Waru – movie review

by Peter Calder / 01 November, 2017
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Stylistic boldness and an implicit call to arms make Waru a breathtaking watch.

A compendium of eight short films that meld into an impressive whole, Waru is a movie whose title character we never see. We hear him, though – his voice is the film’s first: “When I died, I saw the whole world,” he tells us in a breathy voiceover.

So a child’s death, the result, we soon gather, of neglect or abuse or both, is the impelling event, but we never see that, either. Rather the eight films (waru is Māori for eight), each named for its central female character, explore the lives of the people in the wider whānau and hapū.

Their stories brush against each other in time and space and even briefly overlap (though I noticed only one character who appeared twice), but combine to shine a light on the idea that, in contrast to the liberal piety, it may take a village to kill a child.

They do so within precise formal restraints: each film is a single shot; each lasts 10 minutes and its action purports to begin at 10am. It sounds like a gimmick, an antipodean Dogme, but as it slowly brings the concurrent realities of its stories into focus, it becomes a powerful tool.

Roimata Fox as Anahera in one of Waru’s eight segments.

The nuanced, crisply written pieces are full of telling moments only glanced at, but others are confronted head-on: this doesn’t always work – a sequence about the media is a bit heavy-handed – but when it does, it’s mind-altering. The film in which two kuia argue over where Waru’s body should lie, a ritualised encounter that Pakehā so often misunderstand, feels like an epicentre of sorts.

It’s a film about the damage done and the guilt carried, but it’s not as grim as that sounds. Indeed, to watch it is a thrilling, exhilarating experience, not just for its stylistic adventurousness but for the implicit call to arms: if there’s a key scene – the one that left me struggling to breathe – it’s the one that ends with a man asking, “What did she f---ing say?”

That line touches the pulse of it: it’s a women’s film in all senses of that phrase, but it makes the same demand of all of us: that we do confront the depth of our failure to understand, and that we do not turn our backs.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the October 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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