Pictured: Chris Lilley in 2014
Comedian Chris Lilley has broken his silence after coming under fire for his portrayal of a Tongan schoolboy in Summer Heights High.
Lilley was accused of basing the controversial character Jonah Takalua on the teenager Filipe Mahe, who appeared in a 2004 ABC documentary about disadvantaged students at a school in Sydney’s south-west.
The writer has been criticised for ‘exploiting’ Mr Mahe, who was a Year 9 student at the time the documentary was made.
The controversy comes after four of Lilley’s shows, including Jonah from Tonga, were removed from the Netflix catalogue in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
After remaining quiet for weeks, Lilley has now shared a deleted scene from the Summer Heights High spin off Jonah From Tonga, showing his character writing the song Don’t Be a Bully.
The post, which was made on Sunday, has since been deleted and replaced with another clip from the series where the character speaks about how his mum called him ‘the magical one’.
In the deleted scene Jonah is sitting in his room speaking about how his mum thought he was special.
‘She said of all the kids, Jonah is the magical one,’ the character says.
Both of the clips posted by Lilley show a softer side of Jonah.
Fans have rallied in support since the clips were posted on Monday night, praising him for ‘bringing awareness to real issues’.
‘People should watch and analyse more. Chris highlighted real issues and created awareness. Watch how appreciative Jonah was in the end. Artists, in particularly comedians target real life issues,’ one person wrote.
‘You’re an incredible talent …. so observant of human nature .. don’t change,’ wrote another.
‘I know that nothing you would do would be malicious. I’m behind you all the way. Keep making people laugh,’ another wrote.
Lilley, who has portrayed several racially diverse characters, remained silent following the move to remove his shows.
He is also yet to comment on Mr Mahe’s claims.
Lilley was accused of basing the controversial character Jonah Takalua on the teenager Filipe Mahe (pictured), who appeared in a 2004 ABC documentary about disadvantaged students at a school in Sydney’s west
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)
Resurfaced footage from the documentary titled Our Boys shows striking similarities between Mr Mahe and the character Jonah.
The documentary 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.
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
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 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.
Mr Mahe, who was in Year Nine at the time, was filmed talking back to his teacher and giving her attitude during a lesson
Pictured: Chris Lilley (centre) in his role as Jonah Takalua in his program, Jonah from Tonga
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.
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.’
Kerry Brewster, the woman who produced and directed Our Boys also immediately identified the character in Lilley’s show as Mr Mahe.
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)
Chris Lilley visited Canterbury Boys High after Our Boys aired to conduct research for his upcoming show, Summer Heights High
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’s wife said her husband was ‘hurt and embarrassed’ by the character Jonah from Tonga
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.
‘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.
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’.’