In the Maoriland Film Festival program notes, the mihi or welcome dedicated the inaugural festival to the memory of Aunty Borgia, a formidable figure in the local Maori community who appeared onscreen in one of the festival’s most warmly received films, The Lawnmower Men of Kapu. One of 55 short films programmed alongside nine features, Lawnmower Men is a communal comedy, made by festival director, Libby Hakaraia, in collaboration with members of her iwi and extended family. Lawnmower Men addresses the problem of maintaining Maori culture by spinning a tall tale about an older generation of aunties conning the next generation of headstrong men into caring for the marae before it falls into disrepair. The film not only puts Aunty Borgia and Maori comedy on screen, it epitomises two distinctive features of the festival: the good-humoured participation of Otaki’s Maori community, from the very old to the very young, in all aspects of the festival; and the warm embrace by that community of the films, filmmakers and audiences who made their way to a small town on the Kapiti coast, an hour north of Wellington, for five days of screenings and discussions with filmmakers from Australia, Canada, the US, Samoa and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The opportunity to see Indigenous films and to listen to Indigenous filmmakers in this transnational context recognises the current shift of Indigenous cinema from the margins to the centre of screen culture in settler colonial nations.
While most film festivals open with a prestigious film followed by a gala party for eminent guests, sponsors and the A-list, the Maoriland Film Festival opened on an overcast Wednesday morning with the manuwhiri or visitors assembling outside the Raukawa Marae for the powhiri, a call and response ceremony which bids guests many times welcome – followed by every member of the marae greeting each visitor with a hongi and a handshake, and then a cup of tea and cake. With everyone welcomed and acknowledged, the opening sessions commenced in the whare nui or carved ancestral meeting house. The whare nui provided an appropriate cultural context for the first screening: a compilation of archival footage of Ngati Raukawa, starting with Historic Otaki (1921). The compilation included shots of audiences watching the original footage in Raukawa whare nui when it was first reclaimed from the archives a decade ago. During the Maoriland festival screening, audience responses of laughter and recognition were again filmed, emphasising the importance of film images to memory, identity and community. The second film, Mana Waka (1990), drew on restored footage of the process of building waka taua or war canoes in preparation for the 1940 centennial of the Waitangi Treaty. The production of Mana Waka from restored negatives involved close collaboration between three significant industry figures: director Merata Mita, editor Annie Collins and NZ Film Archive director Jonathan Dennis. The decision to open the Maoriland Film Festival in the Raukawa Marae with archival films foregrounds the political context of the festival: the survival of iwi and the Waitangi Treaty of 1840 as the bedrock for new cultural initiatives (including Maori Television which celebrated its 10th anniversary during the festival).
While the opening sessions might sound more like a film history conference than a film festival, just down the road, the reggae-road movie, The Pa Boys (Himiona Grace, 2014) was screening to a large group of students at the Nga Purapura, an impressive, architecturally designed sports and health centre initiated by Te Wananga o Raukawa, the tikanga Maori university in Otaki. The Pa Boys was one of four male-focused, coming-of-age films screened at the festival, ahead of Shopping (Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland, 2013), Mt Zion (Tearepa Kahi, 2013), and the father-son, comedy classic Boy (Taika Waititi, 2010) whose director was put on trial ‘for crimes against filmmaking’ in front of an appreciative audience. The Pa Boys starts as a domestic melodrama set in Wellington’s hilly streets, before it mutates into a reggae-road movie, a ghost story and, finally, a quest which involves the lifting of an intergenerational curse and the resolution of domestic troubles faced by the main character in relation to his ex-partner, his young son and his mother-in-law. Ten years in the making, The Pa Boys is an episodic film where the loose-knit narrative is punctuated by impromptu musical performances. This structure disrupts the conventional coming-of-age plot, subverting expectations and suggesting that the contemporary Maori world unfolding on screen is less transparent and knowable than it first appears. The ending is both poignant and hilarious, accepting the curse of tradition while breaking it with a little podiatry. It proposes that not-quite-knowing where Maori tradition ends and boyish hocus-pocus begins is a good way to circumvent clichés and keep audiences on their toes.
In between The Pa Boys and Shopping, the festival celebrated another piece of film history, Don Selwyn’s 2002 Shakespearean classic, Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Weniti (The Maori Merchant of Venice). Honouring Selwyn’s role in Maori theatre, television and film training, acting, producing and directing, the film was screened in Rangiatea church which looks like an Anglican church on the outside but inside is adorned with Maori designs and features prayers written in Maori. The famous Maori war chief, Te Rauparaha, instructed his followers to build Rangiatea in 1850 when the domination of NZ by Maori was at an end and the missionaries were promoting peace as the only way forward for warrior Maori. It was a fitting venue for Selwyn’s last major film which included an all Maori cast delivering Shakespeare in the Maori language while dressed in a mix of Shakespearean costumes and fine Maori cloaks of flax and feathers. Tribute was paid to Don Selwyn’s mentoring of a generation of Maori filmmakers and actors while also paying tribute to Don’s mentors who lay in the cemetery outside the church, including the great NZ opera singer, Inia Te Wiata, and actor, Martyn Sanderson. Perhaps it was no accident then that the entire audio soundtrack of the film was heard across the cemetery, broadcast on the church’s outdoor speakers.
As a place of learning for Maori, the Rangiatea Church was a fitting venue for the festival’s keynote address, titled “A Whakapapa of Maori Film”, by Tainui Stephens. Drawing on 30 years of experience in the New Zealand film and television industry, Stephens reminded the audience of the substantial history of films and filmmakers that comprise a cinema of Maori survival. With extensive clips from classics such as Rewi’s Last Stand, Ngati, Patu, Once Were Warriors and Whalerider, Stephens made a strong case for the diversity of Maori presence on screen, honouring stalwart advocates of Maori language, tradition and stories (including Barry Barclay and Merata Mita), while recognising the achievements of more controversial films, including Once Were Warriors and Whalerider.
Tainui Stephen’s focus on Maori achievements, rather than questions of cultural authenticity, was an important aspect of the sessions programmed for schools, with filmmakers and actors engaging young audiences on the rewards of filmmaking as well as the obstacles to be overcome. To this end, the festival included a program of international short films made for tamariki, from Russia, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Mexico as well as New Zealand, culminating in the launch of a short film competition open to schools throughout New Zealand. One of the most successful educational events featured multi-award winning, Maori sound designer Dave Whitehead. With a great sound set-up in the Nga Purapura screening space, Whitehead opened everyone’s ears to the power of sound, discussing his work on a range of films from Avatar and The Hobbit to District 9. The short film, Abiogenesis, made by Richard Mans in his bedroom, demonstrated how a big soundtrack, made with the generous help of industry professionals, can turn a home-made animation into both a YouTube hit and a multi-festival award winner.
Another venue jewel for the Maoriland Film Festival was the Civic Theatre, formerly known as The Maoriland. Once again, the venue provided a fitting context for screening standout sessions of short films. In 1921 the Maoriland Film Company was set up by Australians seeking to become the Los Angeles of the south in Otaki. Although the enterprise lasted only six months, the name lived on in the town and has been revived by the festival, with billboard-size posters putting ‘Maoriland’ on sheds and walls up and down the Kapiti coast. While classics, including the remastered Utu Redux (Geoff Murphy, 1983/2013), and coming-of-age films dominated the features, short films were so deftly programmed that they gave the festival its momentum, and ultimately its identity. The seven programs under the banner of Maoriland Shorts began with ‘Films for Tamariki from around the world’ and ‘A Fragment of Home’ from Canada’s ImagineNative festival, followed by a ‘Tribute to Merata Mita’ by He Wahine Maori directors, ‘Flash Black’ from Australia, then ‘Six Maori short films to make you laugh and maybe cry’ and a program of Native films from the Sundance Festival. The final program of shorts was ‘Finding Home – films by Anishinaabe (Canada) filmmaker Lisa Jackson’ who was a festival guest.
Each program displayed national preoccupations and different aesthetic approaches, but over time common themes emerged. The impact of location on Indigenous storytelling came through in films as diverse as the musical-superhero comedy Black Buster (Sio Tusa) set in tropical Queensland, the struggle between two Inuit men on the northern icecap in Sikumi (Andrew Okheapa Maclean) and the arthouse beauty of sparse Navajo landscapes in Shimasani (Blackhorse Lowe). The theme of split loyalties in Maori-Pakeha families, seen through the eyes of children, was presented in comic mode in I’m Going to Mum’s (Lauren Jackson)and The Dump (Hamish Bennett), both of which had the audience in stitches. The theme reappeared in melodramatic mode in the tribute to Merata Mita by Maori women directors, curated and introduced by Kath Akuhata Brown. The dilemmas of identity in the context of unreliable, distant or estranged parents were movingly presented, opening with Briar Grace Smith’s stunning short, 9 of Hearts. Set in a rural, beachside town, the film’s perspective is that of a Maori teenager in silent conflict with her Pakeha mother who avoids her daughter’s fury by favouring Tarot cards and the magical, dress-up world of her younger daughters. The quiet revelation, at the end of the film, of the mother’s recent surgery comes as a shock to the viewer, but the daughter’s response is one of the most affective gestures to be seen in the cinema of maternal melodrama. The three films that followed, Butterfly (Renae Maihi), Kia Ora Miguel (Jaimee Poipoi) and Mokopuna (Ainsley Gardiner), build on the quiet anguish of childhood and adolescence, resolved in each film in unexpected and original ways.
The programming of Flash Black, a package of shorts funded by Screen Australia, reveals a very different set of preoccupations from just across the Tasman. Introduced by Aaron Pedersen, who flew into Otaki to do a feisty korero or Q&A on Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013), the Flash Black shorts were dominated by women directors. Yet rather than gender and family, their preoccupations were with place, the pressure of the past, and different modes of reality. Opening with Tracey Rigney’s award winning Abalone, a one-man performance of daytime survival and night-time terror, the program included The Hunter (Margaret Harvey), The Oysterman (Romaine Moreton) and Scar (Tiffany Parker), each evoking uncanny landscapes in which the seen and unseen converge. The power of cinema to bring the ghostly past into the present was set aside in two accomplished comedies which completed the Flash Black package, The Chuck In (Jon Bell) and In the Air (Kimberley West), both of which make light of the gap between overwrought fantasy and uncertain reality.
The screening of feature films Mystery Road from Australia, Boy from New Zealand and O Le Tulafale/The Orator from Samoa were highlights of the last 3 days, enhanced by the presence of actors, directors or producers to introduce the films and participate afterwards in a korero. However, these films are relatively wellknown, at least to festival audiences. By contrast, the final package of shorts, Finding Home by Lisa Jackson, was full of surprises. Earlier in the festival, Jackson presented a selection of films from ImagineNative, the annual festival in Toronto which Maoriland Film Festival plans to emulate in the southern hemisphere. Unlike the Australian shorts, each film from ImagineNative was identified in terms of the Inuk, Saulteaux, Algonquin, Cree, Metis, Mi’qMaq or Anishnaabe identities of the filmmakers. Animation, experiments with sound and a strong media arts orientation (exemplified by Kevin Lee Burton’s Nikamowin), distinguished the Canadian films from Maori and Australian storytelling modes. The Canadian media arts orientation was also evident in Jackson’s Finding Home program, with films that focus on performance and the performative possibilities of screen media. The highlight of this remarkable body of films was Snare which (in 3.5 mins) provoked a strong audience response to non-realist ways of addressing the issue of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada, including ignored murders and disappearances to which Amnesty and the UN have drawn attention. Jackson cast the film by putting out a call and auditioning the 40 women who responded. The audition simply required them to walk while being filmed. The impact of women quietly walking, only to be snared by the ankle and hung motionless from the ceiling, is enhanced by the sound track, an important element of Jackson’s other performance films, including Savage, The Visit and Pow.Wow.Wow. As the credits for Snare roll, one of the young performers appears in the bottom corner of the image, singing then national anthem, O Canada, in Cree. The power of this moment, projected onto a super-sized screen with a sound system to match, brings home the affective issue of sovereignty and the ongoing violence of its erasure.
The inaugural Maoriland Film Festival demonstrates the potential for engaging local communities and international visitors with a broad range of film events, from archival restorations to the founding classics, from contemporary hits to cutting-edge shorts. The location of the festival in Otaki also demonstrates the necessity of providing culturally appropriate venues for different kinds of screenings, involving the very oldest and youngest members of the community, as well as a diversity of guests from both the northern and southern hemispheres. It’s one thing to see an Indigenous film or two in a major film festival, it’s quite another to see Indigenous films and to listen to Indigenous filmmakers in a context such as Maoriland. The festival director, Libby Hakaraia, and her warmly hospitable team, including the tireless Tainui Stephens who hosted so many koreros, have laid the ground for an annual festival which has the potential to transform settler-centric screen cultures by bringing transnational Indigenous films and filmmakers to the southern hemisphere, emulating and expanding the work of ImagineNative in the northern hemisphere.
Maoriland Film Festival
26-30 March 2014
Festival website: http://www.maorilandfilm.co.nz