Ōtaki is a small town on the southern side of Te Ika-a-Māui, the North Island of Aotearoa. Like many small towns in New Zealand, Ōtaki centres on a quiet main street of family-owned cafes, takeaway restaurants and two pubs, with the Ōtaki Civic Theatre on one end and Te Wānanga o Raukawa Māori University on the other. Drive in one direction and you will hit State Highway 1 to Wellington; drive in the other and you will reach Ōtaki Beach, a thin strip of sand facing out onto the Cook Strait and the Tasman Sea beyond. Over recent decades, Ōtaki has become a hub for Māori cultural identity and language, sixteen percent of its residents and half of the Māori population speak Te Reo Māori—well above the national average of three and 20 percent, respectively.1 In 1921, an Australian production company established a film studio in Ōtaki to make the most of the region’s varied scenery and form ‘Maoriland Films’ as a subsidiary of The New Zealand Moving Picture Co Ltd to shoot short actualities and Charlie Chaplain impersonations.2 Māoriland Film Festival, the largest Indigenous-run film festival in Aotearoa, now in its eleventh year, draws its title from this remnant of early film history.

Cities sculpt the identities of film festivals within them, and the history and geography of Ōtaki are essential to Māoriland’s distinctive format on the periphery of the international film festival circuit. At almost every level, Māoriland leans into the intimacy of its setting. When the festival launched in 2014, founder Libby Hakaraia (Ngati Raukawa au ki te Tonga) ran its box office out of a small caravan parked on Main Street, but is now anchored at the Māoriland Hub, a year-round office, art exhibition and performance space backed onto a vegetable patch and meeting area open to the Ōtaki community. (The original caravan now enjoys a quiet retirement as an intimate meeting space in the garden behind the main building.) Throughout the festival – held each year in late March – the Māoriland Hub hosts live events and serves free lunches for participants, substantially decreasing financial barriers to participation and further fostering a sense of closeness and belonging among attendees and the local community. The festival runs on two screens – one in the Civic Theatre, the other in the converted gymnasium in the Nga Purapura community centre – both a short walk down Main Street from the town centre. Given the festival’s intimate scale, visiting filmmakers make up an unusually large proportion of the audience, fostering a sense of mutual support and making it easy to pick up conversations with others in attendance.

These intimacies are not a biproduct of a festival operating smoothly, but rather an essential expression of its politics. The small scale, community mindedness and emphatic commitment to Indigenous life, language and creativity sculpt Māoriland into a space almost entirely devoid of pretention and hierarchy, rejecting the exclusive power dynamics of most industry-focussed film festivals (in a style one participant described to me as the ‘anti-Sundance’). As a festival designed to not only decolonise but fundamentally indigenise its program, Māoriland is founded on a principle of radical reciprocity and inclusivity in ways that challenge the fundamental concept of what a film festival can and should be. 

Reflecting these priorities, the festival opened with a pōwhiri (a customary welcome ceremony of extended hospitality between hosts and guests) at Raukawa Marae on the main street of Ōtaki, followed by a communal lunch shared between festival organisers and participants. Following this welcoming ceremony, each participant greeted the marae elders, community members and festival organisers with a hongi, pressing noses in a moment of intimate physical and spiritual exchange. As the formal opening to the festival, the pōwhiri immediately established feelings of intimacy and belonging among participants while centralising Māori cultural protocol.

Enchunkunoto (The Return) (Laissa Malih), Reciprocity Project

Following the pōwhiri, the opening night of Māoriland consisted of a keynote address held at Rangiātea Church and the premiere screening of season two of the documentary series Reciprocity Project. As part of the festival, Kāi Tahu/Ngā Puhi video installation artist Rachel Rākena curated works by four Māori artists to be embedded throughout the Ōtaki township, and the keynote consisted of artist statements from these four contributors. Regan Balzer (Te Arawa, Ngāti Ranginui) – who painted the festival’s key visual “Kia tau te Rongomau” – powerfully described the relationship between her work’s thematic commitment to peace and her family’s connection to the Māori Battalion during the Italian Campaign of World War II. The exhibition was accompanied by works from legendary Māori artist-activist Tāme Iti (Ngāi Tūhoe), visual artist Ngataiharuru Taepa (Te Arawa, Te Āti Awa) and digital artist and designer Johnson Witehira (Tamahaki, Ngāi Tū-te-auru). Across their presentations, all four speakers threaded issues of cultural belonging and colonial alienation, peace and regeneration (issues drawn to the forefront by the ongoing violence in Israel and Palestine).

Produced by Taylor Hensel (Cherokee), Adam Mazo, Kavita Pillay and Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole), Reciprocity Project facilitates short film productions by Indigenous filmmakers from across the world, with its second season thematically organised around returns to land, language and community. A kaleidoscopic array of Indigenous stories with subjects ranging from Northern Sámi oral histories to performances of Rotuman traditional dance, Reciprocity Project’s multiplicity of perspectives provided an effective introduction to the festival’s broader thematic scope. Enchukunoto (The Return) by Kenyan filmmaker Laissa Malih (Maasai) centred on her personal return to her ancestral community, which her parents left to ensure her education and shield her from female genital mutilation. The film contains some extraordinary encounters between Malih and local elders who are intrigued by her work as a filmmaker, showing her visible discomfort as she sits in spaces and participates in conversations in which women are traditionally excluded. Tahnaanooku, another highlight by Justin Deegan (Arikara, Oglala, and Hunkpapa) and Jennifer Martel (Cheyenne), examined the cultural dislocation caused by the US government’s damming of the Missouri River and their community’s work to maintain connections with culture and cosmology as the land beneath them literally disappears. Tahnaanooku features beautiful cinematography of the night sky, and is accompanied by oral storytelling by Deegan’s mother, Darline (one of the last speakers of the endangered Arikara language).

Frybread Face and Me

These themes of language loss and cultural disconnection were threaded throughout the festival. Following its premier at SXSW last year, Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo director Billy Luther’s Frybread Face and Me playfully Indigenised the coming-of-age genre by focussing on a child’s return to their grandmother’s Navajo reservation amidst the collapse of their parent’s marriage. Reclaiming similar territory to Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s Reservation Dogs, Frybread Face and Me uses the site of the reservation to explore the complex entanglements of intergenerational intimacy, cultural disconnection and childhood gender and sexuality (eventually winning Best Narrative Feature at the conclusion of the festival). Vea Mafile’o’s Lea Tupuʻanga / Mother Tongue – awarded Best Short Drama – centred on a young Tongan speech therapist who is disconnected from her heritage but lies about her Tongan language skills to get a job assisting an elderly man with bilingual aphasia. In some ways reworking the coming-of-age themes from Frybread Face and Me with older subjects, Lea Tupuʻanga / Mother Tongue presented an ultimately redemptive story of loss and cultural recovery. 

Māoriland’s now-iconic ‘Bingo Shorts’ interspersed comedy shorts with a live game of bingo with audience members between screenings. Happy Thanksgiving (ishkwaazhe Shane McSauby, Kchi Wiikwedong Anishinaabek) satirises settler forgetting by showing a Native American man thrown into a bizarre revenge plan after a bank teller wishes him a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’. Also in Bingo Shorts, Chatterbox (Tainui Tukiwaho, Te Arawa, Tūhoe) plays up the fraught relationship between a young Māori woman Tui and her anthropomorphised vagina Tui as they come to odds over her pakeha (white) boyfriend Edward. Raunchy, blunt and irreverent, Chatterbox worked through the sticky issue of culturally appropriative relationships with life size genital costumes and a collection of hilarious original songs that made it one of the most popular films among audiences at the festival.

Short film programs make up a large portion of the Māoriland schedule, which are organised thematically rather than by region. Reflecting the challenging production conditions for Indigenous cinema, these shorts programs provide platforms for emerging filmmakers and non-dominant cinemas ordinarily marginalised at larger festivals. Set in Italy during World War II, Maunga Cassino (Paolo Rotondo) follows a Māori soldier lost in enemy territory who stumbles into an abandoned stable and comes face-to-face with an Italian soldier sheltering to protect his family. With a narrative reminiscent of Taika Waititi’s early short film Tama Tū (2005), Maunga Cassino relieved its heavy subject matter with humour and compassion, blending evocative black and white cinematography by Fred Renata with archival footage from the period. Threads of antiwar activism were picked up in In Exile (Nathan Fitch), a damning portrait of the United States’ nuclear testing in the Marshall archipelago between 1946 to 1958 and the fractured lives of Marshallese survivors forced from their homes decades prior. Rupturing his film with rapid cuts and physically deteriorating film stock covered in ruptures and pockmarks, Fitch visualises the violence of displacement and nuclear catastrophe brought into heart-aching reality with the lives of Marshallese diaspora working as meat processors in Arkansas.

The Marshallese struggle for land rights found common ground in the festival’s documentary program with You Can Go Now (Larissa Behrendt, Euahleyai/Gamillaroi), a searing portrait of Australian First Nations activism through the lens of Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang artist Richard Bell, and traces his life and work from Redfern to the Canberra Tent Embassy to the Tate Modern, critiquing colonial institutions and their appropriation of Aboriginal art in the process. Although You Can Go Now has been on the circuit for a while now (the film premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2022), the context of Māoriland generated contact points and symmetries with other Indigenous struggles – mostly prominently in a shared conversation between Bell and Tāme Iti early in the festival that compared their shared struggles against colonial injustice and the growing institutional appropriation of Indigenous resistance in their respective art worlds. These symmetries accumulated over the course of the festival, drawing commonalities between Indigenous struggles, perspectives and identities ordinarily separated by vast geographical distances; as former festival director Libby Hakaraia reaffirmed at a panel on holistic approaches to Indigenous film production: “We are all bound together by stories.”

The Mountain

Māoriland’s emphasis on short films reflects its focus on intergenerational empowerment by not only supporting emerging Indigenous filmmakers but also supporting local rangatahi (youth) to actively participate in the festival. The Mountain, directed by international treasure Rachel House (Kai Tahu, Te Atiawa, Ngati Mutunga) with a stellar cast of child actors, matches the oddball tone and delicate pathos of Waititi’s Boy (2010) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) while muting some of their darker themes to make it more accessible to younger audiences. Newcomer Terence Daniel (Ngāti Kahungunu, Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga, Kuki Airani – Aitutaki) seizes the spotlight as a well-meaning Māori eco-warrior joined by two other children – played by Elizabeth Atkinson (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Tama, Kāi Tahu) and Reuben Francis – who journeys to climb the Taranaki Maunga on a quest for physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Coupled with its sensitive handling of grief and terminal illness, The Mountain’s portrayal of childhood connection to culture and country was an optimistic break from the local narratives of Indigenous disempowerment springing from the National Party’s recent electoral victory in Aotearoa New Zealand and the defeat of the Australian Voice Referendum in 2023.

Beyond its conventional film program, MATCH (Māoriland Tech Creative Hub) showcased a breadth of digital media projects driven by Indigenous knowledges and futurisms. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Atuatanga (Wiremu Grace, Ngati Toa, Ngatiawa ki Waikanae, Ngati Porou) leveraged the interactivity of the Quest 2 headset to create an interactive VR experience in which participants are guided through the realms of the Atua (Gods) and come face-to-face with Tāwhirimātea, the god of wind and weather. Atuatanga is visually spectacular, deeply engaging, and demonstrates the remarkable possibilities of VR technologies for Indigenous creators. While not formally part of the MATCH program, Johnson Witehira’s Pū Rākau application incorporated augmented reality tools to animate wooden blocks of the Māori alphabet with animated figures drawn from mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledges) suitable for all ages. 

Alongside this commitment to technological innovation, a large part of this success stems from Māoriland’s institutional empowerment rangatahi staff, who played key roles in cultural protocol and festival operations through their Ngā Pakiaka youth initiative. Festival director Madeleine Hakaraia de Young (Ngāti Raukawa (Horowhenua/Manawatū)) – who assumed the role in 2023 – previously led the development of Te Uru Maire – the Māoriland Rangatahi Strategy and helped develop the Māoriland Charitable Trust’s production arm, further expanding the festivalʻs already multitudinous operations. 

Through these strategic inclusions of child audiences, professional empowerment of junior staff and honouring of community elders, Māoriland emphasised intergenerational responsibility as an essential drive of its program and operations. The Iroquois principle of making decisions by thinking seven generations into the future and seven generations into the past was reprised and recontextualised throughout the festival in different forms and cultural contexts, challenging participants to rethink the ordinarily short-term orientations of film festival attendance.

On my second day at Māoriland, I received a call from my Dad who told me that my auntie had passed away. I sat in my car parked on the main street of Ōtaki for a long while, unable to think, speak or move before I mustered the ability to get up and return to the Hub to be close to other people. While sheltered by my friends, I was taken aback by the care and support provided to me by Māoriland staff and community at a moment of extreme personal vulnerability. 

In my line of work, film festivals are many things, from sites of cinephilic pleasure, professional connections and, more often than not, drunken karaoke in the early hours of the morning. Māoriland was the first time that I experienced a film festival as a sacred space in which globally recognisable experiences of grief and loss can be shared and worked through in a space of radical inclusivity and reciprocity. While few film festivals would market themselves as healthy spaces to both celebrate and grieve, Māoriland’s foundational indigenisation of its program and sustained commitment to community – its binding together through story – challenges the global film community to radically rethink what a film festival can and should be.

Māoriland Film Festival
20 – 24 March 2024


  1. Meriana Johnsen, “Te reo in Ōtaki: ‘This whole place is Māori’,” Radio New Zealand, (2019)
  2. Lawrence Wharerau, “The Maoriland Film CompanyNgā Taonga Sound and Vision., (2018)

About The Author

Duncan Caillard is a Research Fellow at Auckland University of Technology. Scott W. Kekama Amona is an award-winning Native Hawaiian filmmaker and former educator born and raised on the island of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi.

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