Reclaiming Māori Image

Dr Leonie Pihama
Dr Leonie Pihama

Over the past thirty years we have seen Māori involvement in the film industry grow and flourish. The films of the 1980’s, Ngati, Mauri and Te Rua, all written and directed by Māori saw the emergence of Māori stories open a new genre of films in this country. They were films that were imbued with cultural ways of being and storytelling that was informed by the lives of a generation of Māori storytellers who struggled to create space within the film industry in this country. Storytellers and filmmakers Barry Barclay, Merata Mita and Don Selwyn lay a pathway for generations of Māori filmmakers to follow. It is a path that has been blocked for many years by an ongoing obsession with representations of Māori beating Māori. It was a roadblock that came in the form of ‘Once Were Warriors’ and which continued throughout the 1990’s with the sequel ‘What Became of the Broken Hearted’ and expanded through films such as ‘Crooked Earth’ which took the Māori beat Māori from the bars into tribunal hearings. It was a period that shifted Māori filmmaking genre from that grounded within our expressions of ourselves, grounded in our experiences and informed by a spiritual essence that is distinctively Māori to one of how we are perceived, viewed through a lens of the colonizer and couched within a mythologies of violence within our communities being a part of what colonial science calls the ‘warrior gene’. That shift saw a return to the discourses of Māori as inherently violent, lazy, dole bludging alcoholics who don’t give a shit about our whānau. Maori women in those genre were the ‘beaten up, beaten down’ characters in the midst of the ugly violence. Yet, Māori women characters such as Beth Heke showed a deep power that resonated with many.
It is without doubt that Rena Owen carried that role with power and she is most deserving of the accolades that continue to be given to her for that role. Lines from ‘Once Were Warriors’ still persist today, even with a generation who may never have seen the film, lines such as “cook your own eggs” and “you’ll be back” can still be heard with a joking reminiscence of what were both extremely powerful and potent scenes. We can thank the writing of Riwia Brown, and the acting of Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis for giving us moments of true power within that movie.
The productions that were supported alongside these films were those that also continued to perpetuate the colonial gaze, the gendered colonial gaze or the ‘tarzan and jane’ genre shipped directly from Hollywood to Aotearoa. Sitting within this genre are ‘The Piano’ and ‘River Queen’. The gendered colonizing thinking regains its dominance in ‘The Whale Rider’, a beautifully crafted film, again with actors of renown and excellence. Located within an Iwi that has a history of women leaders, who have been models to many of our women across the country and within the Indigenous world, the story line reflects a misogynist expression of both Māori women and tikanga. If indeed, there is a grandfather amongst our people who truly despises their mokopuna because she is a girl, we must remember that is not about tikanga, that is an outcome of sexist gender beliefs that were imported with our colonisers. Our mokopuna are a reflection of our tupuna – that is our tikanga.
For many, the response to such commentary is that ‘they are just films’, or my own experience in writing a critique of ‘Bro Town’ directly to its Producers was John Campbell asking if I lack a ‘sense of humour’. What those responses fail to acknowledge is the power relationships that exist within Aotearoa, where our people continue to fight for the fundamental acknowledgement as Tangata Whenua and where we struggle to hold the little that remains of our reo, tikanga, whenua, awa, moana. We continue to fight for the last remnants of rights as Indigenous Peoples in both national and international spaces. That includes the space of representation and those ways that we are presented as a people not only to the world but also to ourselves. Film is one of those spaces. The reconstruction of what constituted Māori stories that would make their way to the big screen is one of those spaces where many Māori filmmakers of the time were struggling for Māori control of Māori stories. The representation of our people is critical to how we see ourselves. Patricia Grace wrote powerfully about that point, that stories that tell lies about us, or that are limited in their representation of us are dangerous. For the past 10 years there has been movement in Māori filmmakers again shifting what constitutes Māori film.
The power of film is unquestionable. Taking control of that genre, and telling a range of Māori stories is imperative. We have seen a growth in Māori writers and filmmakers. A new generation who have grown up seeing and supported by people like Don Selwyn, Merata Mita and Barry Barclay. A group of Māori creatives who are again turning the tide on what constitutes Māori films and bringing to the craft elements that are grounded within their experiences and knowledge of tikanga. ‘The Pā Boys’ is one example of that movement.
The opening scene of ‘The Pā Boys’ was one that took me back immediately to Merata’s closing shot of ‘Mauri’. It is a very distinctive shot of a Kāhu flying overhead. It is an image that affirms a sense of wairua that is reminiscent of Māori films of the 1980’s. It is not only the shot as some may say ‘anyone could shoot that” but it is the context, it is the feeling, it is the intention. It is the multiple levels of representation that such an opening carries, the mauri, mana, wairua.
Drawing such a comparison is not about advocating a ‘return’ to that 80’s period or form of Māori filmmaking, rather it is an acknowledgement that we are in an exciting time of again seeing the distinctiveness of Māori storytelling re-emerge on the big screen. ‘The Pā Boys’ has been described in the herald as a ‘New Zealand film at heart’, it is clearly that in the understanding that it is very much a Māori film at heart. There are multiple layers of tikanga woven through the film like a finely crafted whariki, some explained through dialogue, others seen through image, others felt just because you know what those nuances mean to us as a people.
On one level ‘The Pā Boys’ again reproduced the drinking, party, reggae preoccupation we see within many Māori films. On another level ‘The Pā Boys’ brought to the fore an image of our people in those contexts that was not framed by violence and abuse. This is a major shift and is a representation that was also a part of Te Arepa Kahi’s ‘Mt Zion’. There are clearly similar messages within these two most recent Māori films, the most significant I believe being the affirmation of positive representations of Māori men.
There is no doubt that the image of Māori men since colonization has been particularly damaging for our people. The colonial obsession with Māori men as ‘violent abusive warriors’ has for over 200 years disrupted and misrepresented the position of Māori men within our whānau. Those disruptions and misrepresentations have played out in many ways, including the high levels of Family Violence within our communities. Those colonial representations must be challenged. Both ‘The Pā Boys’ and ‘Mt Zion’ do that, and what makes that even more powerful is that they are written and produced by two Māori men. The relationships both between Māori men, and of Māori men with Māori women, portray healthy and strongly defined ways of being. Within both films the relationships between Māori men and our tamariki are framed with aroha and care. The representation of Māori women in ‘The Pā Boys’ is equally significant. Māori women in the film are strong, assertive and culturally knowledgeable, and although the main characters are the Pā Boys, there is no doubt about the presence and roles of the Māori women in the film. For many in the audience this may not appear a big part of the film, however for those working for wellbeing, for whānau ora, for removing violence from our homes, our communities, the careful representation of relationships within these films is incredibly important. We must see ourselves as healthy, well functioning friends, partners and whānau.
There are many moments in ‘The Pā Boys’ that reinforced the power of film to not only tell our own stories but to also reclaim who we are more fully as a people. Film is and should be a reflection of who we are, it should also provide us with the opportunity to imagine who we could be.

Author: Te Wharepora Hou

Te Wharepora Hou is a collective of wāhine who are mainly Tāmaki Makaurau based, but we have strong participation from wāhine based elsewhere in Aotearoa and the world. We have come together to ensure a stronger voice for wāhine and are concerned primarily with the wellbeing of whānau, hapū, iwi and all that pertains to Papatūānuku and the sustenance of our people.

2 thoughts on “Reclaiming Māori Image”

  1. I don’t watch too many films NZ made or other. In my movie going days the only Maori movie around was “Broken Barrier.” I didn’t watch it because it was a great movie but because it had something to do with “Maori.” There weren’t too many around then. I’ve watched “Boy” since and that was a very funny movie. I did watch “Once We’re Warriors” and I notice the author of this article doesn’t mention the author of the book. It was a great read but I didn’t think that much of the movie except for the performances of Temuera and Rena Owen. Again I went to watch it because I thought the book was great. I don’t watch these films because it might enhance my Maori image or otherwise. In any story I read or movie I see, I empathize with the under dog usually and how he/she overcomes and empowers themselves in those under dog situations.

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