Wairoa Māori Film Festival

Review by Edna Heled

Reading time: 12 minutes

I am on my way to Wairoa - a small township of less than five thousand people in the east central part of New Zealand's North Island, about seven hours from Auckland. Wairoa is one of only three towns in the whole country where Māori outnumber other ethnicities with over 60% of the population identifying as such.

Wairoa means 'Long Water'. In the morning, the river that dominates the city is glowing against a backdrop of natural beauty. The town is set amidst forests and farms in a district that has 37 marae (meeting houses where local tribes gather to practice their traditional culture and language) in and around town, allowing visitors to experience genuine Māori heritage with all its richness and authenticity.

Driving from Taupo after dark, the isolation of the place is already apparent as there are no petrol stations for miles, and no clear signage to warn one before hitting the road.

Review by Edna Heled

Reading time: 12 minutes

I am on my way to Wairoa – a small township of less than five thousand people in the east central part of New Zealand’s North Island, about seven hours from Auckland. Wairoa is one of only three towns in the whole country where Māori outnumber other ethnicities with over 60% of the population identifying as such.

Wairoa means ‘Long Water’. In the morning, the river that dominates the city is glowing against a backdrop of natural beauty. The town is set amidst forests and farms in a district that has 37 marae (meeting houses where local tribes gather to practice their traditional culture and language) in and around town, allowing visitors to experience genuine Māori heritage with all its richness and authenticity.

Driving from Taupo after dark, the isolation of the place is already apparent as there are no petrol stations for miles, and no clear signage to warn one before hitting the road.

Once a year, usually in the month of June around Queen’s Birthday weekend and the Matariki period that signifies the Māori New Year, the place is buzzing with film personnel and film lovers, flocking from all over the country (and beyond – when the borders are open) to New Zealand’s premiere Māori and indigenous Wairoa Māori Film Festival – a major affair for Māori filmmakers and their affiliates.

I vaguely recall an event from quite a few years ago, when I had just arrived in New Zealand. I attended the first ever indigenous convention which was hosted by Māori in the Aotea Centre, the biggest theatre in Auckland. The summit attracted delegates of native backgrounds from around the globe; from the Pacific Islands to Australia’s Aboriginals, to South American tribes, North America’s Canadian Inuit and First Nation, and the Celtics from Ireland.

After a ritual of sharing breath in a pōwhiri (the traditional Māori greeting manner), the delegates set out to share stories, myths, and opinions. They networked, laughed and hugged a lot, and shaped up their message of revival to tribal values and practices. I remember how impressed I was when I learned that from all places, it was the descendants of the native inhabitants of the small country of Aotearoa New Zealand – Māori – who became a pioneering cultural group that had initiated and announced the call for all nations to bring back respect and spread the knowledge of ancient cultures.

In recent years, I noticed significant changes in New Zealand policies, aiming to adopt and restore repressed and forgotten customs and traditions. Some of these endeavours include Pākehā (non-Māori) people learning Te Reo Māori, the language that was forbidden to speak in colonial New Zealand; the launch of a TV channel broadcasting only in Te Reo in 2008; and health services implementing special programmes based on Māori philosophies and ways of life.

Mason Drury’s Māori health model Te Whare Tapa Whā – the Four Corners of the House (physical, spiritual, family connection and mental health) – is one such model that acknowledges the importance of the spiritual dimension in the approach to health. It includes the concept of the wairua(spirit, soul), the role of the whānau (family) and the balance of the hinengaro (mind) as equally crucial aspects of the physical component in maintaining health and well-being.

It is just the beginning, but the change of approach is heading in the right direction to restore dignity and correct damage caused by colonialism.

There is only one main street in the township of Wairoa, and the Gaiety Theatre, where most of the screenings take place, is conveniently located right next to the popular Cafe. The Gaiety is an old-style movie house. The seats are a bit worn out but the gap between the rows is almost wide enough to fit an extra row. The spaciousness gives me a nice opportunity to look at the audience and observe what is going on between the rows in the intervals – even during the screening – which I find no less fascinating than the films themselves. It feels like a party; a family reunion; a social gathering where aunties and cousins mix and mingle, share crisps, lollies and pastries, and chat – sometimes quite loudly, while the films are running. I must say, however, that the sound system in the cinema is so good that the talking doesn’t interfere too much.

 

The man behind the annual five-day festival – a highlight for Wairoa – local celeb Leo Koziol, is warm and friendly. He treats the festival patrons as his own guests and radiates with joy when he invites them to enjoy themselves. They all seem not only familiar but really close to him.

Karen Te O Kahurangi Waaka Tibble (NZ Film Commission), Ira Heyder (Korou Digital) and Judith Schuyler (Canada First Nations Film Maker)

In addition to the films, there was an array of shows to be seen. Especially fun were two flash evening events – the Awards Dinner in the War Memorial Hall; and the Pixie Williams Show night, with champagne, canapes, and live music, featuring the old songs of the iconic Māori Jazz singer from the thirties.

The festival, supported by the New Zealand Film Commission, steadily grew to become the biggest event of its town, turning Wairoa into a mini-Hollywood of indigenous film. Each year the festival awards pay tribute to major achievements in different categories.

 

What can you expect to find in film under this umbrella?

Relationships, cultural clashes, old traditions conflicting with modern lifestyles and forces, and, more often than not, a strong spiritual background that determines and drives strong will and mana (a Māori expression denoting great personal prestige and character).

A good example was when the winning film of 2005 (the festival’s inaugural year): Whale Riderdirected by Niki Caro, took the Aotearoa Feature Drama award, and became an international success. Based on the 1987 novel of the same name by famous Māori writer Witi Ihimaera, it is an enchanting tale weaving reality and myth, tough traditional rules, and family hierarchies against faith and a spiritual connection with whales. Whale Rider is a story about a twelve-year-old Māori girl who, in spite of her grandfather’s belief that this is a role for males only, strives to become the chief of the tribe.

The Aotearoa Short Film Drama awarded that same year: Two Cars One Night directed by Taika Waititi, shows how warm, loving relationships between two boys and a girl can happen even if they meet in an unlikely place like the carpark of a rural pub. It is still appraised as one of the best short films produced in New Zealand.

Among this year’s winners in the different categories were Māori Director for Documentary Short Film Kirsty Griffin & Viv Kernick for Pluck; a film that tells a story about Jean Neshausen (Tainui), in the Chatham Islands who at the age of 73 learned to weave korowai (traditional Māori feather cloaks).

Māori Director for Short Film (Drama) went to Kaitiaki Rodger for Matua – a young Māori teacher tale of family connection and reconciliation upon his return to his family home in Māngere after his mother’s passing and finds out a big secret.

International Feature Film prize went to The Last Forest by Luiz Bolognesi on the Yanomami Tribe in the Amazon – a spectacular film about a shaman who tries to keep the spirits of the forest alive. It reconnects with the myth of two brothers fighting for a woman, while the arrival of gold prospectors brings death and destruction to the forests and the community.

Hineani Melbourne (Nga Aho Whakaari), Leo Koziol (Festival Director), Briar Grace Smith (WIFT Mana Wahine Award Recipient), Louisa Tipene-Opetaia (Festival Board Member)

The 2021 Women in Film & Television (WIFT) Mana Wāhine Award went to Briar Grace-Smith, of Ngāpuhi and Ngātiwai, who was co-director alongside Ainsley Gardiner, and writer and actor in the adaptation of Patricia Grace’s novel, Cousins. Cousins gained more than a million dollars in its first three weeks of screening early this year (New Zealand Film Commission, 2021). It is the story of three girls who grew up together but were separated by circumstance, and their long journey to find the one who went missing to be finally reunited with each other.

Alongside the films there were also exciting events on Zoom and a virtual Q & A with native American and First Nations creatives after the Turtle Island (Canada and USA) shorts. We also enjoyed a special performance by some of the students of TKKM o Ngati Kahungunu o Te Wairoa and emerging Rangatahi artists entertaining in the Iwitea Marae before the screening of a feature movie there.

 

Leo Koziol, who welcomed all the kaumātua (respected elders), was proud to present Broken Barrier (made in Wairoa in the fifties) about the love relationship between a young European man and a Māori nurse and the tension it caused within the different families.

“Were you in this film, Aunty?” he asked, as one of the eldest Wairoa women entered the marae.

“No, but I remember the time when the film was shot 70 years ago,” she replied, and they hugged and took a photo together.

The Māori Film Festival in Wairoa confirms the idea of how a big scale event taking place in a small town can provide a unique flavour. While it is worthwhile going all the way to the Hawke’s Bay to experience the festival in its original birthplace, it is useful to know that it is possible to catch some of the films in other locations. Since 2008, the festival has travelled to other centres in New Zealand, including Auckland and Wellington, and hopefully in post-pandemic years it will travel once again to some international locations.

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