Red, White and Brass

Rated PG

It’s unusual to go to a film premiere and have someone onstage say “Let us pray” – to applause from the audience! – but that’s what happened at the Sydney premiere of Red, White and Brass earlier this month at the Sydney Film Festival. 

For the next 90 minutes, the State Theatre became an outpost of Tongan cultural pride, faith and joy, and we were all feeling the māfana (see the film and you’ll know what I mean). Red, White and Brass tells the story of possibly the most unlikely marching band ever, created in New Zealand in the lead-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. As the film itself says, “Straight up, this actually happened”.

What also happened is that most of those involved were members of Wellington’s Wesleyan Tongan congregation, so viewers get to see everyday people of faith in a modern movie depicted with humour and love, and it’s just gold.

Co-writer Halaifonua Finau was a central figure in the original story, and is recreated here as Maka, a brash young guy who is desperate to go to the Tonga v France World Cup match but can’t get tickets. So, he hatches a plan to form a marching band with his Tongan churchmates in order to get a gig as pre-match entertainment and see the game that way. The only problem is they can’t play the instruments, and there’s only six weeks until the game.


Crazy? Just a little bit.

The best part is, the group’s determination to see the game morphs into a desire to represent the Tongan community with pride in their culture. Even though Maka, the son of the church’s minister, is pretty self-focused and not good at pitching in, his great plan won’t work unless everyone thinks and works together – including him.

The band is a mess and they’re using plastic bottles to practise their embouchures, but God will provide, Maka says. Amazingly, he does – and a few mildly miraculous things happen along the way as we’re taken along for a hilarious and joyous ride.

Halaifonua Finau’s real-life pastor father and his mother appear as Maka’s parents, and they’re natural performers: funny and faithful, impatient and godly, sometimes all at once. The mainly Tongan cast wholeheartedly shares their story and their life with us, and in watching we become part of this community, wrapped up in a huge cultural embrace.

To say more would be to give away too much, but the fact that a film has been made of this journey should give you a clue as to how things play out. To watch the band sing Jesus’ praises in Tongan before they go out and perform is worth the price of admission alone.

To put it simply, Red, White and Brass provides old-school entertainment that is heartfelt, uncomplicated and a ripping good time. You’ll love it.