Denis Edwards: When it comes to Kiwi movies, Maori stories rule

Denis Edwards is a novelist, scriptwriter and past president of the NZ Writers Guild, the union for screenwriters and playwrights.

James Rolleston's character in  Boy  inhabits the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Photo / Supplied
James Rolleston's character in Boy inhabits the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Photo / Supplied

Chirpy press releases speed out from the NZ Film Commission. Revenue across the industry is up. The recent Mt Zion, with its Maori youngsters hoping to rise from poverty through music, did well. It crossed the $1 million high water mark in ticket sales, and has earned distribution in other countries, an achievement given the frightening amount of product competing for screen space.

While Mt Zion has its wobbles, a script needing a light short back and sides being one of them, it is the latest in what is now a winning genre. Maori stories.

Three of the NZ Film Commission's top five grossing films are Maori, Boy, Once Were Warriors, and Whale Rider. Add What Becomes of the Broken Hearted in sixth and between them some $25 million has been pulled into the box office.

The World's Fastest Indian is the only not overtly Maori or Polynesian-flavoured story, with the Samoan-influenced Sione's Wedding rounding out the top five list.

Boy comes laced with humour. Whale Rider has its heart in matters of the spirit and tradition. Once Were Warriors and What becomes of the Broken Hearted are soaked in violence.

The settings vary, with the Whale Rider and Boy characters in picturesque but none too affluent rural villages, Once were Warriors and What becomes of the Broken Hearted are set in bleak urban settings.

The common element, and one justifying labelling them as a genre, is all of them are set on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

No one in any of the top grossing Maori films is seen working the phones to sweep currency between Auckland, London and New York, dazzling the judges at the High Court or Privy Council to reverse a great wrong, or driving aside opposition to take a high spot on the Rich List's leader board.

There are Maori fingerprints all over these movies, as originators, directors, and scriptwriters.

For Maori stories to dominate the box office, and with only 14.6 per cent of the population identifying as Maori (2006 Census), the movies might be about Maori but clearly a lot of other people are going.

A check at an Auckland cinema produces the response. "It skewed towards teenagers and early 20s, male and female, with some older people too. It wasn't exclusively young. We got both Maori and everyone else."

So what's going on? Does a collective fascination with deprived Maori tap into something dark, which doesn't get much discussed for fear of finding racism lies there?

Or, is this "Schadenfreude", the German word for an audience finding comfort and humour in the misfortune and suffering of others. That's dark. It also sits at the core of all drama and comedy; a character finding themselves in a difficult situation and having to fight emotional or physical danger.

Me? I doubt the answer lurks in some forbidden recess in the national psyche. Each of the movies in the top five is a good strong story. People have been drawn to strong stories since the Greeks codified the laws of drama. It's why Shakespeare survived the centuries, and why classics become classics. For whatever reason, be it luck or a happy collision of talent and timing, Maori movies have proved good stories.

For the moment the only dangers are milking it too hard, bombarding the audience with tales of struggling Maori, ultimately making them boring. Or, a savage genius satirises them to the point the genre can no longer be taken seriously. This can happen. Blazing Saddles helped see off the Western. The disaster genre barely survived the Airplane comedies.

For the moment, Maori rule.

- NZ Herald

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