Yesterday, I left Auckland on a ferry over to Waiheke Island with Susi Newborn (of Women In Film and Television New Zealand), filmmaker Briar March and artist Claudine Muru. The Maori women’s film festival kicked off last night, but before that, there was a “mihi” and exhibition at the art gallery in Oneroa, the village where the fest is and where the filmmakers and I are staying. Beautiful paintings and sculptures were on display, and there was a traditional Maori welcome by a group of women which was later followed by a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony to welcome visitors (manuhiri, a word that Wanjiku Sanderson taught me last night — more on her later). Many people were locals, (or the hosts), but the ones who were visitors (including the filmmakers, as well as me), stood outside the gallery in the lobby while the hosts inside issued a formal welcome. This ceremony is done in different places, but historically (as far as I know from what I’ve read) has been done to welcome people onto a marae (community facilities that symbolize Maori identity).
The experience was extraordinary and very powerful. It was an emotional experience for me to listen to the hosts sing as well as one of them (filmmaker Paora Te Oti Takarangi Joseph) stand up and speak in Maori to welcome us and honor us as well as our ancestors. It was an important event in part as Wanjiku Sanderson was there to introduce her late husband’s documentary (made with the renowned, and late Merata Mita), Keskidee Aroha. I was honored to be included in the ceremony. When Paora finished, a response was given by someone representing the manuhiri, then by another from the hosts’ side. The ceremony lasted for what seemed to be about 15 minutes, and was finished by a song from the hosts’ side and the manuhiri greeting the hosts by doing hongi (a traditional Maori greeting of pressing each others’ noses and foreheads together). This blog post doesn’t do justice to how unique and engaging the experience was, but it’s the best I can do!
After some refreshments, we went downstairs to the cinema for the screening. The two films that screened last night were Eel History was a Mystery by Ramai Hayward, and Keskidee Aroha, by Martyn Sanderson and Merata Mita. Eel History was a Mystery was an educational documentary, an early environmental documentary, in fact, that was part of the New Zealand Children’s Film Series. Filmmaker Ella Henry introduced each film (and will screen her Ph.D. thesis film on Sunday); she referred to Hayward’s work in this film as “subversive filmmaking,” because not only did Hayward make a very early environment-focused documentary, she also used it to show her own Maori grandmother sharing traditional knowledge. Ramai Hayward was the first Maori woman to make a film, and there are two representatives of the New Zealand film industry here at the festival (they arranged for the screening of these films), who said a few words. They spoke about the archive as a “home for the moving image of our nation,” its activity of collecting as well as receiving collections, and its mission to “collect, protect, and connect.” (The archive restored Eel History was a Mystery.)
While, as Ella Henry said during the introduction, New Zealand told the world in the 1950′s that they “were a beacon nation for race relations,” (which wasn’t true, in fact), she spoke to the fact that Ramai Hayward’s film represents “who we are as Maori and how we told our stories in the 1950′s.” It’s really an incredible film that transcends the 1950s/60s filmmaking style that it embodied to make a larger point about the environment and about traditional knowledge. (The eel is currently under threat as a species in New Zealand.)
The second film, Keskidee Aroha, was also introduced by Ella who read a few words from co-director Martyn Sanderson’s diary at Wanjiku’s request. It began, “Sam Neill described our films as a ‘cinema of unease,’” and went on to talk about the film. He wrote, “Merata was one of the driving forces behind the project.” The film documented a tour of remote Maori communities in New Zealand by a Black theatre group from London. Wanjiku took the stage to share a few words. Her journey is quite amazing, being from Kenya and moving to London to study drama as a young woman (and auditioning at RADA doing Shakespeare in Kiswahili!), then becoming involved in Keskidee, the first professional Black theatre group in London. (Wanjiku is featured in the film.) She met a man who wanted to bring their performance to New Zealand, and through that experience, she met her future husband, Martyn Sanderson, and also worked with Merata Mita. Wanjiku, speaking about her experience learning about and visiting Maori communities during the tour, said “What we did not have was a base,” and she recognized that the Maori did have a base. In the film it is also spoken about, how the Maori have a community base — the marae — a base that many of the actors in the group realized that they did not have. That resonated with the actors. Wanjiku also spoke to the larger meaning of the film, that “humanity has no color,” and that “these two people — Martyn and Merata — made me who I am.” She began and ended her comments with a song, and I know her words must have been as powerful for all the other people in the audience as they were for me.