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Posted March 16, 2018

The new Kiwi film Broken has achieved a rare feat: it’s a New Zealand film that opened at number one in the box office. But, more than that, it’s a film that is overtly Christian in its themes, and yet is captivating mainstream audiences. Ingrid Barratt talks to intrepid filmmaker Tarry Mortlock about the movie that is mending broken hearts.

Broken was inspired by the powerful true story of Tārore—recently brought to life as a children’s book by author Joy Cowley. It is, indeed, a story that needs to be retold for every generation, showing the healing power of forgiveness.

In this modern re-telling, Broken follows two rival gangs at war with each other. The main character, Logan, has left gang life behind to raise his daughter. But when the unthinkable happens, Logan must decide whether to go back to the gang and seek revenge, or to find another, untrodden path.

The film was shot in Gisborne, and its watery, wild coastline perfectly aligns with the rage simmering under the surface of the film. Josh Calles is heartbreaking in his role as Logan—who is at war within himself, as much as with the world around him. The result is a genuinely moving and powerful story.

And it is a visibly Christian movie. Tori, Logan’s teenage daughter, attends the local youth group. She knows that she has been forgiven, so she can also forgive. It’s a story with heart, and at its heart is forgiveness.

A New Zealand story

‘Forgiveness is the huge theme of this film,’ says writer and director Tarry Mortlock, who was a staff member at Auckland’s City Impact Church when he first began dreaming of making Broken. ‘Forgiveness brings reconciliation, and while justice needs to prevail and wrongs need to be righted, without forgiveness there’s no moving forward.

‘I don’t consider it a gang movie, neither do I see it as a Māori film,’ he adds. ‘It’s a New Zealand film. The story of Tārore is a New Zealand story—it’s for all of us, we all need to learn the power of forgiveness.’

Since its release in February, the film’s themes have been making an impact on audiences. ‘I received a message from a young woman who had struggled with suicide. The film really touched her life and she found it a huge encouragement,’ recalls Tarry. ‘I heard yesterday about a husband and wife who saw the film— that night, they went home and reconciled their marriage because they had been holding things against each other for so long.’

The movie has been playing to full theatres around the country. Tarry recently snuck into a ‘random’ screening and struck up a conversation with the couple next to him: ‘I said, “What do you reckon bro, was there enough action for you?” He paused, and then he said: “You know this film is part of my DNA, I can totally relate. That rage that Logan feels, I know what that rage feels like. Māori people, we are a warrior people, and to forgive goes against the grain. But forgiveness is the answer.” ‘I said, “You’re the reason why I made this movie”.’

The guy next door

So, how do you make a Christian film for mainstream audiences? ‘The bottom line is that I didn’t make a Christian film for Christians. I wanted to make a film for New Zealanders that sowed the seeds of forgiveness,’ says Tarry. ‘I set out to make a film for people that wouldn’t go to church—a film that the guy next door would go and watch.’

He adds that, ‘if you made a movie of the Old Testament, it would be full of violence and sex and people swearing, it would be full-on R18 … and if you’re authentically telling stories, you’ve got to be real about it. At the same time, I had to be true to my conscience and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so the film doesn’t have swearing or sex scenes in it.’

This prompting from the Holy Spirit has been a guiding force since the beginning. By rights, Broken should have been a pipe-dream and nothing more. Not least because Tarry had no experience writing or directing, and had not even been on an actual film set. He spent several years working on his church’s media team—responsible for making its TV show—but creating a film would be an enormous leap.

On a shoe-string budget, Tarry gathered together the church production team, which essentially became the film crew. On location in Gisborne, a team of volunteers did everything from behind-the-scenes production to catering. Auditions were held locally, and very few of the film’s cast are experienced actors.

Josh, who gives such a stunning performance as Logan, is a police officer in Gisborne. He has never acted in a film before. ‘As a police officer I see a lot of hurt because of unforgiveness,’ says Josh. ‘The film talks about the human struggle and conflict that happens to ordinary people. These take us to the extreme of who we are.

‘I see people at their extreme, but that’s not who they are. I hope this movie depicts that, yes, the struggle is real, but the solution is real as well.’

A committed Christian, Josh always dreamed of becoming an actor but felt that God had called him to stay in his hometown. ‘So I had this little pact with God and I said, “If [acting] is supposed to be in my destiny then it will come to me,” and it did,’ laughs Josh.

One of the few experienced actors in the film is Wayne Hapi, who featured in The Dark Horse. He plays Cruz, the head of a rival gang. ‘After reading the script and hearing about the story [of Tārore] I wanted to be part of this—to get across those messages of reconciliation, forgiveness and working towards a brighter future.’

Wayne remembers a powerful moment during filming, when these themes came to life: ‘A lot of extras had Black Power connections. Then the crew got these Mongel Mob associates to be in it too and went to pick them up. I thought it was a bit of naïvety on our crew’s part and I was a bit nervous. But when the van pulled in, what really struck me was that the [Black Power] guys came straight over and started to mihi and hongi them. [The movie] allowed those guys to drop all that stuff, and just be real.

‘Tarry said to me the movie is all faith-driven and the Lord has his hand on this project. And I believe that.’

Sandstone and rock

Tarry believes that God only allowed him to make the movie once he had learned the hard lesson that ‘it’s not about me, it’s only about him’.

Tarry’s parents Peter and Bev Mortlock were founders of City Impact Church, which has grown into one of Auckland’s largest mega-churches. From a young age, Tarry’s life revolved around church and ministry.

‘My testimony is that at the age of four God saved me from the world, when I was at a little Bible camp and gave my life to Jesus. But at the age of 40, God saved me from myself,’ says Tarry. ‘I got to a point where I was so weighed down—trying to do stuff for God, trying to be good enough for him—I just thought, “I cannot carry this anymore”. I literally cried out loud to God, and I said, “Jesus, I need you. God, I need you”.’

That moment, has changed his life forever. ‘I thought I was building my life on rock, but I was building it on sandstone— that sandstone was ministry and being successful, trying to be a good Christian, trying to impress God and win people’s approval. The problem with sandstone is that it looks like rock, but you can only build so high before it cracks and crumbles and everything comes crashing down. God completely wrecked me and from that I was able to start building again on the true rock, which is Jesus Christ.’

Now, Tarry says that he is passionate about true identity— another theme that comes through strongly in Broken. ‘I’m very passionate about our identity in Christ, because my identity got stripped away and now my identity is found in Jesus and that makes all the difference.

‘I had to lay my burden down and pick his burden up—which is simply to love God and love people. It’s such a light and easy burden to carry. In fact, it’s not a burden, it’s a joy,’ reflects Tarry.

So, what’s next for the accidental filmmaker? He is currently taking time out with his wife’s family in Canada, and has recently completed a script based on the true story of an ex-Hell’s Angel whose life was dramatically transformed. The script is currently before producers in Los Angeles.

But, life is ‘all about God and God alone. Jesus is the answer to the world,’ sums up Tarry. And this is the real secret to becoming unbroken.

by Ingrid Barratt(c) 'War Cry' magazine, 10 March 2018, pp6-9. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.

The True Story Behind Broken

Tārore was the daughter of a Māori chief in the mid- 1800s. She learnt to read and write at a local mission, and was so accomplished that she was given her own copy of the Gospel of Luke. She kept it as a taonga in a kete around her neck.

A marauding tribe murdered the young Tārore and stole her kete. Incredibly, Tārore’s father risked bringing shame on himself by refusing to enact utu, or revenge, but instead to forgive.

The warrior that killed Tārore found the gospel in the kete, and eventually read it. He was so struck by its words of forgiveness, that he was filled with remorse. He sought out Tārore’s father to ask him for forgiveness. From the tragedy of Tārore’s death, peace was made between two warring tribes.