NZIFF 51 Film Review: Herbs: Songs Of Freedom

The New Zealand International Film Festival featured World Premiere screening of Herbs: Songs Of Freedom as its closing night film at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. But the event was more than a film screening; it was a joyous celebration of a band that changed the New Zealand scene forever.

Most of the surviving members of the band and their whanau were on hand for the screening along with producer Cliff Curtis and director Tearepa Kahi.

It was Kahi (Poi E, Mt Zion) who had the unenviable task of distilling the band’s 40-year history into 90 minutes…a task even more difficult given the many musicians who joined and left the band over those years and the social and political impact that Herbs and their music had upon New Zealand in general.

Kahi does his best to sift through the available archival footage, using vintage and current interviews to explain just what this band was all about.

According to legend, and repeated here, Herbs’ first gig was opening for Stevie Wonder  at Western Springs in 1979. It was a disastrous show for Stevie, who never made it to the stage due to bad weather, but Herbs did play and did impress.

Herbs heady mix of Polynesian rhythms and Bob Marley-inspired reggae was ground-breaking. But there was more to the band than music. These guys took a stand, whether it was the occupation of Bastion Point, the 1981 Springbok Tour or the terrifying dawn raids subjected on the Polynesian community.

Fortunately at this screening, there was no need to explain the details of these events as it seemed, many of the audience had lived through them. But, I couldn’t help thinking as references to events that took place 40 years ago were served up quickly, that many potential audience members may not fully understand exactly what was going on. I know, as someone who moved to New Zealand in 1994, that I had a hard time following some of these accounts and understanding the significance of a lot of what I was seeing.

The same goes for the rather non-linear way the band’s history is treated. Band members seem to come and go, often with little or no explanation.  It seems that Kahi struggled to find a narrative thread to tie everything together, resulting in a somewhat confusing film.

Having said that, this is a hugely entertaining film about a very important band and the latter scenes, based around a reunion concert staged at the Q Theatre in 2018 and hosted by Moana Maniapoto, are extremely satisfying. Here we see these veteran musicians, after years of turmoil, inter-band squabbling (much of which is overlooked) and health issues, doing what they do best…making music together.  Poignantly, three long-time members passed away just after the filming.

Herbs: Songs of Freedom may not be a film made for everyone, but it is a film that needed to be made.

Marty Duda