“Now that I’m older, I can look at it with clearer eyes and I can see that it’s just a white man in brown face taking advantage of a story that isn’t his to tell,” she says.
Taha, 22, feels for Filipe Mahe, who spoke publicly for the first time recently about the anger, embarrassment and pain he had suffered from believing Lilley based Jonah on him.
The actor-comedian, who visited Mahe’s school after he featured in the documentary series Our Boys in 2004, is yet to respond to either his comments or Netflix’s removal of four Lilley series amid debate over the portrayal of non-white characters.
“Oh my god, Jonah from Tonga pisses me off, especially when other people tell me ‘it’s just a joke’ or ‘it’s just a character’,” Taha says. “They don’t have to live with the repercussions of what a character does for representation.”
She features in a short film by director Maya Newell that is part of an innovative project called Voxdocs – eight short documentaries about the state of the performing arts that have been made as a collaboration between Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
The five-minute film shows the impact of a show – about the lives of five young women from the western suburbs – that had gone from a successful run at PYT Fairfield to the Sydney Opera House and a Helpmann award nomination. The crowning achievement was to be a 23-venue national tour until COVID-19 forced its cancellation.
“Everybody was devastated,” Taha says. “I was forced to really ask myself what is important, what is something that you can hold on to now so that you feel more grounded at a time when everything is so unsure.”
Newell, best known for the documentaries Gayby Baby and In My Blood It Runs, says she identified with Taha’s “internal revolution” about the importance of identity.
“We all grow up in this country encouraged and only shown that white culture is more valuable than our other identities as Australians,” she says. “When I reached that age – 20, 22 – I went, no, my Japanese heritage is incredibly important to who I am.”
Taha, who lives with her mother and 11-year-old sister in Merrylands, has used COVID-19 time at home to learn more from her mother about Tongan culture and language, hoping to take this deeper understanding into future performances.
“I’ve never felt like I could talk about my heritage and how that’s influenced me in my life because I’ve never been asked to,” she says. “It was something that came up quite a lot in making Playlist. It was really cool for me to represent my culture and to share my experience as a woman of colour from western Sydney.”
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.