DECOLONISING THE SPIRIT

DECOLONISING THE SPIRIT

 

By Leo Koziol, Festival Director, Wairoa Māori Film Festival

 

A curated collection of Maori Made and Maori Themed Shorts Films

Selection for Rochefort Pacifique Festival of Cinema & Literature 2015

 

Tihei Mauriora!

Ka Tangi Te Titi!

Ka Tangi Te Kaka!

Ka Tangi Hoki Ko Au!

 

The breath of life!

The Titi bird sings in the sea!

The Kaka bird sings in the forest!

The song and cry of life heralds to the universe!

 

Ko Leo Koziol taku ingoa

Ko Ngati Kahungunu te Iwi

Ko Rakaipaaka te Hapu

Ko Moumoukai te Maunga

 

Ko Nuhaka Te Awa

Ko Nuhaka Te Kainga

Ko Kahungunu Te Marae

Te Roopu Whakaata Maori I Te Wairoa i te Moemoea!

 

I am Leo Koziol of the Kahungunu tribe

My sub tribe is Rakaipaaka

My mountain is Moumoukai

My river and village is Nuhaka

My meeting house is Kahungunu Marae

 

There we live the dream every year of the Wairoa Maori Film Festival!

 

I bring with me here to Rochefort, France, Europe, the dreams and visions of our Maori people of Aotearoa New Zealand, the Tangata Whenua people of the land!

 

We celebrate Tangata Maori film making – stories of the collective culture of our islands and society that are identifiable as Maori, stories from our many tribes across our many islands, a people now collectively known in the modern western colonised world as Māori!

 

Every year for the past decade, we have gathered in Wairoa to screen and purview the best of new Maori film making – new storytelling on screen. We are fortunate in our country to have an arts positive agency in the form of the New Zealand Film Commission – and I acknowledge Witi Ihimaera, our esteemed fellow guest and board member of the commission – this commission funds on an ongoing basis film making and storytelling in our country and their record of support and funding for Maori tales in recent times is strong.

 

So this collection of short films is presented to you all here this week. Maori films that reflect what it means to be MAORI NOW – to be of FREE SPIRIT to celebrate the culture and traditions we hold dear, to be of ACTIVIST SPIRIT to reflect on the journey we have travelled in facing the challenge of our cultural colonisation, and to be of OPEN SPIRIT attuned to the deeper elements and heart of Papatuanuku – our great Earth Mother – and Ranginui – our great Sky Father!

 

My tribe is Ngati Kahungunu, and my village is Nuhaka. In the shadow of Moumoukai mountain our great ancestor Rakaipaaka settled, and we now are a proud and independent sub tribe in our hidden valley. Kahungunu was protagonist in one of Maoridom’s greatest love stories, he stole the heart of Rongomaiwahine from neighbouring Mahia and from this love our energy and stories was borne.

 

Our mantra in all of time has been Make Love, Not War. Kahungunu's children set forth into battle only reluctantly, and then often times for reasons of romance, not vengeance. Kahungunu's eldest son Kahukuranui set forth into battle to win the hand of the woman who would become his wife, Tu Teihonga, his task to bring her the man who had murdered her first husband. Kahukuranui succeeded, and a love was borne, and the first child of this love was Rakaipaaka, chieftain ancestor of my village.

 

From this seed that spread outwards came the story of Te Huki, who strategically married his children across the land to create a stronghold for Kahungunutanga. The story of Mahinarangi, who wooed Tainui chief Turongo with the scent of oiled Kawakawa leaves, bringing peace between two great warring tribes, and establishing the strong and culturally rich Ngati Raukawa tribe of today.

 

But my job here today is not to tell you stories and tales of my tribe (though I think very much they would make great films!). My job here today is to honour the stories and tales of other tribes, stories put onto screen in a selection of films screening this week at Rochefort Pacifique.

 

FREE SPIRIT

 

Before Aotearoa, came Hawaiiki. It is readily acknowledge by many that the shores of Rarotonga are where the many great canoe set off for Aotearoa, my line of ancestry coming from the Takitimu canoe, a canoe of Tohunga, of tapu (sacred) males who intermarried with those who came before (some of them their own relatives) to establish tribes from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South.

 

Maori film maker from Ngapuhi, Lennie Hill, independently funded and made FOOTSTEPS, a realisation on screen of an ancient story of the Cook Islands people, the people of Rarotonga and their many neighbouring islands. In the film, a young boy and his father are threatened by an enemy canoe, so they make chase to the nearest island where the father cleverly covers his son’s footsteps with his own, and then hides his son up a tree. Alas, the father is murdered and the son can only look by in silence and grieve his father's loss. He wraps his father's body in leaves and takes him out to sea, out to Tangaroa from whence he came. As they filmed this movie, the sacred fish of the Cook Islands people swam in, believed by people of this tribe to be the spirits of departed souls returning. Lennie Hill filmed this work on site on the island of Aitutaki, with untrained actors retelling a tribal story of their own people.

 

Rebecca Collins, also from Ngapuhi, translates a story in the inter-times, when Maori were beginning to be colonised and traditional TOHUNGA (shamen, witch doctor, spirit doctor) practices were beginning to be suppressed. A young boy is ill, a paean to the story of NGATI by the great rangatira of film making Barry Barclay. He lays in bed until one of the Aunties realises perhaps the Tohunga can help. The film is a window into another world and another time; the story, of Ngapuhi and of Hokianga, is told in the Hokianga, and the landscape and light of the place is still alive and on screen. The Tohunga comes, and we bea witness to a sacred spiritual practice, one which, as we learn at the end of the film, English colonising authorities were already taking actions to suppress.

 

These two films are windows into a world, a world now long gone. Because the writing was on the wall, and the march of colonisation was on its way.

 

ACTIVIST SPIRIT

 

The triple threat of land theft, religious conversion and cultural belittlement is explored in the next clutch of films.

 

In Richard Curtis’ AHI KA a young girl sets up camp to ward off and fool the surveyors. Following the principle of "terra nullis" (empty land) land surveyors of the time would peg out and claim ownership of land that had no demonstrable existence of residence. So, in a true story, a young girl sets up camp, lights a fire (the “ahi ka” or flame of occupation) and demonstrates a very early example of the Maori activist spirit.

 

In PUMANAWA and URU, both of our protagonists find the activist spirit in them to rebel against both Christianity and western cultural superiority.

 

In Poata Eruera’s PUMANAWA, Mere is deemed as unworthy of her deeply Christian husband, he asks God to forgive her for her "fallen" nature and so she runs away only to be symbolically crowned by thorns of a barb wire fence. Mere finds her spiritual strength to follow her true self in the ghost spirits of her ancestors that she constantly sees and honours by making traditional "Texas Bread." At the end of the film, this tradition continues with her daughter, and the circle is closed.

 

In Hiona Henare's URU, the character of Uru has turned her back on Maori ways and traditions. She has found the love of a white man, and her mannerisms and speech have been colonised, she belittles her sister’s use of the Maori language and activist belief in traditional culture, she has no interest in going along to the belittled "women's hui."

 

Then halfway through the film something turns. The death in childbirth of her handmaiden reminds URU of the time she lost her child in miscarriage, wandering lost in a dream in the forest she sees her past self where she is burying in ritual her lost baby, returning baby to papatuanuku the earth mother.

 

By the end she is transformed, in a literal water ritual she becomes the barefoot Maori woman activist at the end of the film, imbued with "Ihi" a force from outside of herself that deeply remembers who she is and where she comes from.

 

As an aside, Hiona Henare's URU is actually based on a real speech present to a Māori women’s welfare hui in the 1800s of Ngāti Kahungunu women, with the closing speech being the words of the speech presented in real life in the past. The outcome of this hui was the establish of the New Zealand Māori Women’s Welfare League dedicated to supporting women and families in health, welfare and care.

 

OPEN SPIRIT

 

I end this conversation with a discussion on three contemporary shorts, BUTTERFLY, INC'D and IN THE RUBBISH TIN. These three contemporary tales share the theme of struggling to retain a free and open spirit in the face of adversity and the challenges of modern life.

 

Young Kiri in BUTTERFLY is teenage and pregnant, we don't know who the father is, but it is hinted that it is her stepfather. Present day Kiri is pregnant and knows this new child will be redemption for her of "the one that got away" the baby they came in to her life but just wasn't meant to be.

 

Kiri is estranged from her family back home – her mother is white, so one assumes her birth father was Maori – so she finds solace and family in the Kapa Haka group. She is open and proud in spirit on the stage when she is performing the poi, she knows the one who cannot stay is inside her and she is proud.

 

That Kiri is able to open in spirit in the face of such adversity, proud that a little spirit dwells inside her as she performs on the stage, a spirit she knows is destined to leave, is a reflection of an ability to achieve a decolonisation of the spirit.

 

Alas the lead character in Riwia Brown’s IN THE RUBBISH TIN does not have the same ability to find strength in adversity. Pippa is a latchkey kid, left at home alone on the day of her birthday, she wanders the street until she finds she has to find shelter from the rain in – of all places – the rubbish tin. Yet the strength she finds in adversity is able to shine, the resilience of a child aware of the fear of the world – her only friend a dog-eared teddy bear – the sense is that Pippa will persevere and continue to see hope and light in the world.

 

The film is a highly collaborative work, the animation by the Pakeha Simmonds brothers, based on a short story by Apirana Taylor. INC’D isa another work of collaboration between Maori and non-Maori / Paheka film makers. It controversially took the Best Short Film – Audience Award at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival last year, and it is a work of film I would view as being a Pakeha film – a film that decolonizes the Pakeha spirit by holding a mirror up to the prejudices and conventions of present day mainstream NZ and Australian culture.

 

Gary is rich and successful, a corporate ladder climber working in Australia. He has to go home for his father’s tangi (funeral) and there the wero (challenge) is laid down:

 

Ko tenei te turangawaewae

Ko tenei to iwi

Ko tenei to marae

 

This is your land

This is your tribe

This is your marae

 

Gary must take a transformative step to acknowledge the handing down of the Rangatira (chiefly) line, and he does so by the receiving of the ta moko – the tattooing of the face in Maori tradition.

 

He returns to Sydney, and faces the consequence. His corporate bosses send him packing quickly out the door. But he can return to his people, to his forgotten daughter, to Aotearoa where ta moko is no longer a barrier to employment.

 

One imagines two other dream versions of this film. One, where, like a stock lawsuit drama – think “Philadelphia” or  “North Country” or  “Erin Brockovich” – Gary takes his court case to the human rights commission and wins his case to express his culture in the tradition of his people, and at the end of the film he gets a high powered CEO role at a Japanese corporation, where his new board are all tatted-up Yakuza chiefs.

 

The other, I imagine a young Maori Member of Parliament in the 1930s, still has a tattoo on his arm, goes to the Maori Committee Chambers in Wellington, and his wife absentmindedly only irons a short sleeve shirt. On a hot January Wellington day, the Chairman of the Committee – no doubt, an Englishman – says “Gentleman, I give you permission to remove your jackets,” such was the tradition of the time. The poor 1930s Gary is berated repeatedly, until mopping his heavy brow, he removes his jacket to a universal “gasp” from everyone in the room when they see his ta moko – on his arm.

 

The director and producer of INC’D have held up a mirror to Pakeha attitudes to Maori culture. Gary and other young successful Maori can wear Ta Moko with pride and respect, an outward reflection of the deep confidence held within. It’s the Pakeha culture – be it Invercargill, Auckland or Sydney – that needs to adjust and live within a bicultural (Aotearoa) or multicultural (Australia) framework for society to grow, and indeed, decolonize its spirit.

 

A coda – the Producer of the film, Ian Bowmer, made sure the Maori consultation on his film with Darren Simmonds was strong . This involved a script advisory with Brad Haami, and cultural consultation with Cyril Gilroy from the marae in Invercargill. The lead actor, Rob Mokaraka, made substantial input into the cultural storytelling of the film, and was tagged on as a Creative Producer.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The paradox of our age is that the more technology pushes us apart, the more it demands us to come together to remember the fundamentals of the communal experience. We can watch film as a stranger in a cinema or alone on a big screen television in isolation, but when we watch films collectively there is a different energy of purpose.

 

This energy of purpose is about embracing notions of community: be it the community of a small village such as Nuhaka, or the global village of indigenous film makers who flock to our festival each year. This energy of purpose is about embracing the indigenous frequencies that are a commonality between all peoples with a strong connection to the Earth and the Universe, to Papatuanuku and Ranginui.

 

Attune to these frequencies, and you can commence the process of decolonizing your spirit. Sit through a collection of Maori-themed short films, in all their postmodern diversity, and you find a slow awakening of both spirit and dreaming.

 

I spoke with Maori academic Dr Pat Hohepa recently about the people of French Polynesia and their fascination with Aotearoa. He said they see us – Maori of New Zealand – as a "Hawaiiki Hou," or a "New Hawaiiki." The collection of Māori directed and Māori themed short films presented in the collection here at Rochefort Pacifique tell us yes, Ka Pai, a New Hawaiiki is Borne.

 

- Leo Koziol, Ngati Rakaipaaka, Ngati Kahungunu

Rue Pierre Loti, Rochefort, France, March 2015