VAKA is a short documentary about the energy and resilience of the Tokelauan people as they weave their customary-wisdom regarding the environment with modern eco-technologies to respond to climate change. Tokelau was the first nation to aim for 100% of its electricity to be generated from solar as a result of the New Zealand funded Tokelau Renewable Energy Project in 2012. Their coral island atolls contribute a minimal amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are the first to be impacted by climate change. Tokelau's resilience in their daily response to the climate crisis exemplifies how they are leading by example. Vaka is directed by Kelly Moneymaker.
Vaka was an official selection of many film festivals in the past year. Kelly Moneymaker was a singer-songwriter since she was eleven. She later developed a passion for documentary filmmaking, indigenous storytelling, and sound design. It was our pleasure to interview her regarding the making of her documentary and her work as a filmmaker.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked
VAKA was a student film for our Bachelor of Creative Media production degree at
Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. This is the first film I had the honor of
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
I am interested in feminist and indigenous aspects of film-making and creative
technologies. For our 3rd year final project, I expressed my interested in indigenous
storytelling. Massey brought businesses in to work with students on major projects as
clients and/or mentors. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) and the
Ministry of Oceans, Resilience and Environment (MiCORE) presented an opportunity to
film an environmental documentary in Tokelau, a coral atoll in the Pacific threatened by
the climate crisis. We were required to make a pitch and they accepted our approach of
documenting Tokelau’s combined use of cultural knowledge and modern eco-
technologies to respond to climate change.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent female filmmaker
in the film industry?
I am a lifelong learner who’s career experience has primarily been in the music industry,
where the challenges as an indigenous/female creative are the same. We are often not
granted equal opportunities or pay and even after we’ve been successful, we have to
prove ourselves every time we step through the door. It can be tough, but I’ve never
been one to give up on anything I’m passionate about. Also, we’ve got to have each
other’s backs. Quite often, women want to be part of “the boys’ club” to access
opportunities, but it’s important to look out for our sisters. There is strength in numbers,
so let go of the fear that another woman will take your opportunities and start creating
jobs for each other.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
We were fortunate with VAKA because MFAT and MiCORE gave us a grant and
Massey University lent us the equipment. I’m working on a new indie film now and it’s
incredibly difficult to fund projects. I have applied for several grants and I’ll be doing a
kickstarter campaign shortly. I’ve been told to ask friends and family for funding, but
when you are consistently doing so, especially after COVID where many haven’t worked
for the past year, it’s understandable that purse strings might be tied. With that said, I
do feel that if I’m passionate about a story it is contagious and I have been successful
with crowd-funding projects throughout my career.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been
influential in your work?
May I please name four?
1. Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker) is the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best
Director. She’s an incredible director and she proved that women can tell the hard tales
— we’re not just soft and fluffy.
2. Catherine Bainbridge from Rezolution Pictures (Rumble: Indians That Rocked The
World) shares my philosophy of “Hire the best and get out of the way”. She has created
a production company focused on making indigenous documentaries.
3. Māori filmmaker, Becs Arahanga, (Vai, Hinekura) is known for “encouraging more
women in positions of power and deconstructing outdated thoughts and structures that
create inequality”. Her films are honest and empowering.
4. Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water) blends fantasy and reality in the most-
spectacular way. There’s always a central theme rooted in reality, but he takes you
places you’d otherwise experience only in dreams.
How did your project go into production and how did you finalize the cast and
Our two female producers (Rebekah Curtis-Motley and Jessica George), remained in
New Zealand while the DP (Ben Dickens) and Sound Recordist (Mason Rudd)
accompanied me to Tokelau. We took a 5 1/2 hour flight to Apia, Samoa then boarded
the Mataliki for a 55 hour boat ride to Tokelau. There are 3 atolls — Fakaofo, Nukunonu
and Atafu, so we had to take a high-speed boat from one to the other. We spent 2
weeks on location, then Ben and I shot a few interviews with MiCore representatives
and scientists in Auckland and Wellington.
How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your
plan for further distribution of the film?
It was an honor to work with the Tokelauan people. They practice talanoa which means
the people share ideas, skills, and experiences. They also practice inati, (communal
fishing and distribution) so every person in Tokelau is provided for. The most humbling
thing I’ve ever experienced is the joy of Tokelauan audience members singing and
dancing at the premiere of VAKA as a gesture of support. I cried like a baby.
I was humbled by the opportunity to introduce and premiere VAKA at the UNFCCC Cop
25 in Madrid at the Moana Blue Pacific Pavilion which represented NZ and Tokelau.
We’ve been well received on the film festival circuit and so far, we have received laurels
from Best Design Awards NZ 2020, Montreal Independent Film Festival 2020, Kuala
Lumpur Eco Film Festival 2020, Krakow Green Film Festival 2020, Environmental Film
Festival Australia 2020, Sydney Short Film Festival 2021, Climate Action Film Festival
2021, London Mountain Film Festival 2021, World Distribution Award 2021, Houston
Asian American & Pacific Islander Film Festival 2021, Indie Shorts Awards New York
2021 and your wonderful Toronto International Women Film Festival 2021. We are
looking forward to holding viewings for Tokelauan communities throughout New Zealand
and distribution through cultural and educational outlets.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the
distribution of independent films?
Don’t take no for an answer. Use that same
passion you had for making the film to find ways to distribute it.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on Drum Song: The Rhythm of Life, about Alaska’s Yup’ik climate
crisis transplants. COVID restrictions have introduced many challenges, but again —
where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Why do you make films?
I make films for the same reason I make music — to foster joy through human
Trailer of Vaka: