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BSS2017: Keynotes

It’s perhaps unusual to have two sessions of keynote speeches in one symposium. It’s also relatively unusual for a keynote session to consist of a group of speakers rather than just one, which was the case with both keynote sessions in the Big Screen Symposium this year – but it turned out to be a good move – twice.

Since both keynote sessions were programmed as addressing the symposium’s theme of “Authenticity and Pretence”, we might have wondered beforehand what might differentiate them – the printed programme didn’t tell us, nor did it tell us who the participants would be in each session.

It turned out that the second session on Sunday morning was devoted to young (or perhaps, youngish) Maori speakers. Authentic they certainly were, and completely lacking in pretence, in the strength of their passion at least.

The big question for actor (and recently director) Miriama McDowell was how to get more rehearsal time into the filmmaking process.

She attributed her best actress awards to having three weeks of rehearsal for her film The Great Maiden’s Blush. The newly-released Waru also benefited hugely from the more than usual amount of rehearsal.

“We never expect an actor to turn up to a theatre opening night totally unrehearsed, so why do we expect it of film actors?”

Short film maker Todd Karehana became quite emotional during his turn at the lecturn. He’d been challenged by a tutor to confront issues in his filmmaking, and that’s what he’s done with his new 15-minute piece My Brother Mitchell. As well as telling an intriguing and emotionally involving story, the film is also a cathartic exploration of what Todd himself experienced as a 12-year-old, when his younger brother Mitchell passed away.

Todd discussed the real elements, places and memories that are incorporated into the film, but also how some elements were altered in order to convey and emphasise a deeper symbolism. An example of this was the rope tied to a hand-made bier (rather than a metal bar handle of a trolley) used to drag the body of his younger brother through a desolate landscape.

He also spoke of his initial intention to use their middle names for his characters in the script, but then decided not to – authenticity and honesty demanded that he use the names they were actually known by in life.

“There is nothing better than tikanga to show us the way (in our filmmaking), especially when dealing with death,” suggested moderator, Tainui Stephens.

Jessica Hansell, initially better known as the rapper Coco Solid, is increasingly recognised as a screenwriter and comedian. She combines both these roles in the new sketch comedy series on Maori Television, Only in Aotearoa available on demand. She is also a poet, and essayist, and she wrote, drew and voiced an animated web comedy, Aroha Bridge. She is now involved in a writing collective, with Madeleine Sami, Taika Waititi, Oscar Kightley and Victor Rodger.

She has taken on this multiplicity of roles and identities simply in order to survive in the business. But she finds there is considerable difficulty in finding authenticity in all these different roles.

“Authenticity is acknowledging the flux and uncertainty of what I do. Pretence in the industry is when you’re telling stories that are not yours to tell.”

Searching, striving for perfection, is part of “finding a way to make the internal tectonic plates connect”.

Anchoring herself to the service of helping others to tell their stories is another route to authenticity for her, as is using the avatars of whakapapa.

After Hansell had drawn lots of big laughs from us as she made her serious points, a friend next to me said simply, “Stunning speaker!”

Michael Bennett, award winner for his short film Cow and writer/director of the underrated feature Matariki, rounded out the session discussing the adaptation of his recent book In Dark Places into a feature film, which will start shooting later this month.

If you can’t wait for the film, read the book. Despite the fact that we all know the outcome, it is a surprisingly rivetting read. Bennett uses very short, sharp sentences which drive the energy and urgency of the story in an unexpected way. Quite a different style to his speaking voice. It’s a genuine page-turner.



In Dark Places tells how a teenage Teina Pora either naïvely, gullibly confessed to the rape and murder of Susan Burdett, or was conned and trapped by unethical police into being convicted – either way, the unrecognized victim of foetal alcohol syndrome. It details the struggle, after Teina’s more than 20 years in prison, leading all the way to the Privy Council, which finally freed him. Bennett was intimately and intricately involved in the campaign to free Teina, and his presentation was therefore unsurprisingly rather passionate.

He was strongly advised by a respected documentary maker to “Stay objective”. Bennett: “It was good advice I couldn’t take.”

As Tainui Stephens concluded: “An epic example of authenticity of emotion.”

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