Renee Liang discusses the problems and considerations in portraying stories from another culture and talks to 2009 SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year, Zia Mandviwalla.
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I’ve been biting the bullet and rewriting the play I did last year, The Bone Feeder. (It’s amazing what a break of a few months will do to freshen a script.) It’s based on a historical shipwreck in the Hokianga, one of those incidents in early NZ history where two cultures unexpectedly came into contact with each other, in this case the Maori and the Chinese. One of the elements I’ve been struggling with is the Maori side of the story, which needs to be acknowledged in some way. Despite the fact I grew up in this country and rightly did compulsory Maori classes at school, I’m still more than a little nervous when it comes to entering the mind of a Maori character as a writer. It comes from the same slightly stammering, secret nervousness that comes when I try to speak Te Reo – am I getting it perfectly right? Could I cause offence by getting it wrong? My Maori teacher assured us we could and drilled us accordingly, and I still have that schoolgirl fear.
This nervousness also comes from my experiences on the other side of the fence. It’s fairly common to be ambushed with a shouted “Nee How!” or worse “Konichiwa!” from someone across the room, a greeting which usually precedes detailed questioning about how long I’ve been in this country, whether I’m enjoying my stay, why my English is so good etc etc. It’s taken me a long time to see these approaches for what they are, good natured, at-face-value curiosity. It’s healthy and a good step towards true understanding of all the shades and blends that make up a real person’s cultural inheritance. Less innocent are the portrayals of Asians that are still common on TV, in film - just turn on the TV and you’ll see what I mean. When will they ever get past the portrayal of Asians as either triad members or frustrated nymphomaniacs? Even our much -lauded homegrown TV dramas (you know which ones I mean) are full of lazy stereotypes. Lazy because they don’t have to challenge anyone’s perceptions. So – if I try to portray someone else’s culture, and get it wrong, then that makes me a hypocrite, right?
Every culture has had to deal with the problem of inaccurate portrayals. It’s a received wisdom in this country that you can only get away with writing cultural stories/jokes if you're) from the same ethnic background – think Billy T James, Oscar Kightley. (On the flip side, if you're ethnic, it's fine to tell Caucasian stories - is it because they are seen as "colourless"?). This expectation can similarly trap writers seen as “ethnic” – readers don’t seem to be as interested in their “non cultural” stories, so they end up feeling pushed onto a pigeon hole of their own making. There’s also the fear that no amount of research will replace the sensitivity and inside knowledge that living inside a culture will bring.
But there are always brave souls who prefer to exercise their skill as writers and storytellers, and I really admire that. Zia Mandviwalla, who has recently won the SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year, seems to have made a career so far of telling stories from cultures not her own. Her films are deeply insightful and gently thought-provoking – challenging stereotypes rather than perpetuating them. I asked her a few questions.
Renee: What made you start making films?
Zia: After finishing university I found myself working full-time in the same job I worked at part-time in while I was a student. Though I really enjoyed chefing, something felt a little wrong with the picture. So I enrolled in a screen writing paperback at the university and met a lot of people who were (self-professed) film geeks. I felt inspired by the idea of film - something that married my interests in writing and drama and threw photography into the mix. After making a short short film in my back garden that was well received (by the forty or so people who watched it!), I was encouraged enough to buy a camera and a computer, give up the job in the kitchen and make more films.
Renee: Tell us a bit about your own cultural background.
Zia: I was born in Bombay, India. I am a Zoroastrian (a small religious and ethnic group who came to India escaping the Islamic invasion of Persia several hundred years ago). However, when I was four my family went to live and work in Dubai, where I lived until the age of 18. We immigrated to New Zealand in 1996.
Renee: Have you tried other genres, as a storyteller?
Zia: I used to write short stories and poetry when I was at university, but my main focus is film making.
Renee: Your films often deal with cultures outside your own, but they have an incredibly ‘insider’ feel to them. How do you achieve this?
Zia: Primarily by honing in on the emotional predicament the characters find themselves in. Human emotion transcends culture - we all know and understand loneliness, isolation, separation etc regardless of what language we speak or what food we cook at home. For me, the authenticity lies in bringing truthful human experience to the screen. Beyond that I do my research and usually involve my actors in ensuring cultural nuances remain observed within the film.
Renee: Why do you choose to tell stories from cultures outside your own?
Zia: For no reason other than I find myself becoming interested in them. I wrote Eating Sausage after a stint of teaching English as a foreign language where most of my students were middle aged Korean women. I developed Amadi after volunteering with Refugee Services in helping newly arrived refugee families settle into life in New Zealand. The stories are born out of and a response to my own life experiences.
Renee: What are you working on at the moment?
Zia: I have a couple of feature treatments in the works and am also working on another short film.