For Auckland screenwriter, Ciarin Smith, being an actor was not enough. While he loved the thrill of the stage, what he found through his work in theater was a passion for storytelling.
In his words, Smith feels actors are limited to telling other people’s stories and expressing their emotions, and what he had was a deeper desire to write and see his words come to life.
Like any good writer, he did some research on New Zealand history, and one thing that struck him was the legalisation of homosexuality in 1986.
“I feel like New Zealand is this weird country which is kind of liberal but also kind of not at the same time. There’s this image of New Zealand being this very liberal country but at the same time homosexuality wasn’t legalised until 1986 – and by Western world standards, that is really late,” he says.
Taking inspiration from an article he discovered online about a photographer who showcased pictures of found items belonging to patients once committed to a mental asylum, Smith says what the photographer found was surprising.
“The photographer was expecting the items he found to be really bizarre and have links to the patient’s psychosis, and instead found that they were everyday items like written letters, recipes and things that were very banal. He realised that these people weren’t crazy, so that got me thinking” he says. “If these people were normal, why were they sent to asylums?”
After more research, Smith found the reasons. Many patients in the 50s-70s were often hospitalised (as it was known then) for reasons that we may consider commonplace today – such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and even grief.
These things, Smith agrees, wouldn’t happen by today’s standards. What also struck him was that it was only a short time before legalisation that homosexuality was included among those reasons.
“Being gay myself I felt that this was something I wanted to write about,” he says.
The creative process behind his first script happened quickly. He fleshed out the characters of Frank, Jimmie and others in a short time and he had the perfect setting for his first screenplay.
Punanga Manor, a Mental Health Facility set in early 1960s New Zealand that looms with colonial authority and an intricate web of secrets and dominance.
Smith introduces the story of Jimmie, a young, handsome Maori boy who is sent to Punanga Manor by his family for being gay. While there, Jimmie is forced to recognise that he is “sick” and cannot leave until he is considered “well”.
Jimmie is faced with menacing staff and promptly begins treatment with the inquisitive and seemingly benevolent house psychiatrist Frank who takes an immediate interest in Jimmie’s case.
“Without giving too much away, Frank is going to be forced to look at himself in many ways while he is treating Jimmie and is faced with what this case means for his own life,” Smith says.
Smith says he is yet to discover a narrative in New Zealand film and media that discusses the issues of homosexuality and mental illness and also challenges the cultural significance of the character of Jimmie’s own circumstances, particularly within this time frame.
“I think in terms of media in New Zealand or film when you think of a New Zealand period piece, you think of the Maori Land Wars and obviously, there’s a lot of stories to be told back then. But we’ve got a whole century or more of stories that are untold and I don’t think people are telling those stories,” he says.
“Maori gay stories are something you never hear of in New Zealand especially period stories because there’s still a lot of shame in the Maori culture and Maori communities that they don’t want to tell those stories.”
Research on the topic yielded little in the way of proof of these stories and bar a few famous names, Smith felt there was an entire under-representation of this side to New Zealand history.
In fact, what he did find in the way of a homosexual narrative among Maori culture came from myth and legend.
“There’s no real people in Maori history that you can pinpoint and say they were alive, they existed and yes they were gay, and if there were – which I’m sure there are – their stories haven’t been told,” he says.
As well as exploring the Maori culture, Smith wanted to create a script that spoke of the everyday injustices faced by those who were gay at a time when it was technically dangerous.
Being considered mentally ill for committing homosexual acts in a country like New Zealand is inconceivable today, but not so long ago it very well could have had you sent to a place like Punanga Manor.
“While this isn’t based on a true story, the things that happen in this film happened over and over again to people in the gay community with no consequences, and Frank is someone who does some awful things in this story and he just gets away with it,” Smith says.
“That makes me really angry because that would have happened.”
Growing up a self-described white, cisgender male in Auckland his whole life, Smith says he is lucky not to have experienced the level of discrimination and persecution that someone like Jimmie would have faced.
“We’re living in a very spoiled time and the main message I want to get across in this script is that we’re very lucky to have not suffered in this way and probably never will,” he says.
“With this story and with all my work I wanted to show authenticity – that’s really important to me. Showing something that’s real and something that people could actually relate to was really important to me, not showing some Hollywood story,” he says.
Smith says he wanted to be a writer his whole life.
“The first thing I ever wanted to do was write. Some people are actors with a capital A, and I always used to think that I was one and I don’t know that I am.
“I think that I could be a good actor but what I wanted to do was to tell stories. When you’re a writer, you don’t need anyone else.”
In this script (which is still in its working title, The Ticking of the Clock) Smith wanted to explore some of the harsh New Zealand attitudes towards people who are gay in opposition to how we are viewed today.
”People talk about us being the friendliest country in the world, forgetting that we come from a very strict authoritarian background. Not every country in the world would send gay people to a mental asylum, but New Zealand did.”