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Our Boys documentary shows how Chris Lilley’s Jonah from Tonga was based on real-life student

Pictured: Filipe Mahe during filming of Our Boys

Resurfaced footage from a 2004 documentary shows the striking similarities between Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High character Jonah Takalua, and a real-life student.

Filipe Mahe, now 33, was filmed as part of an ABC documentary titled Our Boys which followed disadvantaged students at Canterbury Boys High in Western Sydney in 2004.

After the series aired Lilley went to Mr Mahe’s school, observed classes and lunchtime in the playground and watched a Tongan dance.

When Summer Heights High debuted on the ABC three years later, Mr Mahe said his heart sank as he instantly knew the character was based on him.

Unearthed clips from the Our Boys documentary show Mr Mahe and Jonah share a number of uncanny personality traits. 

Jonah, like Mr Mahe, was from a single-parent family, had a larger than life and cheeky persona, could dance and struggled to read.

One scene showed a history lesson at the school, where Mr Mahe jovially clashed with his female teacher – similar to Jonah’s constant taunting of his English teacher Miss Wheatley.

One scene showed a history lesson at the school, where Filipe Mahe jovially clashed with his female teacher - similar to Jonah's constant taunting of his English teacher Miss Wheatley.

One scene showed a history lesson at the school, where Filipe Mahe jovially clashed with his female teacher – similar to Jonah’s constant taunting of his English teacher Miss Wheatley.

The class clown was then placed in time out for repeatedly chatting to his friends

The class clown was then placed in time out for repeatedly chatting to his friends 

Mr Mahe can be seen in a one-on-one lesson with an English tutor. The interaction appeared to be Lilley’s inspiration for Jonah’s remedial English classes at the fictional Gumnut Cottage with Miss Palmer (slide right)

Mr Mahe, who was in Year Nine at the time, was filmed talking back to his teacher and giving her attitude during a lesson. 

‘It’s a ruler, bro!’ he shouted at his teacher, who tried to move his pencil case to get him to focus on his work. 

Moments later, the teacher called on Mr Mahe – who was distracting his fellow students from their work – to ask what he was doing.

The class clown was then placed in time out for repeatedly chatting to his friends.

‘What do I have to go to time out for?!’ he yelled while laughing and walking away.

‘Miss, I can’t shut up. What’s the use of putting me in time out?’ he said while sitting at a desk facing the wall, away from his friends.

‘Don’t say one more word,’ the teacher said, before Mr Mahe quickly responded: ‘Alright. There’s one word,’ while the class laughed.

The real-life situation appeared to be recreated in Summer Heights High – which at the time was a ratings success – when Jonah is moved into timeout by his fed-up teacher. 

In another stark comparison between Mr Mahe and Jonah, Mr Mahe and his friends - who are also of Pacific Islander background - hip hop danced in the school's quadrangle
In another stark comparison between Mr Mahe and Jonah, Mr Mahe and his friends - who are also of Pacific Islander background - hip hop danced in the school's quadrangle

In another stark comparison between Mr Mahe and Jonah, Mr Mahe and his friends – who are also of Pacific Islander background – hip hop danced in the school’s quadrangle

The group of boys were later filmed dancing a traditional Tongan dance in front of their school, donning their cultural clothing. It mirrors a scene in Summer Heights High where Jonah and his friends perform a traditional dance at the school assembly wearing grass skirts

The group of boys were later filmed dancing a traditional Tongan dance in front of their school, donning their cultural clothing. It mirrors a scene in Summer Heights High where Jonah and his friends perform a traditional dance at the school assembly wearing grass skirts

Mr Mahe (pictured at school with a friend) said his heart sank when he saw himself in the character of Jonah when Summer Heights High debuted in 2007

Mr Mahe (pictured at school with a friend) said his heart sank when he saw himself in the character of Jonah when Summer Heights High debuted in 2007

Mr Mahe, who was in Year Nine at the time, was filmed talking back to his teacher and giving her attitude during a lesson

Mr Mahe, who was in Year Nine at the time, was filmed talking back to his teacher and giving her attitude during a lesson

In another resurfaced video, Mr Mahe can be seen in a one-on-one lesson with an English tutor.

Like Jonah, Mr Mahe was filmed sounding out the pronunciation to simple words in a children’s book with the help of his doting teacher. 

The interaction appeared to be Lilley’s inspiration for Jonah’s remedial English classes at the fictional Gumnut Cottage with Miss Palmer.

In another stark comparison between Mr Mahe and Jonah, Mr Mahe and his friends – who are also of Pacific Islander background – hip hop danced in the school’s quadrangle.

The group of boys were later filmed dancing a traditional Tongan dance in front of their school, donning their cultural clothing. 

It directly mirrors a scene in Summer Heights High where Jonah and his three friends perform a traditional dance at the school assembly wearing grass skirts.   

Pictured: Chris Lilley (centre) in his role as Jonah Takalua in his program, Jonah from Tonga

Pictured: Chris Lilley (centre) in his role as Jonah Takalua in his program, Jonah from Tonga

Mr Mahe said his heart sank when he saw himself in the character of Jonah when Summer Heights High debuted in 2007. 

‘I’ve always thought it was racism to Tongans but never spoke out,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald. 

‘I would have been labelled a ‘sook’ or ‘can’t handle the banter’ so I didn’t say anything.’ 

He added that he felt ‘absolutely embarrassed, full of hate, angry and exploited’ by the program. 

Mr Mahe is now a successful father-of-two living in Queensland, but his start to life was much tougher.  

His father had been killed in a motor accident, his mother was wheelchair bound after contracting polio as a child and his sister suffered from epilepsy – which later killed her.  

Mr Mahe has dyslexia and by grade nine he still couldn’t read or write in English or Tongan, and his math capabilities were equivalent to a grade six student.

Mahe (centre) is certain the character of Jonah is based on him and his experiences at school. Pictured with Our Boys producer Kerry Brewster (left)

Mahe (centre) is certain the character of Jonah is based on him and his experiences at school. Pictured with Our Boys producer Kerry Brewster (left)

Jonah enjoys dancing in the program, as did Mahe at school

Pictured: Chris Lilley as Jonah

Chris Lilley visited Canterbury Boys High after Our Boys aired to conduct research for his upcoming show, Summer Heights High

However he’d always managed to get by in class because of his great verbal and observational skills. 

The character of Jonah had similar learning difficulties and compensated by being brash and rude to his superiors, a trait that Mr Mahe said didn’t come from him.

‘I can 100 per cent say that, if any Tongan kid was to speak that way to their parents, they would have got a smack to the mouth,’ he said. ‘We just don’t speak that way.’ 

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Kerry Brewster, the woman who produced and directed Our Boys also immediately identified the character in Lilley’s show as Mr Mahe. 

She had worked closely with him during filming and was alarmed at how he was ‘exploited’ to create ‘a brown faced caricature’.

‘In its mocking portrayal of Jonah, it was racist and cruel, even if this was not Lilley’s intention,’ she said in an opinion piece for Sydney Morning Herald.

‘It appealed to an audience that still looks condescendingly at Pacific Islanders.’

Ms Brewster said some of the lines used in the show were almost word-for-word repeats of things Mr Mahe had said in the past.  

But Ms Brewster also feels guilty for the ‘terrible price’ Mr Mahe paid for participating in her documentary. 

The entire first episode focused largely on his struggles and led Lilley to visit the school when researching his own ABC-funded project. 

Mr Mahe moved to Brisbane after he left Canterbury Boys High, where he found a job and met his now wife, Vera. 

The couple have two children and are very happy with their lives, though Vera said he still deals with the hurt and embarrassment over the show.

Mr Mahe (pictured) was charismatic and adored by his peers and teachers. He struggled with learning difficulties and had a tough upbringing

Mr Mahe (pictured) was charismatic and adored by his peers and teachers. He struggled with learning difficulties and had a tough upbringing

Mr Mahe's wife said her husband was 'hurt and embarrassed' by the character Jonah from Tonga

Mr Mahe’s wife said her husband was ‘hurt and embarrassed’ by the character Jonah from Tonga

‘He is hurt and embarrassed,’ she explained.

‘Is he embarrassed by the way he was? Absolutely. His dad died in a car accident, his mum is a paralysed from the waist down, his sister died from epilepsy – he didn’t have the easiest childhood. Could be the reason why he played up.’

Vera told Daily Mail Australia the couple both ‘understand the comedy part’ of the show and accept that it has cultivated a cult-like following since it aired.

‘But he was a child and was exploited,’ she added.  

Pictured: Chris Lilley in 2015

Pictured: Chris Lilley in 2015

Four of Lilley’s shows, including Jonah from Tonga, were removed from the Netflix catalogue earlier this month in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The programs had been criticised in the past for their use of brownface and blackface. In Jonah From Tonga, Lilley painted his face brown and wore a curly wig to portray Jonah.

Daily Mail Australia tried to contact Lilley for comment regarding Mr Mahe’s claims. 

Lilley has previously defended his style of comedy. 

Last year he told The Weekend Australian: ‘I’m not trying to do the thing that is trendy at the moment.’ 

The award-winning comedian went on to say he would continue making ‘clever, layered’ characters. 

Defending his controversial characters, he said: ‘When you meet them, you think ‘I know that type of person’, but then there is a twist, something crazy.’

‘[In] the end you think ‘Actually, I kinda relate to this, she just did that thing that I do everyday’.’ 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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