Renae Maihi brings Māori women's voice to life in Waru
Eight female Maori directors have each contributed a ten minute vignette, presented as a continuous shot in real time, that unfolds around the tangi (funeral) of a small boy (Waru) who died at the hands of his caregiver. The vignettes are all subtly interlinked and each follow one of eight female Maori lead characters during the same moment in time as they come to terms with Waru's death and try to find a way forward in their community. In Maori, waru means eight. Ahead of the film's screening at Winda FIlm Festival we spoke with one of its directors, Renae Maihi, about the production, her career and trends in the New Zealand industry.
How does it feel to be screening this film at this year’s WINDA Film Festival?
It’s a huge honour to be screening my films Waru & Ka Puta Ko Au at WINDA Film Festival this year. I have a huge respect for the Indigenous people of Australia and have made many wonderful friends over the years through various film festivals. I have a deep respect for Winda’s Artistic Director, Pauline Clague, and the work she has done with Aboriginal Australian storytellers throughout her career and the messages of story sovereignty that she advocates for.
My first cousin Michael has four children who are both New Zealand Maori and Aboriginal Australian via their mother, and so my support of Aboriginal storytelling is also deeply personal, as I’m very close with my nieces and nephews. When my nephew Ethan told me last year that there are some places in his hometown, Townsville, which he cannot go due to his Aboriginality that deeply affected me. I reminded him that he and his people are the elders of the land and to stand tall in his pride, or Mana as we call it in Aotearoa, for the blood that runs through his veins. Film definitely has an important place in educating people of the world as to the struggles of our First people, brought largely about by the past and present colonial oppression.
The feature film, Waru, is made up of eight 10 minute short films each written and directed by Maori female film makers, presented as a continuous shot in real time. Can you tell us how you came to work on the project and how you worked together with each short to create a consistent feel for the feature (what was the process)?
In 2015 a call went out from Producers Kiel McNaughton and Kerry Warkia of Brown Sugar Apple Grunt Productions looking for eight Maori women directors for a project. Kerry said that 50 women applied and I was among the eight offered to be a part of this project. As soon as I knew who the other women were, I was confident in our collective ability to tell a deep and meaningful story. I had collaborated, worked closely with, or had friendships with many of the other women in our eight, which became nine after Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu came on board as a writer to work with Awanui Simich Pene, who felt she was predominantly a director.
The rest of us women, myself a screenwriter as well as director, each decided to write our own films. When we arrived on Waiheke Island for our initial five day wananga, or development workshop, our producers again outlined the rules or non-negotiables of this project. Each film had to have a lead Maori female character, be 10 minutes in time, be based around the death of a child through the hands of their caregiver and to be shot in one take with no cuts.
Waru is confronting in its subject matter, looking at child abuse and exploring themes like traditional culture, racism. What was it that attracted you tell a part of this story?
I had already written and directed a play called Patua which directly explored this issue of child abuse in my country. This had been a very sore spot in my heart for many years and so I wasn’t afraid to tell this story as I felt that I had more to say to hopefully a wider audience so that perhaps in some way the work could create reflection and change. To be able to explore this story with some of the best practitioners in my country and fellow women was a gift. I knew we could in some way tell a story that gave voice to the voiceless yet did not shy away from hard truths. Though it is undeniable, the colonisation, the violence we faced in native schools, the killing of our people and the theft of our mana in multiple ways via land, culture, language and customs have had a huge impact on us we need to recognise that we are suffering as indigenous people Post Traumatic Stress Disorder en-masse and its effects manifest in negative ways. We must begin to self-intervene or our children will continue to die as will we.
As you mentioned, developing the scripts for the film’s stories began with that five-day retreat on Waiheke Island. Can you tell us a bit about the process and how you developed the scripts together?
After sharing korero around our lives and the story started to call to us all. For me, I felt it was important [in the film] for somebody to come and get our child, and that I wanted to be with them, at their tangihanga or traditional Maori funeral.
We worked so incredibly fast and knew the right questions to ask in order to weave our stories together. Thematic question were at the forefront of my mind from the beginning, I remember years ago Ainsley Gardiner saying to me “remember that cinema is theme”. The stories were either linked thematically in the wider world or there were character cross overs.
Casey Kaa took the whiteboard and drew a circular diagram so we could visualise how closely related our stories were to our boy, who we decided to name after the project title, Waru. Due to the non-negotiable time for each short of 10 mins, we implicitly understood that if crossovers were to occur, they had to fit in with the timing of the other shorts. This process was sacred. By the end of the 5 day wananga we had completed drafts and afterwards we kept in constant contact via an app called Slack. Katie Wolfe and I had worked together many times in creative projects and both her and Briar Grace-Smith gave me small notes that allowed me to go deeper into my characters. We all worked like this yet understood the etiquettes involved in advising - so that the voice of the writer/director would be guided via craft notes and not “your character should do this” etc.
Your vignette centres around the funeral of Waru. The audience can see Waru’s two grandmothers contending for their Grandson’s body. Did you select your scene and how did you approach directing?
My scene wasn’t ‘selected’ as such it was a call from above. I come from a very spiritual Maori family on my father’s side and the idea of burial rites and taking care of the spirit of a person into the afterlife was very important to me. At the time of our first gathering on Waiheke Island I was in the thick of directing a TV series in Te Reo Maori, and living amongst elders, whose knowledge of the old world had remained untouched by the present world.
Stories of Lore and customary practices to ensure that the mana of a person and people were upheld were common sharing amongst us. When I arrived at the Wananga and we started talking about the story of the film we did a round table to tell the group what our instincts were. I said at the time “I don’t know who but somebody is coming to get our child because it’s only right.” This is an old customary practice of showing respect to a person who has tribal links to your people by requesting that their bones lie in your earth.
My film Ranui goes deeper than this though and it was one of my Aboriginal friends, Bjorn Stewart, recently at ImagineNATIVE in Australia, who was the first to come to me and fully understand why this ritual took place in my film. He said “It’s lore, though we may not like it, it is necessary.” We had laws, LORE, rules and rituals of our own as Indigenous people that ensured that there was consequence to ones’ actions. Lore was created encompassing and considering the entire essence of a person, people, gods, ancestors and universe. If you transgress these things then you are answerable to all these living things and the balance must be restored.
Waru is shot in a style that is very observational, can you share with us why the group decided to tell the story in this way?
This choice was one of the five non-negotiables that the producers gave us. I’m sure a part of the decision was motivated by the fact we had a very low budget and shooting a short film generally takes 3-4 days. It was a great choice, and I had previously shot a 2-3 min film (also one take) so I understood the challenge and the reason behind the producers’ choice – that is to put the audience in the thick of the drama. I felt my job as a director was to justify the one shot, so it didn’t become a trick applied, but was a motive from the story. The camera is a specific character in my film.
We don’t often get a chance to see Maori women tell their stories authentically as directors in screen. Do you think there will be more opportunities for Maori women to have their voices heard in film?
I certainly hope so. To say that my career has been frustrating is an understatement. I’ve watched male directors with less drama experience than me get catapulted, supported and offered opportunities left, right and centre. It starts to piss you off. I’m hoping that I will be able to make my next feature film in the next few years and that the support I need will be there. I am looking for development funding at this point for my next feature film and I’m open to grant opportunities or suggestions from anybody as I’m currently in the planning phase. My son is now 16 and a half years old and I started my drama degree when he was two years old – it takes women so much longer. I bumped into Nikki Caro (Whale Rider) who is currently helming the largest budget film any woman director has helmed. It’s taken her years and years to get to that place. I know of male directors who have only made TV ads who go straight to those big budget films. Nikki said to me “we need more women” - I told her I was trying. The initiatives around gender equality in the industry are great but the industry must change their mind set around underestimating women.
What trends are you seeing in the NZ industry?
There are a lot of positive gender equality programmes and initiatives from the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) that are good. I’m sure half the men are getting over it, but they just need to remember that we are half the planet so should be supported to have voice on screen, because the stats are clear. The NZFC have also been developing a Tangata Whenua strategy policy (people of the land – it’s what we call ourselves as Maori in NZ) to ensure that more films are told by us. It is probably no secret that a lot of films with Maori characters or themes are often made by non-Maori so we are trying to ensure that no longer happens, or that there is process and protocol around that, because as Pauline Clague recently said, at our Maori screen conference, 'it robs us of authentic voice and economic opportunity'.
And what trends are you seeing with Indigenous filmmakers around the world?
We want to tell our own stories. We want our funding agencies to support that.
What did you learn from this film? What do you want people to get out of this film?
I learnt that I enjoy a collaborative process of discussion, to help break in a story, and that being a part of this family of nine women is so important to me as a creative. We will all be bonded for life, and we plan to come together again for social time, and discuss all our projects and give support and advice to get things in motion.
The key message that I want people to get from this film is – if it takes a village to raise a child then does it take a village to destroy a child and who are the villagers? Do what you must in your village, and within yourself as a villager, to intervene with negative behaviours and choices because our children and their children count on us to.
What are some of your major influences? Movies, directors, mentors?
The Piano is such a beautiful film. I deeply admire Jane Campion. Nikki Caro is another director whom I deeply respect – she is incredible. I’m very proud of Taika Waititi who supported my early work and has now elevated to a whole other level. He sent us Waru women a really encouraging private video, as his wife is one of our directors recognising the importance of female voice on screen. In terms of mentors, Katie Wolfe (another Waru director) her husband Tim Balme (writer Brokenwood Mysteries) have both taught me a lot of craft over the last nearly 10 years, and Briar Grace Smith, is another of my mentors whose character advice comes from another realm altogether. Warwick Thornton’s work is simply stunning so I have a lot of respect for him also and would love to work with him some day.
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