Native filmmakers are gaining exposure
WHEN the Maoriland Film Festival opened on March 24 in Otaki, New Zealand, citizens of many countries could only look on with envy. Thousands of people gathered in cinemas to watch a total of 120 films. The return of the indigenous film festival after its cancellation last year also reflects the remarkable growth in films made by indigenous people. It’s been a whirlwind since the day in 2013 when Maori filmmaker Libby Hakaraia stood on stage at Toronto’s imagineNATIVE Festival and invited the world to her new event. ‘ set up in a town of 6,000 people with two motels. and not one cinema.
Taika Waititi, born in Raukokore in New Zealand, is perhaps the most famous indigenous filmmaker in the world. In 2020 he became the first indigenous person to win an Oscar for screenplay, adapting the novel “Caging Skies” into “Jojo Rabbit”. (Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar, for Best Song, in 1983.) But the international profile of Indigenous films has been building for the past 20 years. ‘ gone. This is largely due to indigenous film festivals in Canada, America and Latin America. In Maoriland’s first year, it showed 50 films; eight years later the record has more than doubled. The highly influential Indigenous program at the Sundance Film Festival, meanwhile, has supported more than 350 Indigenous filmmakers since its inception in 1994. All have been instrumental as incubators for a generation new.
“Cousins” (pictured), the film that headlined the festival in Otaki, and was voted best drama, is a prime example of the network. It is a visually stunning story about three cousins separated by colonialism and culture, and their attempts to reconnect over 50 years. Ainsley Gardiner, who co-directed the film with Briar Grace-Smith, produced several of Mr. Waititi’s early efforts, and participated in the Sundance native program 15 years ago. Like many directors showing films in Maoriland, not only to entertain, but, in the words of her mentor, the late Maori director Merata Mita, “to decolonise the screen”.
Female filmmakers are well represented at the festival and in indigenous filmmaking in general, partly thanks to the example of Mita, who first tried to make “Cousins” from a novel of the same name, 30 years back. Her efforts were hampered by racism and financiers’ opposition to a different style of filmmaking, Ms Gardiner says. But in recent years things have started to change. Indigenous and women-focused stories have captured the world’s attention, in part due to the #MeToo movement and protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock in South Dakota. Ms Gardiner says the demonstrations for racial justice last summer only added to this “great source of representation and diversity”. Ms Hakaraia agrees: “We’re really on the radar now.”
Maoriland attracts the most prominent indigenous storytellers working today. This year’s program included “Monkey Beach,” a captivating feature from acclaimed Canadian Métis-Cree filmmaker Loretta Todd, and documentaries by renowned and emerging directors such as Sterlin Harjo (“Love and Fury”) and Brooke Pepion. Swaney (“Lost Bird Girl”). Viewers also saw “Kapaemahu,” about the stones on Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach, which is nominated for next month’s Academy Awards, the first indigenous animated short.
Indigenous films control indigenous stories from white filmmakers. They follow a century of damning of Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns, and more recent well-intentioned efforts such as “Dances with Wolves” and “The Revenant” that nevertheless front white characters. Most viewers date the rise of indigenous cinema to the mid-to-late 1990s, with groundbreaking films such as “Atanarjuat,” a Canadian Inuktitut story, and “Smoke Signals” and ” Once Were Warriors”, set in contemporary Native Americans. and individual Maori worlds.
These films help to preserve indigenous culture and give indigenous people the opportunity to see themselves on screen. Beyond this, audiences of all kinds have been eager to hear stories from communities they know little about. “That’s why indigenous film is so exciting,” said Ms. Hakaraia. “People rarely see faces, different environments and humor and ways of doing things.” Ms. Todd, an experienced producer of documentaries and children’s television, believes that Indigenous storytelling provides a new way for non-Indigenous viewers to experience the world. Indigenous philosophy and politics have always been rooted in art, music, theater and dance, she says: “These are all rich, rich ways in which our stories are told.”
Drawing on ancient traditions of storytelling, indigenous cinema can feel very different from the pace and plots of Hollywood. Ms. Gardiner, after taking a storytelling workshop in Los Angeles, says the experience showed her that “the main point of difference is that the Hollywood storytelling model is based on conflict, and indigenous stories are based on connection. The idea that you’re looking for conflict as a way to move a story forward, and create a journey for your protagonist, is a fundamental difference.” In fact, the characters in both “Cousins” and “Monkey Beach” are largely seeking reconnection and reconciliation with their communities and their past.
This approach is attractive to the audience. “Cousins” was New Zealand’s top film on its opening weekend in March, beating Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon”. That success may help overcome a major remaining hurdle for filmmakers: the lack of native films on multiplex screens and major streaming services. Ms Gardiner hopes that good box office returns, and the success of festivals such as Maoriland, will encourage more distributors to recognize the value of these stories.
Some films in the Maoriland Film Festival program are available for streaming via video on demand services