Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Poi E' Doc Shows How an '80s Pop Song Changed New Zealand

Courtesy of the Berlin Film Festival
'Poi E: The Story of Our Song'

Tearepa Kahi’s documentary examines the phenomenon of "Poi E," the mega hit that outsold Michael Jackson and turned Maori singer Dalvanius Prime into a Kiwi superstar.

Who knew that Oscar-nominated New Zealand director Taika Waititi could break dance?

Such revelations — via an unforgettable cameo, in this case — are among the many delights in director Tearepa Kahi’s joyous documentary Poi E: The Story of Our Song, which gets its international premiere in the Generation 14plus section of the Berlin International Film Festival.

The film resurrects a seminal moment in New Zealand history, when the nation’s first-ever Maori-language pop song, “Poi E,” outsold Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" to dominate the local charts in 1984. Not only did it stay No. 1 in New Zealand for 34 weeks, “Poi E” has continued to rank among the country’s 10 best-selling singles every decade since its release.

To a somewhat more modest degree, the movie is now replicating the song’s success, having earned nearly NZ$1.2 million ($1 million) at the New Zealand box office in 2016, placing it among New Zealand’s top five documentaries of all time.

Poi E: The Story of Our Song centers on the life and career of charismatic singer and producer Dalvanius Prime, a Maori New Zealander who melded his people’s traditional song with 1980s pop beats to create a sound and cultural moment that reconfigured the country. The film is told through archival footage, home movies, reconstructions and interviews with the original performers, their family members and famous Kiwi citizens who attest to the song’s indelible impact.

“We wanted to reflect Dalvanius’ vision in creating this song that changed our nation forever,” says Kahi. “It’s also a reflection of 1984.”

Much of the film’s uplift comes from illustrations of the influence of "Poi E" beyond the music world. The track’s music video, which featured a mix of Maori cultural practices and traditional dress, reinvigorated the Maori language across generations and gave the nation a new pride in its indigenous culture.

“It was the first time you saw modern and traditional come together,” Kahi, of Maori descent himself, says. “I have my own vivid memories of being a 7-year-old, hearing the song and watching the video clip. I saw this young boy dressed in his maro, standing with his whanau, doing those actions and he looked so awesome! I felt like I saw myself, as I was — and I saw who I wanted to be.”

Now, more than three decades on, the song is still considered the “unofficial” national anthem of New Zealand, Kahi says. He adds that his only wish for the project is that it help a new international audience discover the same joy that New Zealanders did when “Poi E” was released 32 years ago. “I hope everyone watching the film in Berlin joins in the chorus at the end of the film," says Kahi. "That would be a real Dalvanius thing to do.”