Israel Folau doco examines how a legend became an outcast

Watch the official 'Folau' trailer

Source: YouTube/ABC

When Australian filmmaker Nel Minchin got the chance to tell the “compelling and complicated” story of Australia’s most controversial athlete, Israel Folau, she says it was an “essential story crying out for careful telling”.

Speaking to The New Daily before its highly anticipated premiere on May 18, Minchin (younger sister of outspoken performer and writer Tim – Upright, Matilda), struck gold when men from Folau’s wider Pasifika community, including former rugby players, pastors and artists, agreed to take part.

Simply titled Folau, the two-part ABC documentary tracks the talented footballer from his humble Tongan upbringing in western Sydney to superstardom across three codes (NRL, AFL and rugby union) to his dismissal by Rugby Australia, after posting Bible verses widely perceived as homophobic on social media.

“The clash of rights interested me – the freedom of right to express versus the freedom of the right to live free from vilification,” she said.

“I was also interested in the workplace conversation as well, how far employers can reasonably go to control your own personal social media as well, and of course, the bigger conversation about the role of religion in society.”

Folau did not consent to the documentary being made, nor “did he support or authorise it in any way”, according to the ABC.

Pasifika men heard

Minchin says the Pasifika men were among the most compelling and important part of the documentary.

“Those voices were largely not heard at the time … it wasn’t easy to get people to talk on camera about this issue across the board. It took a lot of courage for these people to talk.”

Filmed over two years in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Japan, Minchin sits down with rugby league star Samu Kerevi, Tonga coach Toutai Kefu and the Folau family’s former Mormon bishop Salesi Tupou.

Former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, several leading sports journalists and LGBTQI voices including former Wallaby prop forward Dan Palmer, actor Magda Szubanski, artist Telly Tuita, former pastor and human rights worker of Samoan heritage Andre Afamasaga and former rugby player and actor Taofia Pelesasa also take part.

Folau, 34, is a hardline Christian who grew up in the Mormon church before joining the Truth of Jesus Christ Church established by his father Eni in 2013.

He was spotted as a huge talent at a young age, with Melbourne Storm talent scout Peter O’Sullivan describing Folau at an under-15s schoolboys trial as “imposing … tall, lean, probably a bit gangly at that stage. But he just moved like an NRL player.

“It didn’t take much to work out he was going to be a serious player.”

He played across three codes, attracting multimillion-dollar salaries and also played 73 games for the Wallabies.

Everyone looked up to him.

‘The ideal migrant dream’

“I 100 per cent followed him on his social media Instagram and was inspired by his trajectory and his journey,” Pelesasa said.

“He was sort of embraced in the Pacific community because he definitely fits the ideals of a Pacific male. He plays sport.

“He’s successful at it, he’s amazing. He fulfilled the ideal migrant dream.”

israel folau sacking void

Israel Folau says his sacking by Rugby Australia is void because it means he can no longer play. Photo: AAP

Fast forward to 2017 and Australia’s same-sex marriage plebiscite.

Rugby Australia decided to back gay marriage and put a rainbow on its logo.

“No one came up to us and asked us if we support it. No one asked us our opinion on it. They just said, you know, Rugby Australia supports gay marriage,” said Kerevi, a devout Christian and Pasifika player.

Folau responded, determined but respectful, simply tweeting that he would be voting ‘no’.

But when in 2018, in response to an Instagram question about “God’s plan for gay people”, Israel replied: “Hell, unless they repent of their sins and turn to God,” things became increasingly complicated, especially in his relationship with Rugby Australia.

Standing by his values

“He was standing by the values he grew up with, believed in, was a leader in a community of players who also had feelings of the same sort about same-sex marriage,” observes Minchin.

“But his values were incredibly offensive to a large majority of Australians.”

In 2019, Folau linked the summer bushfire disaster across eastern Australia to God’s judgment in a church sermon. Photo: Facebook

Rugby Australia gave him a pass, a new contract was signed – but things spilled over in the aftermath of Tasmania passing laws to make gender optional on birth certificates, when Folau reposted a meme interpreting a verse in Corinthians.

“Sinners will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” it says, listing homosexuals among those going to hell.

During the fallout from those tweets, Folau wrote that suggestions he was homophobic “could not be further from the truth”.

“I believe in inclusion. In my heart, I know I do not have any phobia towards anyone”.

Ultimately, his post led to what rugby reporter Jamie Pandaram tells Minchin was “the greatest contractual crisis that any sport has ever faced in Australia”.

“He would never have expected, on the night he posted that terrible and dorky meme, that this would have gone on,” Minchin said.

“That is him. But it is also the world of politics that came into play, all the people who started using that example for their own agenda.”

There was a complicated dismissal by Rugby Australia and then Folau’s court battle ensued with a settlement and an apology of sorts in 2019.

“The whole thing as far as corporate brand management was put to bed,” said lawyer Josh Bornstein, “but it left the fundamental moral and philosophical questions still very much up in the air.”

Move to Japan

A religious discrimination bill was shelved, Cheika resigned as Wallabies coach, Raelene Castle resigned as Rugby Australia boss and there wasn’t a code willing to sign him to play in Australia.

The game lost its best player. He currently plays as a fullback for the Shining Arcs in Japan’s Rugby League One and the Tonga national team.

israel folau rugby australia talks

Israel Folau and his wife Maria leave the Federal Court in Melbourne after marathon talks with Rugby Australia in 2019. Photo: AAP

A complicated story to tell, but one with a silver lining.

Minchin notes the strong response at the time from Rugby Australia that inclusivity is important, and hopes the “nugget that remains with everyone is that the humans are the ones in the middle of these ideas and they are the ones we need to save”.

Minchin has directed TV documentaries including Capturing Cricket: Steve Waugh in India for the ABC and The Truth About Anxiety with Celia Pacquola for SBS.

Folau is her fourth documentary following Firestarter, Making Muriel and the AACTA-nominated Matilda & Me.

“A lot of people were surprised I took this on,” she said.

“You’ve got this famously atheist brother and you’re talking religion and we come from different points of view, but we can’t shut stuff down, as that leads to more discontent and anger. As Tracey [Holmes, ABC sports journalist] says, there’s no right or wrong.

“This is about making sure we’re telling the story as rigorously and respectfully as possible, no matter what you think.

“I hope that maybe, just maybe, the film will give people from all walks of life and ‘sides’ of politics a moment of pause.”

Folau premieres on ABC and iview on May 18

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