New Zealand’s Maori Women Talk WARU — Gill Pringle reports from TIFF

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waru posterTold from the viewpoint of nine female filmmakers, Waru is the first feature film from New Zealand to be made by Maori women since Mereta Mita’s Mauri almost 30 years ago. Eight female Maori directors 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 follows 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 8.

“Our goal for Waru was to communicate the shared feelings we have towards child abuse in Aotearoa (New Zealand), and we felt the best way to tell this story was from a female Maori perspective and from multiple viewpoints,” explains producers Kerry Warkia & Kiel McNaughton who were initially doubtful they would find eight female Maori directors when they launched their search through social media.

“They never really expected to find enough Maori women to do it and they ended up with 50 applications,” explains one of the directors, Paula Jones, when I meet with this lively tribe at The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where Waru premiered in the Discovery section.

For Paula Jones, together with her fellow directors, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace-Smith, Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, Renae Maihi, Casey Kaa and Chelsea Cohen who’ve all flown in from different parts of New Zealand, today presents a boisterous reunion.

“Some of us were approached directly but the rest of us applied because we wanted to be a part of this project,” says Kaa.

“There were no stories in place although they had roughly looked at ideas so we all came in really blank and made our offer to the table,” says Maihi, explaining how they were given five non-negotiable elements. “Each film had to be directed by a Maori woman; each film had to have a Maori woman lead; each film had to be 10 mins in length and in the same 10 mins in time, ie: 10.00 to 10.10, and each film had to be one shot entirely; no cuts.”

In New Zealand, positive word of mouth on Waru has been overwhelming despite the fact that the film doesn’t premiere in-country until October 19.

AWFJ's Gill Pringle with the women directors of WARU

AWFJ’s Gill Pringle with the women directors of WARU

All the women agree that its an important story to tell. “At home we rarely see women on screen, let alone Maori women – so people are finding this is quite fresh and shocking, which is something none of us actually considered when we were writing and directing. Were only telling the stories that we know and that we’ve been trying to tell for ages,” says Simich-Pene.

Most of the directors are mothers themselves, and see Waru as a way of breaking the silence on New Zealand’s escalating child abuse statistics.

“Every five weeks there’s a child killed in New Zealand,” Grace-Smith says softly, checking her phone and announcing how another death at home has been reported during the two days they’ve been in Toronto for TIFF. “There’s lots of reasons,” she says. “Stress, poverty, the growing gap between rich and poor. Apparently we have the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the world. People don’t understand that about our country, they think its green and beautiful.”

None of the women shy away from a tough conversation. “The loss of tribal lands, loss of our language and a cultural and spiritual deprivation has created the sting of poverty and addiction,” says Simich-Pene. “I grew up with that so I know that to be true and how that can really destroy families. When someone is off their face, they’re not taking care of their children. Poverty causes the stress to rise and you’re just trying to make ends meet, and then you’re drinking on top of that and there’s the drugs and the alcohol and all that plays a really big part in our children being neglected and it becomes a vicious cycle.”

They all hope that Waru can make a difference.

“I hope it can start a conversation about bringing our families into recovery so they can see the light and start looking after ourselves again,” says Jones, pointing out that child abuse is not just a Maori problem. “For me this isn’t just a cultural thing; it’s a universal issue. Like white people kill their children too, Chinese people…everybody has child abuse in their culture. So this isn’t exclusively a Maori issue, it just so happens that we’re Maori women telling the story of Waru.”

The glorification of violence in the media doesn’t help. “When the All-Blacks [New Zealand rugby team] lose, the womens’ refuge has the highest number of women seeking shelter,” notes Jones.

While many of the women have worked in different areas of New Zealand’s growing TV and film industry, several are newcomers. Their influences are diverse, Jane Campion of course, but also Lynne Ramsay, Jill Soloway, and Andrea Arnold are among the names which tumble forth.

“The process of making Waru wasn’t always easy. “It wasn’t all kumbaya, and we did lock horns. We’re nine Maori women. Hello!,” says Jones and, continuing with a laugh, adds, “But because we’re nine Maori women, we can sort our shit out. If men had to do this, they’d still be in the research phase,”

“More than anything, I hope Waru breaks the silence of indigenous women having voices, allowing us all to have a conversation surrounding child abuse,” says Stewart-Te Whiu. “If people can see themselves in the characters and are then able to stand up for more children – then that’s the point of why we did it.”

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