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Amarbir’s Story

If filmmaker Amarbir Singh was telling the story of Morningside via the story of Crave he might begin by framing an intimate conversation around a table, where bits and pieces of the news of the day from Facebook or Twitter were thrown around as ‘facts’, before loose chatter really began to reveal the truth of who these people were.

It would tell three stories at once—the story of the people at the table, the story of the Morningside community, and the story of Auckland. Frames within frames within frames.

Or he might do something completely different. Amar isn’t the sort of person you can pigeonhole.

But on any given day, he is one of those people, seated in the cafe and pondering life at a deeper level. Engage Amar in conversation and within the space of a few minutes you might be talking philosophy or the semiotics of film or the history of K Road or Netflix and YouTube and the changing nature of video.

Amar says he doesn’t yet fully understand the Morningside community because he hasn’t lived here long enough. But it’s hard to believe.

‘I feel like I’m still quite new to this, because even though I’m coming here to the cafe, I’m very rarely engaging with anybody as much, to actually find out what’s really going on.’

What Amar means is that he hasn’t yet worked the community out to the extent he did with K Road, which he was able to portray so well in his 2004 feature film, 1Night. For Amar, it’s the spaces between what people say that reveal who they are, and that sort of knowing doesn’t happen quickly.

‘The pattern of the missing is where the truth is really,’ he says. ‘When I did that film, that was exactly what it was for me. There were six stories playing out in the city at the same time, so it was all about creating that pattern—it was a non-reaction to the world. At that time I think what really moved me was how oblivious we were, or how reluctant we were, to participate in the obvious, which was America going for the war in Afghanistan.’

Amar’s love of film was born in an army boarding school in India. The school had links with Cambridge University in the UK and their drama teachers sparked something within Amar that gave him the chance to express himself.

‘There was a part of myself that I saw expressing more when I was staging it. I was generally very introvert and very quiet. I did my own thing. It was a different expression that I was creating when I was on the stage. Even though at that time you are going, Oh I’m playing something—it’s always you.’

Two years after school finished, Amar’s dad died and he looked after the family business. He began to doubt that acting, or film, would happen. But the doors opened again when he came to New Zealand. A chance to start from scratch.

‘That’s when I gave my filmmaking and acting a go. It took me a year to get the hang of the space and then I did a short course on film making, and kind of went, okay this will work.’

But he also confronted a different type of obstacle.

‘I realised there will be trouble getting into acting over here, because there are no narratives where they would need Indian actors, you know, other than on a fruit cart or in a dairy. They were always part of the backdrop. That’s not going to work as a career. But I did enjoy storytelling. There was something more wholesome about it than acting.’

Amar made a splash with 1Night, which not only played at the Auckland International Film Festival and took on its own momentum, but was used in film schools internationally as an example of how to tell stories with limited resources.

‘If you just use what you have in the kitchen you can make a good dish out of it. That’s why it did so well. Since then I’ve done lots of music videos, 25 in one year. There was heaps of them.’

Having made a career out of music and corporate videos, these days Amar is focused more on the new opportunities afforded by the Netflix format, and subscription web TV. More specifically, he’s working on a series of 10 one-hour stories set around the NZ Indian community, as a way of looking at the community’s working class attitudes.

In the meantime, you’re likely to see him in Crave, chatting away at a table over coffee. A picture of what’s happening in the broader Morningside community, and a reflection of what’s happening all over the city.