Writer’s Room: Maori Stories

Kirk Torrance, Merata Mita, Briar Grace-Smith.
Filmmaker and mentor Merata Mita, screenwriter Briar Grace-Smith, and playwright and actor Kirk T


In this Writer's Room summary filmmaker Merata Mita, screenwriter Briar Grace-Smith, and playwright / actor Kirk Torrance discuss 'Telling Maori Stories, Writing Maori Characters'.

"There is nothing quite like being on a film set - when the wairua is right and when everyone is on the same page. But it starts with the writing and it starts with that word ‘truth’."

MC Kath Akuhata-Brown led the discussion, which focused on issues of community, consultation and collaboration.

This transcript is from the Script to Screen’s September 2009 Writer’s Room, in association with Nga Aho Whakaari.


Merata kicked off the discussion by defining character in broad terms as a vehicle for theme:

"Ask, what are your intentions for a character? Write someone you want us to love or to hate, who is credible and who is capable of carrying on their shoulders the message or action or consequence that you want the audience to engage with and respond to."

Merata feels this is the same whether the character is Pakeha or Maori.

"But it is a problem when Maori characters are written as stereotypes – a thematic vehicle empty of truth – shallow and under-researched. In some films a Maori character is someone who sits around drinking beer for the entire 90 minutes of the film … Or you have those characters like those you read about in the newspaper all the time written without love, with broad brush strokes of negativity. They’re usually not written by us but these representations that exist on a daily basis influence how people write Maori characters none the less … In some films Maori are those working industriously tending their land – the same as you would find anywhere in the world – but because you are in Aotearoa you are looking for something that imbues something specifically Maori. What is that thing? When actually Maori have as broad a range of characters as anyone – lawyers, doctors, labourers – anywhere in our society you’ll find Maori.

"Personally, I really despise those writers who write Maori characters without doing the research about the place where those characters come from, their connection to that place, about the culture that existed for so many years ahead of them. To me that kind of writing is shallow. You are not deserving of calling yourself a writer if you aren’t prepared to travel the distance with the character. Travelling that distance makes you a better writer and gives you a better character on the page. That is not saying that every character you write who is Maori has to be a good person."

“So”, asked Kath, “there is nothing in that korero that says you have to be Maori to write Maori characters?” Kirk agreed that being Maori is not a prerequisite:

"It is not an exclusive thing as long as the character you are writing is true to the story and you’ve done your work around the character… If you’ve done the distance you end up with a much better character."

When someone asked about writing contemporary urban Maori characters during the Q and A, Briar also spoke about writing characters with depth and authenticity:

"Characters are characters – whether historical or contemporary – we all have our positive points and our flaws, we all have a voice – a way of speaking, we all have a back story. If you can nail all of those aspects you’ll get there. For me it is about making three dimensional characters, it is about making them whole."

Consultation and Community: Process and Product

Kath feels that although there is no denying that Maori stories that come out of the cinema of New Zealand do incredibly well, there is always surrounding discussion among Maori that something is missing – compassion or love or truth. Briar used Whale Rider as an example:

"It did very well internationally, and in this country, but if you talk to a Maori audience many people feel there was untruth, so there is disbelief that it is a Maori film."

So why does this disconnect between the people of the stories and the filmmakers continue to happen? Merata feels that people’s stories do belong to them, and it is the filmmaker’s responsibility to acknowledge this and to engage in real consultation. Then not only do you do right but you end up with a better film:

"If you go and have a korero with the people of these stories you’ll find out what they think. We have to legitimise how they feel about their stories. People talk about stories being in the public domain as if it is a free-for-all goodie basket, but that is deficient in so many ways. In some cases it is particularly insulting. Getting back to writers and their craft – what good does it do for making scripts better? So, it is for the sake of doing it right and it is also for the good of the films."

Inherent in this is a kind of essential and real relationship between process and product that the panel feel is often not acknowledged in present filmmaking practice. Briar’s latest project The Strength of Water was showing in cinemas at the time of the Writer’s Room. She talked about spending half of the shoot (about a month) in the Hokianga, Northland working with the community where the story is set:

"I’ve learnt an enormous amount… There was a tangi scene and we wanted to shoot in a whare and we needed to talk to people … there were lots of cups of tea to be had. If you are going to shoot in someone else’s territory you have to be really sure that you need to be there. We went to the first whare and had about three meetings and at the end of every meeting we’d be told we could shoot there and then we’d get a phone call a few days later saying no. So we changed the whare, but where we ended up shooting worked out better. It was a whare our kaumatua, Malcolm Perry, had built and it was quite contemporary and the tikanga was flexible, which was important because with film there has to be flexibility – both the filmmakers and the people / the tikanga need to be flexible. There is balancing. A partnership."

Merata sees this kind of consultation as essential to making powerful, truthful film and as something special about our cinema:

"Getting consent from the community usually involves the community reading the script and giving feedback on it. Now I’m all for that. Why? Because when I’ve done that with communities it has enriched my story, it has made it better, it has made it more powerful, and it has won the kind of community support that makes New Zealand filmmaking unique – which it is by the way – no-one else in the world makes films like we do here. That is something we should value and we should treasure and we should preserve. 

"Briar was talking about going to the Hokianga and that is about knowing the reasons why and working within and with the community there and how that brings something else to the film and the filmmaking and to the story. It also broadens the horizons of the film crews that we work with, and boy do those horizons need to be broadened.

"I am working on a short at the moment where the filmmaker is from a certain tribe and the story is contentious with the scholars and the elders. She decided to get all the opinions and a hui developed as she went around all the marae. I’ve seen the richness that it brings."

Collaboration: Cast and Crew

For Merata, it is not only a matter of working and collaborating with established communities, but of the cast and crew also becoming a community where real collaboration can occur. She sees this collaboration being facilitated by working within established communities. And again this is something she speaks of as a special strength of New Zealand filmmaking:

"It is not just a matter of the director going up there … It always works better when you have everyone on side – the crew, the cast, the community – and it brings a holistic way to filmmaking and breaks down that hierarchical way of doing it, which isn’t really our way of doing things. I don’t know why we try to embed that way in the way we work – the way we work is good.

"It is a matter of working with communities for the story and to get that power and to broaden the actor’s knowledge of the character. The crew is on board; the ladies on the marae cook the food … All those experiences really bring something else to the film, making a crew a community. These ways of enriching and empowering us are really important, especially here, where things are so small and films with a Maori component have made a big impact."

Briar: Tautoko. "I absolutely agree. Doing Strength of Water we went from Hokianga to Bethells Beach about half way through the shoot. And to go from Hokianga – having the presence of the community who were very involved in the film – bringing all the things Merata talked about to the table – bringing wild pig, bringing our extras and our security guards, doing karakia every morning before the shoot. It brought the crew and the cast together in such a strong way. And then when we went to Bethells. And even though Bethells is not a tame place the atmosphere felt completely different – a far more 9-5 kind of feel. People were looking at their watches – we were close to Auckland and they wanted to get home and it was a whole different feeling. The commitment had changed a bit and it wasn’t as exciting for most of us after we moved. When I watch the scenes we shot there I can tell the difference."

Collaboration on Utu

Kath questioned Merata about New Zealand filmmaking in the 80s: “back in the day it didn’t seem to be a problem, with Geoff (Murphy) and Barry (Barclay) and all those guys”. For Merata a great strength of Utu was through the collaboration that ended up happening with the Maori cast:

"That it was easy is an illusion. It was difficult. Take Utu – I agreed to act in it because I wanted to be a director so I needed to know about the vulnerability of being an actor. When they set out to make it, it became apparent there were going to be deficiencies. The script was already written – that was the first bone of contention. They were making it whatever we said – they weren’t looking for collaboration but for approval.

"But there was so much at stake for us in terms of history, our co-existence. It brought into question so many things – questions of land, displacement. The first question we raised was the question of the rebel and the patriot and who was who. Questioning that brought some reaction but clearly patriots are the ones that fight to protect the land and the rebels are invaders.

"Then there was the issue of the lines. I have to say that because I didn’t know any better as I’d never been an actor I refused to read the lines that had been written for me. I thought to myself, I can’t play that – because the younger Maori woman had a similar role – she just rolled over for the British soldier-so I said I’m not going to play it like that.

"We had those intense discussions but they were very much in the open and there was some willingness on their part to listen. The classic example is the scene at the end with Wi Kuki Kaa. We’ve talked about travelling the road with the character, and the producers realised that they couldn’t – they didn’t know, figuratively, where he came from. So Wi Kuki Kaa wrote his own lines in Maori at that point. And he did something that came to him from within and without and he stood up and did that end piece off the dramatic feeling and his Maori tikanga. The big question around letting the actor do that was around trust – could Geoff trust it would be mesmerising and powerful? The fact of the matter is it would have always been mesmerising and powerful because Wi Kuki Kaa’s truth is in those lines.

"One of the saddest things is that those lessons about trust haven’t been learnt. The fact that on some levels we do inhabit different worlds and we have to trust that Maori actors will bring those worlds to the screen more forcefully and more dramatically because it is part of their truth. And it is not anything to be feared, but there is still a lot of resistance from directors and producers about drawing in the actors as a co-conspirator in adding power and drama."

Kirk also feels actors have a lot to offer the process but they are often brought in too late:

"We’re talking about process which is quite rare these days. In Outrageous we get about half an hour to sit down and talk through the stuff that’s going on, which is no time at all. It seems stuff is getting faster and faster. We’re even shooting fast turnaround features and you bring the actors in the day before and it is too late. And it shouldn’t be that way – we should be able to contribute before you start shooting because once you start it is hard to change stuff."

Maori telling Maori stories

Te Paepae Ataata was established so that Maori could select and develop a slate of feature films but [at the time of the Writer's Room] they have no say over which films actually get made. “Maori want to tell Maori stories but the difficulty is getting past the gate keepers … we should have the power to green light projects.”

Briar wondered what some indigenous films, including Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s fantastic debut feature Samson and Delilah, would have looked like on the page. Samson and Delilah, which scooped up the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes was apparently hand written and included only a couple of lines of dialogue in the whole film. Kath asked if a project like that would have received funding in a New Zealand setting and Merata answered emphatically “never”!

Kath concluded the discussion: "The word I’ve heard the most tonight is truth … There is nothing quite like being on a film set – when the wairua is right and when everyone is on the same page … But it starts with the writing and it starts with that word ‘truth’."

More information:

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Written by

Script To Screen

23 Feb 2010

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