Last night, in another chapter of my education on all things kiwi, I headed along to a special screening of Billy T – Te Movie (nope, not a typo), a documentary about the life of Maori entertainer Billy T James.
Despite having died a whole two decades ago, his name has popped up countless times over my three and a bit years in New Zealand – so I knew he was a kind of a big deal. But didn’t know much more than that.
I knew this movie was going to be important when the email about the screening first arrived and C. immediately told me we had to get tickets for it. When we arrived at the cinema last night, there were men in shorts, gumboots, fake moustaches and yellow towels around their necks (just like Billy T’s iconic image).
I’m sure I missed a few of the jokes because of the fact I did not live in New Zealand at the time – at one stage he walked in a certain way towards the camera while saying something about bags and everyone cracked up laughing. C. later explained to me that he was mocking an ad for bags that was on TV at the time.
The impression I got was that he is mostly famous for his comedy, for being able to make fun of society like no one else was ever allowed to (he was, for example, a Maori making fun of Maori people).
For any foreigner trying to learn about New Zealand culture, Billy T is as important as anything else, really. I’m lucky in the sense that I’m pretty sure I’m more familiar with NZ culture and history than the average person that has been here for as long as I am. That’s because I have a proud kiwi as a boyfriend and proud kiwis as friends and they have long ago referred me to things like Footrot Flats (and, through it, the entire lyrics to Slice of Heaven), Fred Dagg, Smash Palace, Poi e (before it exploded again when the movie Boy came out a couple of years ago) or taught me that the only correct thing to say when someone says “not many” is “if any!“.
So, last night, when Billy T was on screen saying that he was “half Scottish and half Maori”, I knew that what he was going to say next was that it was a problem because half of him wanted to get pissed and the other half didn’t want to pay for it. And I also knew everyone would laugh and no one would really take offense. And that’s pretty cool, New Zealand.
As for the documentary itself, it was pretty well done, I thought. It focused on Billy T James, the entertainer, more than on William James Te Wehi Taitoko, the man outside the stage, but it showed enough of both to suggest that Billy/William didn’t really know how to live with each other inside that one body… which is probably why his life ended up being quite short.
I can’t seem to be able to embed the video but you can watch the trailer for Billy T: Te Movie here. The NZ On Screen website has, in fact, a long list of Billy T James material if you feel like being entertained.