In 2011, we reflected on the development of the Maori film industry, looking at some of the landmark works in Maori film making. The article was published in MANA, and is below.


MANA MAGAZINE THIS MONTH asked me to reflect on the development of the Maori film industry, and in particular pick my five favourite Maori films of all time. My first two thoughts

were to think of the breadth and depth of Maori talent out there, and how difficult it would be to whittle my list down to five. I sat down with my thoughts, and came to arrive at five dramatic features, one short film and a documentary. I listed what are arguably the seven most groundbreaking Maori films, one for each star of Matariki.

With the outstanding exception of Ramai Hayward and her creative marriage to Rudall Hayward, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Maori began to tell their own stories onscreen. NGATI (1987) was the first feature film directed and written by Maori, with a primarily Maori cast. Barry Barclay’s direction paired with Tama Poata’s script presented the archetypal East Coast story, with an ensemble cast lead by Wi Kuki Kaa. Each went on to sustain careers in film, Barry going on to direct three more features and a number of documentary works, Wi Kuki in further features and shorts, his last starring role in River Queen.

The second feature film directed and written by Maori was ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1994). It was a stunner. It broke box office records, and made stars of Rena Owen, Cliff Curtis and Temuera Morrison. On the strength of their performances, this trio of actors were able to seek out and get work in Hollywood, often in ethnic character roles and, curiously, science fiction epics. Director Lee Tamahori has since had ups and downs in Hollywood, but his current upswing is the story of the son of Saddam Hussein, “The Devil’s Double” which premiered at Sundance this year.

The impact of ONCE WERE WARRIORS were cultural and were broad. Lee Tamahori’s adaptation of the Alan Duff novel held nothing back and put a warts and all mirror up to Maori society and the kiwi underclass. The film dealt with issues of gangs, crime, disaffection, rape, sexism, incest and family violence and it sent a powerful message that embracing our traditional Maori culture, living within a tikanga-based whanau-connected framework, is a genuine and real way to escape from this vicious circle.

The cultural impact of Don Selwyn’s MAORI MERCHANT OF VENICE (2002) were similarly significant for our culture, but in a much gentler way. This two and a half hour Shakespeare adaptation silenced doubters and drew fluent Reo speaking audiences to cinemas across the country, the first feature fully scripted and presented in Te Reo Maori. Two years later, Maori Television was launched, and suddenly we had gone from two hours of “ghetto” Sunday morning Reo programming on TVNZ to a whole bilingual channel presenting news, documentaries, talk shows, game shows, sports and karaoke competitions in primetime.

WHALE RIDER (2002) was released not long after Maori Merchant of Venice. Some in the Maori film-making community argue that this is not a Maori film, having been directed by a Pakeha. I tend to agree, but only in one respect. WHALE RIDER is first and foremost a Woman’s film, and then secondly a Maori film. Niki Caro’s adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s children’s book is an uncompromising magical realism feminist fable that sings the song of Tangaroa. It’s worth noting that Niki Caro’s next film was NORTH COUNTRY, a powerful story where Charlize Theron’s character – in the great spirit of Paikea – refused to accept sexual harassment and inequity as a woman.

WHALE RIDER made an Oscar-nominated star and celebrity of Keisha Castle Hughes, following in the teen acting footsteps of Anna Paquin in Jane Campion’s THE PIANO. Keisha has gone on to a number of acting roles in Israel, Australia, and France, including one playing the Virgin Mary, though surprisingly none in a Maori role to date.

Also making an appearance at the Oscars – though asleep at the time – was Taika Waititi. His Oscar-nominated short TWO CARS, ONE NIGHT (2004) finally came to full cinematic fruition with the release of BOY (2010) last year. We played the two films one after the other at a packed Taihoa Marae; and you could see once again that, like a modern-day Maui, Taika had the storytelling gift from day one. BOY’s box office smashing success was a surprise, his continuing ability to capture audiences heart and soul was not. Taika is starring with Ryan Reynolds and Temuera Morrison this June in GREEN LANTERN, and has also just had his television pilot picked up by MTV USA.

The documentary is DAY 507 (1978). We still reel from Merata Mita’s sudden passing a year ago, but the film works that she has left behind are taonga that tell the story of a nation and a generation. Merata bore witness to the eviction of Ngati Whatua from their ancestral land on May 25, 1978, and she chose to record this on film with the support of the people of the land. Riveting, groundbreaking, heartbreaking.

Merata had just returned to Aotearoa to work and produce and mentor many emerging young Maori film makers. And it is there that the legacy must continue. Barry Barclay, Tama Poata, Wi Kuki Kaa, Don Selwyn and Merata Mita, our forebears of Maori film, film-making and storytelling have passed to the spirit world, but the vision persists.

Today, looking at the WAIROA MAORI FILM FESTIVAL programme for 2011, we have the talent, we have the commitment and we have the stories to keep putting ourselves uncompromisingly onscreen. Actors like Temuera Morrison in TRACKER, Pete Smith in HUGH AND HEKE, Rangimoana Taylor in HOOK LINE & SINKER. Director Michael Bennett with his first feature film MATARIKI. New short film directors like Rachel House, Nathaniel Hinde, Tammy Davis and Kararaina Rangihau.

The kaupapa laid down for the WAIROA MAORI FILM FESTIVAL was to celebrate and support Maori film and film making talent, leading the way as indigenous film makers, and striving to achieve as global film makers. We celebrate the achievements of this year’s Maori film and acting community, and look forward to more films in future – a second feature completely in Te Reo, a 3D science fiction fantasy film with Taniwha and Turehu, and another blockbuster from Taika Waititi. GIRL?

- Leo Koziol, Festival Director Wairoa Maori Film Festival