WARU — Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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waru posterOver a black screen, a young child’s voice states calmly: “When I died, I saw the whole world”. Directed by nine Māori women filmmakers, the opening moments of the New Zealand film Waru are as simple as they are devastating, perfectly capturing in mere seconds the tonal and thematic force of what is to come. Between them, these nine directors tell eight stories – ‘Waru’ is both the name of the departed child and the Māori word for “eight” – of events that transpire at the same time as his tangi or funeral. Each of the film’s eight sections focuses on the experiences of different Māori women at this particular moment in time, held together in a range of ways by Waru himself or what he represents to them, their community or New Zealand more broadly.

The nine filmmakers are Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Renae Maihi, Chelsea Cohen, Paula Jones, Awanui Simich-Pene and Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, and we should carefully note their names for future reference. Each segment stands alone as a powerful vignette demonstrating talent, skill and compassion, but the real power of Waru is how these stand-alone stories come together.

The spaces in which each segment plays out range from private to public, domestic to professional, but in their own way they touch on a sense of performativity and the pressures that this places on its nine central women characters to keep up appearances, not rock the boat, and to do what is expected of them. Across its patchwork of narratives, Waru brings to the fore a dynamic cluster social issues without every feeling preachy or didactic, yet never flinching from the urgency of the problems and themes it explores: Silence, being heard, speaking out. Racism, class, sexism. Motherhood, acceptance, strength, weakness. Family violence, poverty, substance abuse. Submission, rebellion, and – perhaps most of all – grief, loss, and guilt.

Working through a checklist of the subject matter that Waru explores, it would be an impressive feat for even a single director to bring this together so coherently, let alone nine individual ones. This highlights the vital sense of community that permeates the film not just in terms of its stories, but also of the spirit of women’s collaboration that underscores the project’s production. This spirit is essential to Waru as a whole: the film ends explicitly with the often-euphemistically and racist ‘warrior’ label being reclaimed for Māori women and girls as an act of strength and defiance against their oppressors, both within their own communities and across New Zealand culture more broadly. This film seeks to give voice in a profoundly moving, honest and intelligent way to a pain that can barely be described, rendering Waru without question one of the most important and extraordinary films of 2017.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Gill Pringle’s fascinating interview with Waru’s nine Maori women filmmakers on THE FEMALE GAZE

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic for ABC Radio in Australia, She has written for Film International, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, Peter Strickland, and Alice in Wonderland in film. She frequently contributes commentaries, liner notes and video essays to home entertainment releases from companies such as Arrow Video, Kino Lorber, Eureka Entertainment, Second Sight and Severin Films. She is a Research Fellow at RMIT University and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).