would spark an important discussion around LGBTQ+ acceptance and the role of religion within the Pacific community.
“I read the script and it touched my heart, especially from the point of view of the Aunty Nola character. I realise that generationally, LGBTQIA+ issues are not something that is an open topic in our Pacific culture,” Maureen says.
Directed and co-written by Paul Oremland, Mysterious Ways tells the story of an Anglican vicar who fights to have a church wedding with his Samoan boyfriend and the homophobia and challenges they face, tackling issues of homosexuality, religion, and culture.
In the film, the character of Aunty Nola takes care of her nephew, who is played by Nick Afoa, the theatre star in his feature film debut. Nick spent many years playing the role of Simba in the Sydney, London, and New Zealand productions of the hit musical, The Lion King,
Maureen has five children of her own and used her real-life experience in parenting to help bring out the nurturing and accepting nature of her character.
“In my family’s experience, the more that we are into our traditional religious beliefs, the harder it is to be open with our thinking. I have family members who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are only beginning to share their stories.
“Aunty Nola raised her nephew, and she made a promise to love her nephew as her own. As a mother, that’s one of the most sacred relationships regardless of what the child does.”
Mysterious Ways is a self-funded feature film and Maureen wanted to support the hard work and sacrifice it takes to make a film with a small budget.
“I knew it was a labour of love. Every time I went onto the set, I could see how much the cast and crew were supporting each other. It was a beautiful time.”
The experience was a reminder for Maureen to keep supporting the LGBTQI+ within her family and the Pacific community.
“It gave me a greater appreciation and a responsibility to ask myself what am I doing for our LGBTQIA+ family. Can I do better?” she explains.
“It made me go home and want to reach out and say that we are doing our best to change the perception of our leaders.”
Born in Samoa, Maureen moved to New Zealand when she was a child. Acting is a side hustle for Maureen. She works full time at the Manukau Institute of Technology as a lecturer in counselling.
“I studied counseling when I was forty years old after never succeeding at high school. As a teenager, I made choices that weren’t empowering,” she says.
“At forty, I wanted to change my life after surviving a very abusive relationship and needed something to help support and raise my children.
“I completed my counseling degree and found my voice. Now, I’m trying to do my best so I can encourage other Pacific people to find their voices.”
Maureen’s career has helped her overcome her own trauma that she experienced in her life She is a survivor of child sexual abuse and found a job where she can help and support other survivors.
“Counselling was an experience where I learned to believe in myself. I was always saying to others how they were amazing, how they were wonderful. I realised that I never said those words to myself. Going to university is where I learned to believe in myself and it was life-changing for me.”
Maureen’s history of family violence and sexual abuse inspired her to write about her experience in a play called e ono tama’i pato. She won best Pasifika play at the prestigious 2011 Adam New Zealand Playwriting Awards.
“The Samoan title of my play is translated to Six Little Ducks. It’s a Samoan nursery rhyme. When I think of that song it brings me happy memories. But it also brings back memories of a time when I was sexually abused as a child.
“I needed to write my experience into a story. So many of our people feel that they are not allowed to put their stories into words and heal. How can we talk about these things if they are hidden.”
Maureen realised that acting was also a way for her to express her emotions.
“I’ve been acting since I was a child. When you are a survivor of sexual abuse, you protect yourself and develop personas to be with different people and to survive different situations.”
Maureen was cast in the first role she auditioned for as one of the lead roles in the critically acclaimed 2013 Kiwi feature film, Shopping. She won the role after replying to an advertisement in the paper.
“I thought I would go along for a laugh. It was a miracle that I got the part. It became one of the most enjoyable moments of my life.”
Nowadays, Maureen accepts the occasional acting role, like in her most recent film Mysterious Ways. But she tries to keep a very low profile.
“I feel humble to be acting. I don’t want to brag and have people know too much. I just want to come in and do what I need to do.”
Mysterious Ways is currently playing in selected cinemas across the country.
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