A waiata, a betrayal, a surprise and a good deed: 2nd Night at the Maori women’s film festival

Four short films screened on the second night of Whiti Whitiāhua Wāhine, the Matariki Maori women’s film festival, each very different from the other.  But first, university instructor and filmmaker, Ella Henry, talks about this first ever Maori women’s film festival!

The first film to screen was Kararaina Rangihau’s Taku Rakāu e, a narrative short that tells the story of a young girl who wants to know the meaning behind a waiata she is taught to sing.  (A waiata is a Maori song which preserves the wisdom and knowledge of ancestors.)   Her grandmother sits with her and tells her the story.  As Kararaina explains in the video below, the waiata was “written” (the Maori have an oral tradition) in the mid-1800’s by a woman named Mihikitekapua.  Kararaina pointed out that although the song is about a man, she as a filmmaker told the story of Mihikitekapua instead!  She has flipped the story a bit on its head to bring the woman’s story to the fore, and it resonated very well with the audience.  One woman in the audience stood up after the screening and talked about how she learned to sing this waiata as a child and how amazing it was to see the story of Mihikitekapua told.

Kararaina spoke about growing up and learning this waiata (and forgive me, but she used a lot of Maori language in her introduction, so I don’t entirely understand or know exactly what she said), and how her passion for the meaning of the waiata grew over the years.  The historical and cultural significance of it was important to her.  The famous late filmmaker, Merata Mita, produced Taku Rakau e but passed away during the process of making it.  About the film, Kararaina said that it took awhile to make and that “it should never take two years to write a short film,” but that “Merata Mita [my mentor] showed me how.  It wasn’t a straight road.”  She went on to say “I’ve learned a lot about myself and who I am.”  Kararaina dedicated her film to the memory of Mihikitekapua and included a dedication to Merata Mita in the end credits.

Kararaina’s interest is in telling stories in Maori and helping to foster the life of the Maori language.  (She will be taking her film to the National Geographic All Roads Project this September in Washington, DC, USA.) It was a major education chatting with her and filmmaker Ella Henry this morning on the ferry, and I really appreciate them letting me ask them so many questions off camera!  Watch a video of Kararaina Rangihau below talking about her work and later in the post, Ella Henry talking about Merata Mita.

The second film to screen was Katie Wolfe’s This is Her, a comedy with some dark undertones of resentment, bitterness and revenge!  (Wolfe couldn’t make it to the festival, unfortunately.)  The film starts off with a woman in sexual ecstasy, then moves on to show her in labor in the hospital.  The story revolves around her recalling giving birth to her child (with husband at her side) while she also narrates the story of how their relationship fell apart after he met a much younger woman.  The woman is shown as a child and the narration goes: “This is the bitch” (who will grow up and take her husband away).  Funny and bitter, much like life!

The third film to screen was The Winter Boy, directed by Rachel House who introduced the film.  Again, she is another filmmaker at this festival who has worked with Merata Mita.  She talked about how she lost her editor during the film and decided to recut the picture.  She talked to Mita about it, and Mita said to do it how she wanted it to be and to “stand by your work.”  At the end of the introduction, Rachel said, “So here I am, standing by my work.”  It’s an interesting film which seems to direct you down a path that is totally different from the path the film ends up taking.  I was surprised by the film as its tone is one of panic as a mother loses her son at an aquarium, but moves into one that is a bit mysterious, then at the end, one that’s funny and joyous.  It’s an interesting dramatic arc with some questions left unanswered.  To a question asked by an audience member, Rachel said that she liked that there were some unanswered things in the film.  (By the way, if you don’t know Rachel House by name, you may know her by her films, including Eagle vs. Shark — a classic, and one of my favorites ever — and Boy, both successful New Zealand films which have also seen a lot of success outside of New Zealand.)

And finally, the fourth film to screen was Ebony Society.  While it’s directed by a male director, Tammy Davis (also an actor on the successful Kiwi series “Outrageous Fortune”), it is produced by Ainsley Gardiner.  And if you don’t know who she is, she produced Eagle vs. Shark, Boy and other films.  Gardiner co-owns Whenua Films which she co-founded several years ago with actor Cliff Curtis, whom you have seen in tons of movies.  (She’s someone whose work I try to follow and someone I look up to much like I do Nira Park in the U.K. who’s produced some of the best comedy to come out of England in the past 15 years.)  This is a lovely film about two teenage (or early 20’s?) boys who break into a house around Christmas time.  They find that there is a baby and a very young boy left alone at night in the house.  While they meant to rob the place, they find they can’t leave these kids by themselves and decide to stay and watch them while their parents are out.  It has a good heart and some funny lines, an interesting and sweet story.

Unfortunately and disappointingly, I became ill during the festival and missed the third night of screenings.  Ella Henry screened her Ph.D. thesis film called Wairua Auaha (meaning something akin to “creative spirit” as she explained to me), which is about “emancipatory Maori entrepreneurship in screen production.”  Sounds great, and I’ll be watching it soon!  Also, two episodes of the series “Songs from the Inside” screened.  This is a successful Maori Television series which follows four Kiwi musicians as they teach songwriting to prison inmates. (I wish I could’ve been there!)

A powhiri and screening: 1st night at Maori women’s film festival

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).

Leaving Auckland for Waiheke Island

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!

On the ferry with filmmaker Briar March (left), artist Claudine Muru (middle) and WIFTNZ’s Susi Newborn (right)

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 MitaEel 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.)

Keskidee Aroha (by Martyn Sanderson and Merata Mita)

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.

Merata Mita

I’d be remiss if I didn’t post something about the late filmmaker, Merata Mita, a true pioneer, a force within the New Zealand film industry and the second Maori woman to direct a feature.  She died on May 31, 2010, in Auckland, New Zealand.  Mita was co-producer of the recently released film, Boy (Taika Waititi, dir.), the highest-grossing New Zealand film to date.  It played at Sundance 2010.

Biography by NZ On Screen

Patu! (documentary by Merata Mita – watch online)


One filmmaker’s homage on Horiwood

Tributes in the NZ Herald

Tribute on Ophelia Thinks Hard

TangataWhenua.com – Maori News & Indigenous Views