Are Maori filmmakers guilty of perpetuating stereotypes of Maori characters? The guitar-playing Billy T James, the violence of Jake the Muss … do these stereotypical characters define Maori in today’s writing, or can they serve to highlight truths and move us beyond the world we think we know?
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The Script to Screen Writer's Room - Shifting Maori Stereotypes into Truth (presented in association with Nga Aho Whakaari) featured writer/producers Brad Haami (Mataku, Taonga) and Christina Milligan (Nights in the Gardens of Spain, The End of the Golden Weather) in conversation with MC writer/producer Quintin Hita (The Speaker, Kowhao Rau) about the challenges facing Maori filmmakers when it comes to portraying truthful characters in the films we show to the world.
Quintin got right down to business by asking Brad if he has ever created any stereotypical characters.
“Yes, but I’ve had to think of what stereotypes mean in the context of the show I’m writing for. Sometimes the characters have to be stereotypical because an audience recognises that but, for me, it’s more about how those characters move out of that situation to become something new.”
Brad spoke about the series Mataku and how he would invite a group of kuia to his house to watch rough cuts of the show. “I wanted to see their reactions to characters that had to be stereotypical, but truthful. The kuia would know within the first five minutes what would happen to every character in the story – but they wouldn’t know the twist at the end, the moment where those stereotypes moved from the ‘known’ into a new reality.”
Christina said that stereotypes are like, “white bread instead of Vogel’s. You can eat it, feel full but there’s really nothing there. A stereotype is when you take a bundle of characteristics, put them all together but you leave out the truth that lies behind those characteristics. Nothing is a stereotype intrinsically – it’s how you handle it. Look at Kath and Kim. They are stereotypical but very funny because there is en element of truth in their characters.”
The conversation focused on one of the best known Maori screen characters, Jake the Muss from Once Were Warriors. “Jake is not a stereotype,” said Christina. “The high quality of the writing, direction and the acting combine to bring all of the trademarks of the very worst kind of stereotype to this character but yet serve to make him truthful and possess qualities that make him speak universally to all cultures. We can relate to him.”
Christina agreed that if someone living in Scandinavia, for example, who knew nothing about Maori saw such a character, they could easily assume that Jake the Muss is representative of all Maoridom. “But we can only hope that they would walk away from a film like Once Were Warriors knowing that there is a truth under there and that this character is not making a universal statement about Maori.”
Being true to one’s culture and yet speaking with a universal message is an important aspect of writing for an international market. Unfortunately the number of films being made in New Zealand is relatively small and, “… every one is precious,” said Christina. “People load so much expectation on to anything that gets out of the starting gate here. There is a paucity of films dealing with Maori and pakeha culture so each one made is weighted with such importance. We might make films that are true but they still don’t show the depth and richness of the whole New Zealand culture. Unfortunately the stories we tell can have very negative characters so what comes across to the wider audience who does not know our culture well can reinforce a stereotype.”
Quintin asked if there is a need to manufacture a more positive perception of Maori and Brad said it all comes down to well informed writers who understand character and the world of Maori. “If you want to write about a deep Maori topic, but you do not exist within Maoridom, how are you going to do it? You could call in an advisor, like me, but you have to understand Maoridom in the context within which you create these stories. I don’t want to make characters that are driven by a Maori political world view but rather ones that are informed by an understanding of the Maori world. I want to tell a good story and connect with the audience but a film needs commercial appeal too because we want to push our view out in the world. Whale Rider is still very popular overseas and is a good example of the films we should be making, ones that portray Maori truth within an emotional arc that can reach to and be understood by anyone.”
Brad grew up in Whakatane in a very Maori home where his family would hear Chopin played on the piano one moment then shouts from a beer-fuelled fight the next. “My grandparents were very Maori and came from the concert party era. A number of the elders in our area learned to play beautiful classical music on the piano but that did not make them any less Maori. They were still growing their kumara outside. The breadth of the Maori world is much bigger than what we perceive and I liken it to a circle. At the centre are those who were brought up in a Maori world, native speakers who understand the cultural dynamics very well and live with a Maori world view. On the outer edge are the people who can speak Te Reo but have never lived inside the Maori community. On the outside we have those with no knowledge of the Maori, looking in. This is how I see writers too – if you’re outside the circle, trying to write a pre-European story, how can you do it if you’re from a world totally outside?”
Christina used Brad’s model, saying, “My heart is in the centre but my brain is outside. Much depends on the story. You need to know the truth of your characters and how they gain knowledge. We are still growing up as writers, particularly in film, when compared to some other countries where there has been greater output and for longer. It is not an easy craft. Even the most talented people take a long time to come to grips with it so we should not be surprised to see a lack of skill when it comes to developing character. It’s a growing process.”
It has been said that only Maori writers should be writing Maori characters. Quintin asked what could disqualify any writer from creating a character that existed 1,000 years ago. “No one living today could say they have an intimate connection with such a character so is it more about Maori feeling disenfranchised, not having the opportunities to tell their stories?”
Brad said that Maori may feel disenfranchised but added that if a Maori wishes to write, his advice is to, “get out there and learn the craft. If you don’t, someone else will do it for you.”
Getting to grips with Maori character and community goes alongside learning the writing craft. “I meet a lot of pakeha people who have Maori stories they want to tell,” said Brad. “I never say no to a good story or to pakeha people but they might get upset when I ask them ‘why have you created a story that has no relevance to a Maori story? You cannot do it successfully unless you are willing to add a dimension to it, for the sake of the story, so are you willing to let it go, let Maori people in to make it beautiful?’”
Christina said everyone from the Film Commission distributors to international market representatives has an interest in Maori stories. “It is an interesting world from the outside. If you have a decent Maori story everyone pricks up their ears.”
Audiences are hungry for more Maori stories and Quintin said that Maori writers may feel pressured. “Most of us did not grow up in the Maori world. We grew up in the city, country, everywhere but as long as the truth comes out in the story, that is the most important thing.”
“Write what you know,” advised Brad. “Tell the story that is familiar to you.” Brad described a recent experience with the film Tracker. “If we don’t come up with good stories ourselves then others will come from overseas, from outside our world, and do it. They see something about Maoridom that is amazing and they want to make a story.”
The script for Tracker was written by a South African and the producer asked Brad to read the script. “I told him it was a bad film and not to make it. The lead Maori character could have been French or Australian. There was nothing Maori about him. But the film was going to be made, regardless of whether we were involved in it or not. It would have been worse without our input because it would have lacked truth.”
That input was time consuming and intensive as Brad struggled to maintain Maori integrity in the film. “We had to create a huge story behind the lead character to provide the motivation for his actions in the film. It’s really hard when you have to do a fix-up job like that later. We had to determine the whole genealogy for the character … why he is here, where has he come from … and why is he running! I sat down with the director and producer and asked, “Where is he running to?” They didn’t know so I told them this Maori fellow is running to his tribal boundary, to his mountain. There is a cave at this mountain, burial caves … They liked that idea and asked, “What’s in the cave?” so I had to dream up something. “The bones of a sperm whale are in this cave,” I told them. Actually, a lot of bones were found in the mountains along the Napier Taupo highway. I then had to think about what any of this had to do with the Maori world view. Whales are very significant in Maori culture and history – they led the canoes here. A story goes that a whale went up the river, lived in a cave, and transformed itself, as a taniwha can … so the lead character goes to this cave for good reason.”
The evening concluded with a round-the-table summary and audience discussion of classic Maori stereotypes. Well known Maori comic Billy T James was often criticised for was his ‘hori twang’ but as Quintin pointed out, “Everyone talks like that where I come from and it’s not a joke. If you think that twang sounds dumb then you’ve just insulted my whanau.”
Brad defined stereotype as, “imagery a dominant community uses to portray a less dominant community. Why do a lot of Maori films have kids that swear all the time? Maybe they are like that – but does it have to be like that? I was brought up in a generation where we never swore. Also the portrayal of Maori as ‘the noble savage’ – why do we portray ourselves as warriors? And Billy T James always played the guitar – but do all Maori play the guitar? Does that guitar playing make us Maori or non- Maori? Those characters may be needed to flesh out some part of the story and create the world the main protagonist lives in but do we need to have this in every film? We have to be smart in how we portray ourselves. I believe in truth … but also the character of a story where you shift people out of the stereotype and into something else.”
- Shifting Maori Stereotypes into Truth: June 2011 Writer's Room - written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell