Filipe Mahe, the Tongan boy who I believe inspired Lilley’s Jonah caricature was, at the time of filming in 2002, a complex Year 9 student facing profound challenges. Filipe couldn’t read – either in Tongan or English – and his maths was at Year 6 level. His considerable verbal and observational skills had compensated. He’d fooled teachers into thinking he could read, but that he was ignoring his homework and forgetting his books. When the school realised, its remedial efforts swung behind him.
Unlike Lilley’s Jonah, Filipe was witty, charismatic, good looking and polite to his teachers and elders. He was a magnet, attracting Islander kids around him. While he struggled academically, he was lively in the classroom. And he had other talents. Filipe could dance, far better than Jonah. He led the Canterbury Boys’ team in Sydney’s inter-school traditional dance competition. He was also great at hip-hop and a master of the Michael Jackson moonwalk which he performed above the quadrangle in front of the entire school, as it celebrated its ethnic diversity during the brilliantly titled Eat The Beat.
After Our Boys was broadcast in 2004, Lilley was given access to the school to research his new project for the ABC, Summer Heights High. He sat anonymously for a day or two at the back of classrooms, with his hoodie up.
In 2007, a year after Filipe had left Canterbury Boys, the school’s Islander students tuned in to Summer Heights High. At the end of the first episode they were uncomfortable. The second episode clinched it. They were mortified, the school was embarrassed and its teachers furious. The boys stopped watching or talking about the new TV show that entrenched Lilley’s reputation as comedic genius. I did the same. I had recognised scenes. Some of Jonah’s lines were close to word for word. But they’d been twisted against the real boy. My co-producer, Andrea Lang, shared my alarm that a vulnerable child had been used to create a national figure of fun.
Australians loved Jonah. Summer Heights High was a hit and won a Logie in 2008. But it was no affectionate take on Australian society, as was Kath and Kim. In its mocking portrayal of Jonah, it was racist and cruel, even if this was not Lilley’s intention. It appealed to an audience that still looks condescendingly at Pacific Islanders.
In contrast, Our Boys lifted up its subjects, showing their complicated real selves in the process.
When the school’s most famous former student, John Howard, declined an invitation to the media-packed launch, it was then opposition leader Mark Latham who congratulated the boys for their courage and the school for its impressive efforts. All the seniors – attired in blazers and ties – filled the cinema. The proud stars were applauded repeatedly.
What a blow Summer Heights High must have been. Did Lilley ever wonder about the damage his Jonah caricature had on the boy who inspired it? By now a young man, Filipe was still coping with his own personal tragedies. His biological father had died several years before in a car accident, his mother was wheelchair-bound due to childhood polio and his little sister suffered epilepsy, a condition that took her life.
Comedy, including Lilley’s satire, is funny cos it’s true, as The Simpsons put it. But was brown-face Jonah true enough? It was a very poor rendition. It felt like kicking a boy when he was down – in fact, the whole Tongan community. Did the ABC give this a second thought?
Filipe didn’t hang around Sydney, where the trauma resonated. In Brisbane he made a new life for himself. The real person defied the caricature. He found a job, married a Tongan woman and, after a number of years, built a home and became the father of two adored children. He still struggles with dyslexia.
Summer Heights High is now consigned by Netflix to the bin of unacceptable brown-face portrayal. It’s nice to think that the real boy’s teachers and the many others who knew him as a kid – including myself – are cheering his success. But I still feel bad for the terrible price he paid for his courageous participation in a documentary film.
Kerry Brewster is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist.