After the documentary screened, Lilley came to the school, sat in classes, watched a Tongan dance performance and, when Summer Heights High became a hit on the ABC in 2007, Jonah was one of the featured characters in the edgy mockumentary.
Like Mahe, Jonah was charismatic, cheeky, had trouble reading and could dance. And there were other similarities.
Both came from single-parent families. Both were popular and had caring teachers sending them to a centre for remedial reading.
They even had a cheeky phrase in common. In Our Boys, Mahe discreetly asks a friend giving him a hard time in Tongan whether she is having her period. Jonah asks the same in English of a teacher giving him a hard time.
But while Mahe really was Tongan, Lilley wore make-up to play a Tongan in a series he described as being created to make viewers laugh while exposing prejudice and bigotry.
Mahe, now 33, only watched Summer Heights High when he arrived back in Sydney from a trip in 2008 and took it personally. He said he was “absolutely embarrassed, full of hate, angry and exploited” by what he saw.
“I knew from that episode Jonah was me,” he said.
But Mahe never knew how to respond, either then or when Jonah From Tonga followed in 2014.
“I’ve always thought it was racism to Tongans but never spoke out,” he said. “I would have been labelled a ‘sook’ or ‘can’t handle the banter’ so I didn’t say anything.”
While there were crucial differences – the comic creation was angrier and ruder and the fictional school also featured satirical characters Mr G and Ja’mai – Mahe says his family and friends have always had no doubt that Jonah is based on him.
The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age approached Lilley and producer Laura Waters for comment through Princess Pictures but they had not responded by press time.
Lilley has previously talked of visiting a number of schools to research Summer Heights High and spoken of his affection for Jonah, comparing his struggles at school to his own.
“I met lots of boys who are of that age group and I just found them hilarious,” he said. “I loved the idea of the naughty schoolboy and it just evolved from that.”
The director of Our Boys, journalist Kerry Brewster, said she was “really angry” watching Summer Heights High – also convinced that Jonah was Filipe – and remembers the school’s Pacific Islander boys were mortified.
“Our Boys lifted its subjects up, showing their complicated real selves,” she said. “For Filipe, who was a vulnerable child, it took courage and enormous trust.
“He paid a terrible price when Lilley exploited him, even if he just meant it for comic effect, to create the derisive brown-face caricature. Its mocking portrayal of Jonah was racist and cruel.”
Daryl Currie, who was then head English teacher at Canterbury Boys High, said he was “livid” after watching Summer Heights High.
“[I was] shocked by the use of brown face, which I thought was inappropriate, disappointed that this representation was not in keeping with my experience of teaching students of Pacific Islander background and angered by the fact that students were reduced to stereotypes and tropes that were hurtful and misleading,” he said.
On whether Jonah was based on Mahe, Currie said he did not know how Lilley had created the character but recognised similarities: “I have no direct [evidence] but I completely understand why Filipe feels that way.”
When Our Boys was filmed, Mahe was struggling after his father’s death in a car accident, his mother’s health issues confined her to a wheelchair, his younger sister had epilepsy and he only discovered later that he was dyslexic. While he has since made a success of his life, he still feels exploited by Lilley.
“He tore me down when I was vulnerable,” he said. “I agreed to be documented [in Our Boys] to show other boys that it will all be OK. We’ll struggle but we’ll get somewhere and make it. I didn’t get filmed to be made fun of.”
He is also upset by the cheeky way Jonah spoke to his parents.
“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.”
While Lilley has been widely acclaimed for his comic brilliance, several of his comic characters have been accused of being racist portrayals over the years. Mahe believes it has taken the Black Lives Matter protests to make Australians aware of how offensive Jonah is, and he is especially upset on behalf of the Tongan community.
“Young Tongan boys have been stereotyped as dumb, clowns, a nuisance, little shits, violent and foul-mouthed,” he said. “I feel like I’m responsible for this stereotype and that hurts the most.
“It hurts that people think I spoke in that manner to the public or to my family. I’m upset that people think I’m dumb or uneducated. I’m upset at how people think of me.”
Mahe agrees with Netflix’s decision to remove the series – “Tongans don’t need to be stereotyped all over the world or judged” – and he would like to see Lilley make a respectful documentary on Tongans and donate some of the profits from his series to a Tongan community or a dyslexia organisation.
When Summer Heights High first screened, an ABC representative said it had been written “with the utmost care to ensure the targets of the humour are characters like drama teacher Mr G. It is his bigotry and prejudices which are exposed and maligned by the program”.
Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.