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BSS 2014: on Māori filmmaking

Tainui Stephens, Waihoroi Shortland and John Barnett discussed the Māori contribution to NZ film, its stories, people and attitudes, in a session that raised plenty of questions with few easy answers.

The panel

Panel (l – r): John Barnett, Tainui Stephens, Waihoroi Shortland; and moderator Jennifer Ward-Lealand

Jennifer Ward-Lealand shaped the discussion, demonstrating an enviable level of comfort speaking te reo Māori.

Kicking off with the trailer for The Dead Lands, on which Stephens was a producer, it was noted that it was – to the best of everybody’s recollection – the first pre-European tale to be told since Barry Barclay’s Feathers of Peace (which also featured Lawrence Makaore).

Why, mused Ward-Lealand? And why now? Stephens reckoned there was no particular reason. “Every title has its own journey.”

There’s a strong tradition of successful Māori titles … Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, Boy, last year’s Mt Zion, this year’s The Dark Horse … Why are they so successful?

The question was a tricky one for a number of reasons. For starters, it didn’t acknowledge that there were plenty of equally Māori titles, just as steeped in the culture, that hadn’t been nearly as successful. Even ignoring that, John Barnett raised the question of whether those successful titles were, indeed, “Māori”.

They were, he claimed, universal stories or stories with universal themes, told from a very culturally specific POV. As much of their international success might be attributed to an audience’s ability to connect with those universal themes as to other factors.

In a roundabout way, Shortland agreed, suggesting that the stories weren’t truly Māori because, for example, sometimes the price wasn’t being paid. In Whale Rider, for example, he suggested either Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) or Koro (Rawiri Paratene) needed to die.

So, how could one define a Māori film? Stephens said it was “a question that should be asked but cannot be answered”, which seemed a fair assessment. “For me, it’s an unafraidness. maybe it’s a frame of mind.”

Whatever the truth, and one suspects it’s a discussion that could go round in circles for a very long time before running out of steam, there’s greater input of Māori into the storytelling and filmmaking process than previously – which benefitted everybody.

“We were an interesting backdrop to someone else’s story,” noted Shortland, citing films such as The Piano on which Shortland had been cultural advisor. “Now we are the story.”

Shortland laid out one of the major concerns during his lifetime as being: what next? What would happen to Māori children if they couldn’t hear and tell their own stories? Now they have stories, they have the craft to tell them (in film).

From his own childhood, Shortland recalled the stories his father used to tell, of the walking dead and relatives putting a shotgun in a corpse’s hands and telling them to go and exact utu. “I always checked inside the coffin at a tangi,” he noted.

From the walking dead it was but a small step to vampires, and Shortland was happy to acknowledge Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows as a Māori film. He also praised Waititi (who was in the audience) for his success and acknowledged that in being successful, it also created expectation. “Sometimes you get the burden of having to pull the rest of us along with you, Taika.”

It was noted that a number of the recent Māori titles, including the upcoming The Dead Lands, had been made by non-Māori. How much of an issue was that for Māori?

Stephens believed that, somewhere in the mix of what was happening, it was important for Māori to be able to tell Māori stories to Māori, but the consensus was that it always came down to respect – and that respect was universal.

Whale Rider and White Lies had non-Māori directors and, in the case of the latter, a non-NZ director. White Lies was, suggested Barnett, couldn’t be claimed as a Māori story, since writer Witi Ihimaera created it from a mix of his own experiences and the life story of actress Merle Oberon and her denial of her own (racial) heritage.

For Barnett, it fell into the “universal story, culturally specific lens” category. The story as told was set in Māori culture, and Mexican director Dana Rotberg had been respectful of that.

Shortland also acknowledged the importance of respect noting that, when he’d done the Māori Merchant of Venice in 2002, “We had to do it well enough to honour the original author.”

Stephens suggested it was important to show respect and observe the processes that were culturally important to Māori. Barnett agreed, but suggested that wasn’t sufficient. “If it doesn’t reach an audience then respect and process isn’t enough.”

Citing The Pa Boys, Barnett suggested that while the tikanga of making the film might have been right, it was unfair to the people involved that there wasn’t sufficient effort put into the release to draw larger audiences to it.”

Attending the BSS for Nga Aho Whakaari, Kath Akuhata-Brown wrote in her report, “We no longer need to identify ourselves as being Māori Filmmakers or what is a Māori Film … We are Māori. We make Films. That is all.”

Like all relationships, Shortland believed that the relationships between Māori and others, between Māori and filmmaking, were not static situations but developing relationships. “There’s still a challenge for us all to learn how.”

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