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Sam Neill: Why Taika Waititi deserves New Zealander of the Year

Neill and Taika Waititi. Photo/Getty Images

Why does a film-maker deserve the New Zealander of the Year title? A recent employee writes in support.

I was delighted to see Taika Waititi named New Zealander of the Year. First of all, he’s my friend. Second, he deserves it.

I am not sure what the Government’s position on the arts is these days. But if the sad lack of honours going to writers, film-makers, visual artists, poets and ­performers in the Queen’s Birthday and New Year lists in recent years is anything to go by, I’d say they don’t give much of a rat’s rear end.

So this award to a leader of the arts community (an actor, writer, comedian and film-maker) in Aotearoa is heartening.

Taika represents a bunch of things – probably many more than he wants – to contemporary New Zealand.

He has helped us discover that we are funny in a unique and quirky way. That’s made an enormous dent in the cultural cringe that was so familiar not long ago. There has been a sea change in the arts here over the past 10 years. I have been really delighted to see this new generation coming through – young, confident, ­innovative and brave. Taika has been central to all that.

Read more: Sam Neill: A good keen bushman

I have had trouble finding the right way to express the ­following, but I think this is the best I can do: Taika’s work has gone a long way to making us feel ­comfortable about each other and about ourselves. There is something strangely healing about ­Wilderpeople. It wasn’t intended as a film with a mission, or a message, but it ended up with one anyway.

It is, like Boy, a film with heart, humour and compassion. New Zealanders took it to their hearts. If this was not who we are, we knew it is what we could be.

Taika is a complex bundle of ­contradictions, and it is the tension between, and the reconciliation of, those differences that make him compelling and emblematic as a contemporary New Zealander. He is urban and rural; Maori and Pakeha; comic and tragedian; sunny and dark; anarchist and builder; icon and iconoclast; sports tragic (Hurricanes – sad) and intellectual; traditionalist and mould-breaker; joker and commentator; fool and sage; regionalist and internationalist; bush bloke and hipster metrosexual; big dag and brooding thinker.

He is decidedly of the moment, and man of the future. How much of that future involves New Zealand, time will tell; he clearly has as brilliant an ­international career as he wants.

Let us hope that this New Zealander of the Year continues, at least in part, to be a central part of our rapidly evolving Aotearoa. He’s certainly my New Zealander of the Year.

Sam Neill, star of Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople among many other Kiwi films, started out as a director in the National Film Unit. With Judy Rymer, he wrote and directed Cinema of Unease, a 1995 documentary about the history of New Zealand cinema.

Taika Waititi on being named New Zealander of the Year

“Wow, amazing. Thank you so much. I couldn’t be more proud. It’s a privilege to receive this award and I accept it humbly and gratefully. I’m also a New Zealander, so I’m slightly embarrassed. But I’m getting over it.” 

This article was first published in the March 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.