Eight wāhine directors give a voice to the voiceless in new drama Waru

by Russell Baillie / 18 October, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Waru Maori film

Waru is eight short films by eight Māori women crafted into a whole that explores events on the fringes of a child’s death. It’s the first drama feature for 30 years directed by any Māori woman.

The first voice heard in the film Waru is of the title character. He’s a little boy and he tells us he’s dead. The movie starts at 10am on the day of his tangi; by its end, 80 minutes later, it’s just gone 10.11am on the same day.

In the interim, we have met many of Waru’s whānau, other kids in his community and the adults meant to be caring for them. We’ve been to his school. We’ve seen media demanding answers. We’ve seen anger, grief, guilt, fear, bravery. We’ve seen the tears of two kuia debating where their great-grandson should be laid to rest, and of babies demanding attention from their distracted solo mothers.

Waru’s eight interlinked stories – waru is the Māori word for eight as well as the dead boy’s name – take place in the same 10-minute period, offer an affecting anthology that is more than the sum of its parts and a movie with a deep social conscience.

It’s a film of powerful performances too, the actors having to work under a daunting constraint – each instalment was filmed in a single shot.

The eight directors (and an extra writer) are all Māori women, some already established film-makers, and they have made the first drama feature by any Māori woman director since the late Merata Mita’s Mauri in 1987.

The writer-directors, clockwise from top left: Ainsley Gardiner, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Chelsea Cohen, Paula Whetu Jones, Katie Wolfe and Renae Maihi.

The writer-directors, clockwise from top left: Ainsley Gardiner, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Chelsea Cohen, Paula Whetu Jones, Katie Wolfe and Renae Maihi.

The idea for Waru came from partners Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, whose Brown Sugar Apple Grunt Productions has, until now, specialised in television comedy (Find Me a Māori Bride, Auckland Daze) and teen drama (This is Piki). The Hawera-based pair had made a television drama pilot of five eight-minute sequences entitled The Next Eight Minutes, which was rejected by the networks. But the format appealed to the couple, who have three kids and wanted to make a drama that spoke about violence against children.

“Particularly for us, because there was all this talk around how it’s ‘a Māori problem or a brown problem’, and that really affected us,” says Warkia. “We felt there are so many reasons these things happen. It’s not as simple as [saying] it’s just a problem for one cultural group.”

After securing initial funding from Te Māngai Pāho, they began work, then had a further idea about the perspective of the piece, Warkia says. “We realised that we really wanted this story to be told through a female lens, but also through a Māori female lens, because we hadn’t heard from them yet on this particular subject but we had heard from so many other people.”

Producers Kiel McNaughton and Kerry Warkia. Photo/Robert Trathen

The decision to film in single takes wasn’t just about cutting down on shooting and editing costs – the production’s low budget required one-day shoots – but because it added to the immediacy. “It wasn’t just as a creative challenge, but it was to give the feeling of sharing a moment in time with these characters. The actors are living these moments in real time and we are able to watch their entire journey over the 10 minutes.”

And so, after further funding from New Zealand On Air and the New Zealand Film Commission, Warkia and McNaughton put out the call to Māori female directors to accept the Waru wero. Fifty responded to the challenge. The producer pair whittled them down to a final eight, who would each write and direct her own segment.

Among those taking up directing duties were women with notable producing credits – Ainsley Gardiner for Boy; Chelsea Cohen for What We Do in the Shadows. Katie Wolfe had directing experience in television and theatre; Paula Whetu Jones has a background in social-issue documentaries; Briar Grace-Smith is an experienced playwright and screenwriter.

Renae Maihi comes from a short-film and theatre background. Her award-winning 2013 play, Patua, about the death of a Māori infant, had been sparked by her childhood memories of the Delcelia Witika case in the 1990s.

Casey Kaa and Awanui Simich-Pene’s background lies in television directing. Simich-Pene worked with writer Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu on her segment.

The nine are relentlessly positive about the collaborative effort behind Waru, which occasionally required characters to appear in more than one segment.

“The film was woven,” says Wolfe. “If someone pulled one strand, then the overall film changed.”

Still, it’s a film about a tough subject and Gardiner admits having had some initial qualms about the drama’s focus.

Josephine Stewart -Te Whiu.

“I was reluctant to be involved at first. I felt aggrieved that we were bringing these amazing wāhine Māori film-makers together and a story of abuse was the one we were going to tell.

“I told myself to do it to develop my directing skills, and I liked the idea of working within constraints that were not of my making. Within a couple of hours together, I realised how wrong I was about this story and why it was very much the right story for us to be making.”

Warkia: “One of the biggest themes that we had was, if it takes a village to raise a child, does it also take a village to destroy one? Essentially our answer to that is ‘yes’. There are so many reasons that abuse happens.”

Says Wolfe: “The kaupapa was daunting, but I believe in telling the hard stories.”

Simich-Pene found it intimidating at first. “To be honest, when reality hit, I almost went home. I didn’t anticipate just how challenging the subject matter would be for me.”

Her segment, entitled Titty & Bash, is about two sisters deciding to make a difference in the lives of some at-risk kids. It ends Waru on a thrilling, hopeful note.

At the film’s beginning is Grace-Smith’s episode, which focuses on the boss of the marae’s kitchen, Aunty Charm (Tanea Heke), as she juggles catering duties with the emotions of the tangi and the memories it revives. Heke’s is the first of many riveting performances in the film.

Among the most memorable is that in Whetu Jones’s segment of young Acacia Hapi as the defiant Mere, a pint-sized challenger to a hulking bully. The director says her story was informed by past docos she’s made about women in gangs, street kids and truancy.

“For me, Mere represents all the young people who are passed over, ignored, shoved out of the way, shunned from society and who are seen as nothing. The kids who belong to no one.

“Mere is a survivor,” Whetu Jones says. “She knows everything, she sees everything, but she is not a threat to anyone. She is used and abused, but we have given her the strength to stand up to her abuser and the community that know who killed Waru.

Waru has given us an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless and most vulnerable.”

Waru opens at cinemas on October 19.

This article was first published in the October 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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