Many years ago now I was deeply absorbed in the question: ‘what is a Māori film?’ I was working in Māori radio and making a documentary series about that very question. Or at least, that was how it turned out, because that was very much the question at the forefront of my interviewees’ minds. I interviewed (namedrop alert…) Merata Mita, Tama Poata, Rāmai Hayward, Barry Barclay, John O’Shea and a whole bunch of other luminaries of the New Zealand film industry about what they thought of the state of Māori film-making at the time (1992-1993). The reel to reel tapes are mouldering in our basement somewhere but snatches of those long ago conversations have always remained with me. I recall Barry Barclay pointing out that so much Western culture movie-based story telling was simply continuous retelling of King Lear; the single hero or anti-hero, the focal point of all action and dialogue, with the accompanying story arc. Māori film-making, Barry reckoned, was less about King Lear, or John Wayne and more about the interconnected web of people that comprise a community, a mode of storytelling employed in the 1987 feature film Ngāti (which he directed), whereby no one person is ever really The Point. (You can see an interview with Barry about Ngāti and the extraordinary impact of Pacific Films on NZ film-making here.) And one thing Merata Mita (director of Mauri) said that has always stayed with me over all the intervening years was this:
“The person behind the camera changes the person front of the camera.”
In her view, the Maoriness of a Māori film was defined not only by the nature of the story that it tells, nor by the ethnicity or culture of the actors on screen but by an accounting of power. Who had the power to define the nature of the images that went up on the screen? Only if Māori controlled that image and that story, could such a film be called a truly ‘Māori film’. In the last couple of days the same argument has been raised by Leonie Pihama about the Toa Fraser-directed mau rākau bloody revenge flick The Deadlands which is currently on release, garnering rave reviews and, it seems, many a bottom on a seat (Number 1 at the NZ box office as I write).
The Deadlands is compromised according to the power argument because most of those who wield the power over the nature of the images being portrayed on the screen are not Māori. The director is not Māori, neither is the primary producer. Interestingly, Leonie refers to Glenn Standring, the writer, and a producer, of the film, as ‘being raised as a Pākehā’, referring to Glen’s own account that he did not discover his own Māori ancestry until until his 20s. There are, of course other Māori also involved in the production of the film, (nepotism alert), one of my brothers, Tainui Stephens is one of the co-producers. I wonder if the fact that Tainui, like me, did not truly discover his own Māoriness until his young adult years also disqualifies him, in the eyes of some, from being Māori enough to be considered a wielder of power for the purpose of defining a Māori film. That’s the slippery slope we get on when we start defining others by their purported cultural quantum (as opposed to the good ol’ blood quantum).
I get the power argument, I really do. It is a vitally important lens with which to critique and evaluate Māori development, and most certainly, Māori film is a marker of Māori development. Others more articulate than me will have to articulate the precise manner in which The Deadlands is truly different to 19th century image based Pākehā portrayals of the Māori as the Noble Savage. Maybe the Deadlands does perpetrate stereotypes about Māori that Māori have been trying to break away from in film for so long. I’ve seen rushes of the film, but not the whole product as yet, I’m gearing up for it..so I’m not yet qualified to say.
But I wonder if one less desirable consequence of the power analysis of Barclay, Mita, Pihama et al is the denial of agency it affords to two very important sets of people intimately involved in any given film. For one thing, all those other presumably powerless Māori who are also as much part of the storytelling as those behind the camera. Even though they may not have the say on what goes in the recycling bin. It is, after all, those artists, the actors, who bring their own mana and their own histories to that story. The other set is the audience. Seriously, I have never seen such enthusiastic acclamation by Māori for any feature film. It’s not universal of course, `cause not everyone is up for blood-drenched, cannibalistic, gut-spilling mayhem with their popcorn. And the critique by Māori language experts of the Māori language script has already started. But Māori are voting with their feet and their pingas, and their praise. For a taste, check out the Facebook Page. The over-riding theme of the comments (with the occasional detractor) is ‘mean Māori mean!’
In view of this acclamation, I wonder if one criterion of a Maori film is also simply whether Māori claim it as such. I often think of that kind of argument when I have those sad, sad conversations with Māori raised Pākehā or with little connection to their whakapapa. I think to myself ‘would their tupuna claim them?’ I have never come across a situation where I have thought the answer would be no. So…if Māori claim The Deadlands as a Māori film, maybe that ought to be listened to.
Harking back, just for a final moment, to my misty water-coloured memories of those long ago interviews. I remember Tama Poata (writer of Ngāti) saying he was looking forward to the time when Māori could just get on with making movies, about any topic whatsoever – even, he giggled, “Maoris in space!” I thought of his comment earlier this year when I went to see Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s other gorefest movie What We Do in the Shadows. Now there’s a bloody good film that fits the power requirement. Both directors are Māori, it features two Māori leads, Both writers are Māori, three of the four producers are Māori and there are no demeaning images of Māori or problematic stereotypes to contend with or brush over. Not exactly a Māori story (and Taika knows how to write those, of course) and maybe not ‘Maoris in space’ exactly, but pretty damn close. I don’t suspect most Māori will automatically consider Shadows a Māori film as they appear to consider The Deadlands to be, but I for one am happy to claim it e hoa mā!