Three years ago, the New Zealand film Boy had its world premiere, not in a theatre in Auckland or Wellington, but at an East Cape marae, which is a ceremonial meeting place maintained by every Maori community. Boy, which tells of a Maori teen's relationship with his father, went on to become an international hit, and New Zealand's biggest-grossing domestic film.
Boy's global success and local roots – it was shot near the marae where the first screening took place – tells you a lot about the vigorous state of Maori filmmaking. Aided by a robust national support system, indigenous filmmakers in Aotearoa (the Maori name for the country) have caught the world's attention without losing touch with Maori cultural values.
Kath Akuhata-Brown has a word for what has made that possible: wairua, meaning spiritual presence, a quality she finds in the best Maori films and also in Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Wairua was the first thing she looked for while selecting features and short films for the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival's three-day spotlight on Maori film, beginning Oct. 16 in Toronto.
"I wanted stories that speak from the inside about meaningful things," says Akuhata-Brown, a filmmaker and executive at the New Zealand Film Commission. The films also had to be technically good, she says, a requirement made easier by the expertise Maori film people have gained from their own prolific output and also from working on the Lord of the Rings series.
Her choices are as new as Mt. Zion, a feature released in New Zealand in February, and as historically important as Mana Waka, a documentary by Merata Mita based on footage commissioned in the late 1930s by a Maori princess with a dream of unifying the nations of Aotearoa. "It's the most defining film to come out of this country," says Akuhata-Brown.
The roots of the current Maori industry lie in a period of cultural resurgence that began in the early 1970s and found articulate spokespeople in the likes of the late Barry Barclay, maker of numerous features and documentaries for film and TV. Widespread protests over treaty rights provoked a wave of legislative and judicial decisions, including a 1994 ruling by the British Privy Council that the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) obliged the New Zealand government to protect Maori language and culture. That same year, Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors made Maori feature filmmaking part of the global cinema conversation.
In 1996, Barclay and others formed a guild for Maori screen artists, and in 2008 a "pathway" for developing Maori film scripts was set up under the name Te Paepae Ataata (paepae refers to the entrance of a marae, where greetings are exchanged). Both are funded by the New Zealand Film Commission, which also supports nzonscreen.com, where hundreds of Maori film can be seen online. The nearest equivalent in Canada is the National Film Board of Canada's streaming website (nfb.ca) and its newly established Unikkausivut portal for films by and about Inuit people.
ImagineNATIVE collaborated with TIFF last year on its Maori film section, and in 2010 gave the Canadian premiere of Boy, which Mongrel Media subsequently picked up for Canadian distribution. ImagineNATIVE director Jason Ryle, whose festival facilitates up to $200,000 worth of distribution deals each year, hopes something similar will happen this year with Mt. Zion.
Akuhata-Brown has another distribution idea in the works, related to Boy's East Cape premiere, which she attended. Every marae has a huge dining hall, "big enough for quite a substantial screen," she says. Te Paepae Ataata, of which she is a member, recently signed up eight tribes as co-producers of an original eight-film short program that will eventually tour the co-producers' marae. Akuhata-Brown thinks the project could be the basis for a marae film touring circuit – a true grass-roots system of film distribution.
All this activity in Maori film has had an impact on the Pakeha (non-indigenous) industry in New Zealand. Many filmmakers rely on Maori crew, refer to a published guide about how to shoot among indigenous communities, and begin their principal photography with a ritual picked up from the filmmakers who began the Maori film wave 20 and 30 years ago.
"On the first day of principal photography we would always have a dawn blessing," says Akuhata-Brown. "Just about every independent film shot in New Zealand does that now."
Maori highlights at ImagineNATIVE
A short Maori film sampler, from the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. All screenings are at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
The Neglected Miracle: Pioneering Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay spent seven years on this global documentary about the commercial manipulation of seed-stocks and the territorial conflicts between small farmers and agribusiness multinationals. As timely a subject as when the film was completed in 1985. (Oct. 18, 2 p.m.)
Fresh Meat: This riotous feature begins as a home-invasion thriller and quickly turns into a gore-fest black-comedy love story, with an unexpected bad guy. It's up to the viewer to decide whether it's a mashup, parody or both. (Oct. 18, 11:15 p.m.)
Meathead and Nightshift: These short films both tell poignant stories of life on the job, in a meat-packing plant (Meathead) and on cleaning patrol at a busy airport (Night Shift). Each is a perfect study in visual story-telling, delivering its punch with very few words. (Oct. 19, 3:15 p.m., with three other shorts.)
Mt. Zion: In this beautifully photographed feature, a young man's attempts to get out of the potato fields and into an opening spot at a Bob Marley concert puts him in conflict with his parents, both figures of authority in the local Maori community. Plenty of soulful singing by lead actor Stan Walker, an Australian Idol winner. (Oct. 19, 6:30 p.m.)
The ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival runs in various Toronto locations Oct. 16-20 (imaginenative.org/festival/).