Uproar is terrific, offering a Kiwi coming-of-age story with individual and national connections.
Josh (Julian Dennison) is a 17-year-old in an all-boys school. “I’m a Māori surrounded by white kids,” he tells his mother (Minnie Driver). In the opening scene, Josh reads the rugby results, then hides from bullying in the library. In the closing scene, Josh enrols in a drama course, then leads exercise among his Māori community. Uproar celebrates Josh’s growing understanding of his unique story.
The year is 1981, and through Uproar we encounter a national history that includes racist graffiti, arson and police using batons against unarmed Kiwis.
A cast of international and local actors brings Uproar to life. Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Josh is funny and poignant. Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) as Brother Madigan is funny, a teacher trying to champion drama in an all-boys school. Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) is poignant, a widow raising two sons.
Uproar is set in Ōtepoti and allows Dunedin to showcase its stunning coastline and heritage architecture. Dunedin is no stranger to the stage, with Wikipedia listing 17 films set in and around the city. These include Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog in 2020 and Out of the Blue in 2006 (both reviewed in previous editions of Touchstone).
Yet place is always people, and the support of mana whenua of Ōtākou me Puketeraki is crucial to Uproar’s success. After the gala screening in Ōtepoti, producer Angela Cudd thanked mana whenua for the energy they gifted, and affirmed how partnerships are built through endless cups of tea.
Along with dramatic coastlines, Dunedin harbours a festering racism. The headmaster’s repeated use of “He iwi tahi tatou” (We are all one people) shows how calls for unity privilege dominant cultures. Decades after 1981, white people continue to appropriate “He iwi tahi tatou” to legitimate racialised inequalities.
Uproar is clever in its use of Greg McGee’s, Foreskin’s Lament. The 1981 play, a landmark in the history of New Zealand theatre, examines group thinking identity in a rugby changing room. Josh is introduced to the play by his English teacher, Brother Madigan. The result is a scene of incredible emotional intensity, as Josh moves from the play’s repeated question “Whaddarya” to a performance of the haka. It is a scene of the highest artistic and emotional quality.
Central to Uproar’s success is non-violent protest. Following the arson of the community hall on Māori Hill, Josh refuses to play his part in the First XV rugby final. His sit-in on the halfway line demonstrates the power of perfectly-timed silent protests.
The sit-in also offers a window into redemption. Despite the ugliness he witnesses, Josh concludes that “stories push us forward.” Organised religion in all-boys schools, as portrayed in Uproar, does not have to be assimilationist. “He iwi tahi tatou” need not be used to reinforce dominant cultural practices. Uproar invites Kiwis to keep coming of age, not only with our young people but in communities and as a nation.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is the author of "First Expressions" (2019) and writes widely in theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.