Read

Hanelle Harris: Visibility’s not enough anymore, it needs to be story sovereignty

Scroll to content

Modern audiences can smell bullshit, according to filmmaker Hanelle Harris. “I think what people are really craving is authenticity and truth,” she says.  “You can only feel it when you see it and you see it with things like Atlanta with Donald Glover. You see it with things like Insecure with Issa Rae and you can feel that it’s made by black people for black people … I think audiences can feel the disconnect between storytelling voices and the faces on screen.”

Atlanta and Insecure, of course, are very specific stories made for a very specific audience but often the more specific something is, the more universal it can be as well. Atlanta and Insecure are mainstream, Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning hits. Although Sis The Show has yet to secure a shiny gong – it just came out last week, everyone chill – the sheer fact the Polynesian sketch series exists on an internationally renowned platform like Comedy Central is an integral example of its specificity connecting universally.

Comedy Central, of course, has built a brand out of turning specific stories into universal hits with Chappelle’s Show, Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele (to name just a few). Sis The Show finding a home among that legacy is testament to just how ground-breaking and ambitious the series is. Created, written, directed and produced by Harris, it’s truly her baby in more ways than one: she was pregnant with her third child during the shoot. A spin-off from the already successful Baby Mama’s Cluba cult web hit in New Zealand – the series follows the exploits of three cousins Miki (Gaby Solomona), Malia (Suivai Pilisipi Autagavaia) and Gee Gee (Hillary Samuela) as they navigate everything from modern New Zealand life to high-concept time loop shenanigans. While the very act of having young, brown women from every facet of Polynesian life represented in the show is a political one, there’s also the meta commentary on the very genre Sis exists within. The bridging skits set within the fictionalised version of the show’s writers room poke fun at the usually white, usually male head writers in charge of ‘diverse’ projects just like theirs.

Behind the Scenes of Sis the Show

Director Hanelle Harris (left) on the set of Sis The Show.

“That character is a combination of a lot of white writers I’ve worked with,” says Harris, of the role (played by comedian and actor Tom Sainsbury). “A lot of white allies that I’ve met – or people who claim to be white allies – fail to acknowledge intersectionality in its fullness and that’s where you see him dismissing the trans woman (played by Amanaki Prescott).  He says he loves Pacific Islanders and then in the next breath that trans stories are ‘a bit boring and done’.” For Harris, that character is “imposing what the lens should be” and is a biting criticism of the exact kind of practitioners who claim they want to support diverse stories, but only the diverse stories they choose. “Audiences are demanding that representation be genuine and that it be a true reflection of who they are,” says Harris. “It’s not enough for us to keep talking about visibility: visibility’s not enough anymore, it needs to be story sovereignty … It’s time now for us as brown artists and brown practitioners to say ‘give us the money, give us the resources, now step aside and let us do our thing’.”

That’s a big part of what led to Sis The Show’s finished product being so polished, says Harris, with all four episodes – Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Act 4 – dropping on Comedy Central right in that sweet spot of convenient timing when the world is looking for something to binge during isolation. Harris and two of her mentees Destiny Momoisea and Maiya Thompson put the initial concept for the series together in July 2019, before the physical shoot just four months later in November, with everything from the concept through to the execution made with “Māori frameworks” in mind. “We do have it a lot tougher in many ways because economically Māori and Pasifika people sit at the bottom of every statistic that we shouldn’t,” says Harris. “I hope that just us being up there, just us living our dreams, demonstrates to young, brown kids that they can do it too, you know? Because we’ve done it.” With Tongan, Māori, Samoan, and Hawaiian representation not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well, the Sis The Show team hope their first season will connect with different facets of Polynesian culture rather than just one broad stereotype. “We did want to be universal, but our work has always been for us and by us,” says Harris. “Even stuff that just recognises there are brown people of the dysphoria. Australia’s a good example, they might not be as connected to their culture, but it’s still for them.  We would never want to alienate even a brown person that’s not as connected with their culture.”

Watch Sis The Show on Comedy Central

Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter and journalist. Her fifth book, The Wailing Woman, is out now along with the limited podcast series Josie & The Podcats about the 2001 cult film.