The return of the native


Artykuł pochodzi z pisma "Guardian"

While New Zealand's film industry has blossomed in recent years, Maori film-making has stagnated. David Fickling reports on the cultural factors at work, and the hopes being pinned on a new film, Whale Rider

David Fickling in Sydney
Thursday July 10, 2003

These days, New Zealand is everywhere on celluloid. Its rugged southern mountains are the landscape of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and its volcanic north does a decent impression of 19th-century Japan. Arts ministers have started to brag of a burgeoning local film industry, but one strand has been conspicuous by its absence: Maori film.
While directors Peter Jackson, Jane Campion and the half-Maori Lee Tamahori spent the late-1990s becoming notable Hollywood players, Maori film-making appeared to go into a state of hibernation. Auckland-based director Niki Caro hopes that will change with the release in Britain this week of her debut feature Whale Rider. The film has been lauded on the film festival circuit, taking major audience awards in Rotterdam, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and the Sundance film festival. Critics see it as the most important Maori-themed film to be released since 1994's Once Were Warriors.
But alongside the celebration in New Zealand's film industry, there has also been a measure of soul-searching: why, many wonder, has it taken so long to put Maori stories back on international screens after the early 1990s successes of Once Were Warriors, The Piano and Te Rua?
Maori represent one of the most vigorous and assertive indigenous cultures in the English-speaking world, but their impact on film has been relatively small. Australia's Aboriginal people endured a far more brutal history of oppression and exploitation under European colonialism, and continue to suffer levels of poverty and deprivation beyond anything suffered by the Maori. Their experience is also far more familiar to screen audiences, from Nic Roeg's 1970 classic Walkabout to Rabbit-Proof Fence, Black and White, and The Tracker, all released within the past 18 months.
New Zealand's record by comparison is relatively brief. Once Were Warriors and its neglected 1999 follow-up What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? were both adapted from Alan Duff's novel's portraying the often brutal lives of Maori in New Zealand's endless suburbs. Whale Rider presents a more elegiac picture of a people coming to terms with modernity in a depressed rural setting. To this can be added The Piano, the 1983 "New Zealand western" Utu, and a handful of small projects rarely screened outside of film festivals and specialist cinemas, such as Barry Barclay's Ngati (1987) and Te Rua (1991).
The slender record is perhaps not so surprising given the relative youth of written literary culture among Maori. Witi Ihimaera, author of the 1987 novel on which Whale Rider is based, is credited with being the first writer of Maori fiction, thanks to his 1972 short story collection Pounamu, Pounamu. In 1983 part-Maori novelist Keri Hulme won the Booker prize for The Bone People. By the time that Maori was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987 the cultural flowering was being described as a Maori renaissance. Indigenous fiction has continued to flourish since then but until the release of Whale Rider many feared that Maori film-making was following a different path: since its early 1990s heyday, it appeared to be drifting dangerously close to oblivion.
One paradoxical barrier separating Maori films from the mainstream has always been the strength of Maori culture itself. Barry Barclay's experimental films owe more to Polynesian storytelling traditions than to the plot-based imperatives of conventional cinema, a factor that naturally limits their appeal to mainstream audiences. There is even a passionate debate about whether Maori writers should be writing in English at all, despite the fact it is overwhelmingly the first language of contemporary Maori. Ihimaera acknowledges the problem. "Fiction to me is an alien text," he says. "The Maori word is a singing word, it's more to do with dance and song and theatre." One of the impediments to selling Ihimaera's work internationally has been his insistence on using Maori words in preference to English equivalents, and his refusal to publish glossaries.
"First of all I write for Maori, and for me not to acknowledge that would be entirely wrong. My second target audience is the rest, the non-Maori and international audience," he says. "They are not a priority for me. They're a bonus more than anything. Politically and as a Maori, I draw the line at my valley." The same uncompromising attitude has mothballed the release of the Maori Merchant of Venice, a shoestring production made for NZ$1.8m (£650,000) in 2001 by veteran Maori film-maker Don Selwyn. The film attracted worldwide media attention while it was still in post-production, but has yet to be shown outside a few private screenings. Selwyn acknowledges that the decision to use a 1945 Maori translation of Shakespeare's play, rather than the original English, has significantly limited its appeal. "Primarily we're interested in resurrecting the language, which has historically struggled to exist," he says. "It's important to connect to people, but in some cases you lose the essence of the culture if you try to translate too much."
It is notable that few Maori films have the easy relationship with their heritage seen in Australian Aboriginal films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence or the recent Canadian Inuit film Atanarjuat. Normally Maori culture is presented as something that must be simultaneously defended and fought against in the wider struggle to build up Maori identity. The effect is most dramatic in Once Were Warriors, where the protagonist Jake Heke is shown using a romanticised ideal of martial Maoridom to justify his own petty cruelty and violence; but even the more lyrical Whale Rider shows the same tensions.
The film's 11-year-old protagonist, Pai, is the only grandchild of Koro, who is the hereditary leader of his iwi (clan) in the fictionalised, but real, coastal village of Whangara. As in much of Ihimaera's fiction, the decline of traditional Maori culture is a constant theme; Koro believes that his descendant is destined to revive his iwi's fortunes in the manner of his legendary forebear Paikea, who rode from Polynesia on the back of a whale.
Fate is not kind to Koro. Pai's mother dies during labour, and a twin brother is stillborn. Pai's father, Porourangi, is so grief-stricken that he resolves not to try for children again, and when he returns to New Zealand after a self-imposed exile in Europe his partner is not Maori, but German. All this would be bad enough for Koro, who worries that he is presiding over the death of his culture and traditions. What is worse is that Pai is a girl, making her incapable of taking on the role of chief within traditionally patriarchal Maori society. Pai's intuitive sense of her destiny, and Koro's struggle between love for his only grandchild and resentment at her perceived part in the death of his iwi, form the heart of the story.
The story is deeply personal for Ihimaera, who has himself come up against patriarchal Maori tradition through his decision to come out through the gay novels The Uncle's Story and Nights in the Gardens of Spain. How much of the dilemma at the heart of Whale Rider grew from Ihimaera's own experiences?
"All of it," he says. "I myself have two daughters. I'm the eldest son of an eldest son. When my first daughter was born I immediately had to face the fact that there had been a break in the traditional male to male eldest leadership. But if we are to maintain our survival in the modern world we cannot retain that tradition."
The idea that Maori artists need to adapt to the modern world seems to be borne out by the contrasting fortunes of Maori film-making against those of New Zealand cinema in general.
In recent years, the modern world has come a lot closer to the New Zealand film industry. The greatest cheerleader has been Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, whose lush Middle Earth landscapes often seem like a trade advert for New Zealand's film locations. Jackson is not alone. Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori is now a bankable name, with last year's Bond film Die Another Day to his credit. Jane Campion has built a respectable reputation as an arthouse director in the decade since the release of The Piano. Merata Mita, New Zealand's leading documentary-maker and the only notable Maori film producer, is also married to Geoff Murphy - who directed Utu (1983), about the 1860s land wars between Maori and European settlers, as well as several Hollywood films including the unremarkable sequels to the unremarkable Under Siege and Young Guns. Most recently, New Zealand has successfully sold itself as a cheap, well-serviced site for location filming, fuelling a steady supply of visiting Hollywood glitter for the gossip pages of the local press.
Yet according to Don Selwyn, this talent is yet to feed through into indigenous film. "People come down here primarily because they want to make a film, not because they want to invest in the local industry. We have good locations. It provides jobs, but in terms of building local film-making it doesn't change much." Indeed, the influx of foreign money has caused as much anger as celebration among Maori. Earlier this year upcoming Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai was attacked over claims that it was taking Maori land rights for granted. The film uses the North Island's Mount Taranaki as a cheap shooting substitute for Japan's Mount Fujiyama. Local Maori said that Taranaki's sacred image was being used without their commission, and that film sets had been built over sacred religious and historical sites. Coincidentally, the people objecting to the film are descended from the Maori rebels whose wars against European occupation were portrayed in Geoff Murphy's Utu.
Ultimately, says Selwyn, the problem comes down to a question of money. Once Were Warriors, The Piano and Whale Rider were all largely financed offshore. Whale Rider's NZ$6m (£2.2m) budget was relatively generous by the standards of New Zealand's cottage film industry, but it would hardly buy a weekend of Tom Cruise's time.
"What we need is producers and investors who are prepared to put up the money for these films," he says. "They're great universal stories that have resonance across the world." He believes that technology could also help the industry: after two years on the shelf, his Merchant of Venice is now being prepared for release on multi-language DVD.
Ihimaera is more sceptical: ultimately, he says, Maori stories are too complex to be presented in the simplified medium of cinema, and too important to be stripped down for the sake of international tastes. "If people really want to see what Maori people are like, well I'm sorry but they're not going to see it in two hours in a theatre or in a day reading a book," he says. "We are a much more proud and complex people than that."

To Appeal to – podobać się
Bankable – likely to make money
To brag – chwalić się
burgeoning – growing rapidly, rozrastający się,
conspicuous – easy to notice, rzucający się w oczy
contrasting – kontrastujący
decent – porządny
Forebear – przodek
elegiac – elegijny
exploitation – wyzysk
to flourish – rozkwitać
Heyday – najlepsze czasy, okres rozkwitu
Impediment – utrudnienie, przeszkoda
Indigenous – rdzenny
influx – napływ, dopływ
lauded – wychwalany
lush - bujny
To mothball – to stop work on an idea
neglected – niedoceniony
Oblivion – niepamięć
Overwhelmingly – ogromnie
Petty – drobny
presiding over – przewodniczyć
Protagonist – protagonista, główna postać
to retain – zachowywać
rugged – wild, uneven; szorstki
slender – skromny, nieznaczny
soul-searching – głębokie rozważanie, namysł,
strand – element
On a Shoestring – małym nakładem finandowym


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