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Authentic portrayal of Kiwi gangs

Think of the worst things you can do with a claw hammer.

It's not pretty.

But it's what Damage — whose journey from impoverished, violent family home to abusive state care to brutal gang enforcer is the centre of new Kiwi film Savage — will do to stay in the only place he thinks he belongs.

Until, one day, he decides he doesn't.

It's then the unhappy Damage, whose facial gang tattoos quickly lose their power on the increasingly sad canvas that carries them, finds the catharsis he's wanted all along.

Sam Kelly, who wrote and directed Savage knows a bit about catharsis.

The 39-year-old first-time feature filmmaker read ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's teachings on storytelling, about how we empathise with characters suffering injustice and find ourselves wanting what the character wants, and fearing, like the character, it won't happen.

“Catharsis allows you the emotional release from that fear, so it was important for me because Damage had been through a lot, and what he really wanted was connection and belonging,” Kelly says.

“That might be something people in the audience can connect to, wanting to connect with someone else, or feeling like you want to belong somewhere, and not being able to.”

The writings of one of history's most influential thinkers have their place. But reading isn't living.

Kelly didn't grow up in a violent home, he wasn't sent to a boys' home and he never joined a gang.

But he's seen what happens when inhumanity is the fuel for mindless brutality.

It was just over two weeks before Christmas in 2007 when Fitzgerald Risati, a “lovely, lovely kid” Kelly had directed in a school play, and who was also a family friend, was murdered while out celebrating his 24th birthday.

A court would later hear 32-year-old Mongrel Mob member Charlie Karaka was seeking revenge over a stolen patch when he stabbed Risati in the heart, and that the younger man, an IHC caregiver, was the victim of mistaken identity.

Karaka was sentenced to life in prison with a minimum non-parole period of 12 years.

Whitby-raised and Porirua-educated, Kelly had grown up giving gang members a wide berth.

But there was no long way around the impact of Risati's murder.

“It was this rubbing up of the gang world against my world for the first time. When this other world punctuates your own, that led to a lot of emotions for me — anger and so many questions. I wanted to know, ‘Why do young men join gangs?'

“I don't like the idea of judging other people, and that's what I found myself doing. I wanted to move to a place of understanding.”

Understanding began as he researched, wrote and directed his 2012 short film Lambs, a New Zealand International Film Festival winner, about a 14-year-old Cannons Creek boy forced to choose between staying in his abusive home to protect his younger siblings or leaving to start a new life of his own.

That work led him to learn more about adult gangs, and the power of the patch Karaka and others have killed for, culminating in the writing and making of Savage.

It's a journey shown in Savage by Damage and his boys' roommate Moses, who later finds his place and power as the ruthless president of the street gang the pair and a few others form and name the Savages.

After being sent to Borstal (youth detention centre) in the mid-1960s for stealing food for his poverty-stricken family, Damage — then known as Danny — is physically and sexually abused by those charged with his care, and told his family don't want him back.

Later living on the streets, he briefly reconnects with a brother, but the pair are in rival gangs, and Damage eventually chooses his gang family, continuing a life of crime and hardship.

Damage is fictional, but the experiences that precede and then entrap him in gang life are “lots of stolen stories”, Kelly says.

finding a home: Ex Borstal boys and now gang members Moses and Danny in a scene from the new Kiwi film Savage. Picture supplied