Past and Presence: Towards a Maori Aesthetics of Cinema
by Kath Akuhata-Brown
Haere e nga wairua, haere atu koutou I te huanui, I te ara kua papatauria e te tapuwae kauika tangata. Takoto mai koutou I te urunga e kore e nekehia, I te moenga e kore e hikitia. Kua ngaro nga whaikorero, nga kaihautu, kua whakangaro atu I te ara e kore e titiro whakamuri mai ano. Hoki atu ki a tatou tipuna, haere atu ra. * * * * * *
E nga mana, e nga reo, rau Rangatira ma, tena koutou. E nga Tangatawhenua o te ao, he mihi aroha ki a koutou katoa.
Tribute must first be made to those of our loved ones who have departed from the path followed by the living and sleep on the pillow that moves not and the bed that cannot be carried away.
Farewell to our great orators, whom have taken the pathway from which no backward glances are possible. Return to the warmth of our company of elders.
To the living I bid you greetings; your dignity is made manifest through the voice and the word. To those first of the land, it is with love and humility that I bring the respects of my elders to you.
The dignity of my elders and teachers has been upheld, the farewells have been made and respect for those upon whose land we enter has been made also. The wairua remains intact.
While Maori cinema has become an established presence in the international film world, I wish to discuss an aspect of it that is rarely referred to: specifically, wairua
(spiritual presence), and the way it informs the shape of our cinema. Spirituality is something of an uncomfortable topic in mainstream film literature, which is fundamentally grounded in (so-called) rationality and shuns the mystical. But for many Maori filmmakers and artists, wairua
is a generative force, a strength that can be harnessed and focused into practical tools for artistic creation. These tools exist within our psychic and emotional framework, and it is our task to identify them, organize them, and use them to create a cinema that is expressive of and responsive to our own voice—and in so doing to actually recreate that voice through the medium of cinema, a voice that has been imperilled by two centuries of conquest and colonization.
Our desire to reclaim our Maori-ness derives from a yearning to take back ownership of a culture that was once on the brink of extinction. After an 1859 census determined that the Maori population numbered only 56,000, the New Zealand government adopted a policy designed to "smooth the pillow of a dying race"—essentially encouraging Pakeha
(white) New Zealanders to help the Maori "die with dignity" by quashing their culture and assimilating them into Pakeha
society. The language of our Maori elders has been irremediably transformed through decades of disuse brought on by this insidious process of legislative colonization, and that unwilled metamorphosis has profoundly altered our conception of our world. It is through our language that we are able to identify ourselves and our sense of where we belong: we have identified our mountains, rivers and sacred places; we know their names and from whence those names came.
However, words are only one way of communicating. There is also the language of the spirit, which is indefinable, intangible and, inexplicably, directly within our reach. It is a language that is bound to inherited memory and speaks in visual symbols that contain an emotional truth. It cannot be compromised, because it is also a language that is repulsed by deceit; when it is spoken to us we are struck by its beauty, and in the recesses of our heart we sense its truth.
A few years ago, a Pakeha
friend of mine said that the tangi
—the three-day funeral ceremony—was the cliché of Maori storytelling. Although I was offended at first, her comment led me to recognize just how intrinsic this motif is in Maori television and cinema, and to divine the reason why: the tangi
is one of the last manifestations of traditional Maori culture in daily life. We are encouraged to grieve, and when the time comes for the final farewell, it is done with great ceremony, and great emotion. The overarching philosophy for the tangi is kua heke te hupe
: let the snot flow freely. For three days the tears and snot run, the orations of our elders give us comfort, and everyone is welcomed by the soaring karanga
(call) of the elder women, whose voices tear down the veil between life and death and call forth the past to witness the present. The tangi
is where great drama unfolds, and where all the contrasts of Maori life are displayed: the speech-making can scale the heights of poetry, and within moments descend into barefaced insults; heart-rending emotion can suddenly give way to side-splitting comedy.
Grief informs us as a people, and no matter how far we are from home, by virtue of our whakapapa
(genealogy) we can draw upon our ancestors' presence to give us comfort. It is this intergenerational connectedness—combined with a dedication to tino rangatiratanga
(self- determination) and a fierce political consciousness—that has informed Maori art in the modern era. In the 1930s, the great Maori leaders Princess Te Puea Herangi and Sir Apirana Ngata identified that art and culture was the key to raising the spirits and the consciousness of our people. Our stories and our heritage are contained in our traditional craftsmanship, and it was by keeping these skills and knowledge alive that our people would endure. To walk into a marae (the communal house used for ceremonial gatherings) is to enter the Maori universe: the woven tukutuku
panels map out the pattern of the cosmos, and the carved figures of our legendary forebears speak to our relationship with the eternal. The shape of the house is that of the body of a human: it tells us that we are one with our environment.
This visualization of Maori thought and philosophy has now made its way to the cinema screen; we have had to learn how to speak this new language, and apply our abilities to weave and carve with fibre and wood to the materials of light and sound. In a lecture he delivered at Auckland University in 2003, Barry Barclay—director of such films as Ngati
, Neglected Miracle
and Feathers of Peace
—coined the term "fourth cinema" to describe Indigenous film practice (first cinema being American/Hollywood, second being art films, third the "cinema of the so-called Third World"). He declared that
[f]or such a radically new type of cinema to blossom, there would have to be some alternative base firmly set in the customs and laws of the community that conceived and manufactured the film. Such a base is not only possible but usual within Indigenous frameworks. In the Maori world, for example, commentators have identified core values which govern life, values such as whakawhanaungatanga
(sacred), mana tupuna
(prestige of ancestors) and wairua
(spiritual presence). Imagine that the makers of fourth cinema come to accent [these values] in their productions. Indeed, there are glimpses of that already having happened—in the way, for example, that Maori filmmakers have been insistent on occasion that their films be accompanied to a new venue and be presented to the people of that area with full ceremony.
My very strong hunch, and it is an informed hunch, is that if we as Maori look closely enough and through the right pair of spectacles, we will find examples at every turn of how the old principles have been reworked to give vitality and richness to the way we conceive, develop, manufacture and present our films. It seems likely that some Indigenous film artists will be interested in shaping films that sit with confidence within the first-, second- and third-cinema framework. While not closing the door on that option, others may seek to rework the ancient core values to shape a growing Indigenous cinema outside the national orthodoxy.
If I were to look to our Maori protocols to find the tools for creating art in a contemporary context, I would turn to the works of Maori academic Professor Mason Durie, who developed the Whare Tapawha
(Four Pillars) model, which deals with Maori health care and well-being. I have loosely adopted this model, and its four key values, in order to articulate a framework for discussion about the particular qualities of Indigenous storytelling and their application to cinema.
Te taha hinengaro
focuses on the emotions. It is understood that the mind and body are inseparable, and that communication through emotions is important and more meaningful than the exchange of words.
Te taha wairua
refers to spiritual awareness. It is believed that without this, an individual can be lacking in well-being and therefore more prone to ill health. Wairua
explores relationships with the environment, people and heritage. Spiritual awareness is crucial for making effective decisions.
Te taha tinana
refers to the physical being, which for our purposes it can be associated with technical aspects of art-making.
Te taha whānau
is the most fundamental unit of Maori society. Whānau
are clusters of individuals descended from a fairly recent ancestor. Whānau
may include up to three or four generations, and its importance will vary from one individual to the next. The beliefs, expectations or opinions of the whānau
can have a major impact on the career choices that an individual makes. It is from this pillar that intergenerational connectedness flows.
Together these four pillars keep the house in which our stories are stored strong and secure. They allow us to venture out into the world to collect different experiences and then return to our house, secure in the knowledge that the pillars are strong enough to sustain us. For the Maori, the cinema is a gateway back to this undying world; in the words of the great Maori director Merata Mita, "the audience sees. . . resurrections taking place; a past life lives again, wisdom is shared, and something from the heart and spirit responds to that short but inspiring on-screen journey from darkness to light." It begins as it ends, with our ancestors—time becomes non-linear, the spirit of our lands and peoples travels unrestrained, passing the mind and stepping with grace directly into the heart.
Na reira,e nga manutioriori, nga kai korero me nga tohunga katoa tena koutou, tena koutou tena koutou katoa, ka huri.
Kath Akuhata-Brown is of Ngati Porou descent. A graduate of the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam and a filmmaker for over two decades, she is also a Development Executive at the New Zealand Film Commission and is a member of Te Paepae Ataata, the Maori Feature Film Development Fund.