White Lies: Beautifully bleak

By Liz Light

Rachel House, Antonia Prebble and Whirimako Black in 'White Lies'. Photo / Todd Eyre
Rachel House, Antonia Prebble and Whirimako Black in 'White Lies'. Photo / Todd Eyre

The film White Lies started as a novella written by Witi Ihimaera called Medicine Woman, was adapted to screenplay and directed by an acclaimed Mexican/New Zealand director Dana Rotberg, was cut and shaped by producer John Barnett and had its wings clipped by the censors.

White Lies has been pushed and pulled great distances from the original novella.

This, I suppose, is the normal movie process and I understand that Ihimaera is happy with the end result.

Rotberg knew she needed to see the place where Ihimaera's story was set to do it justice, so one day drove from Auckland to Ruatahuna. She met Richard and Meriann White by chance at the petrol station.

"We spent a beautiful day on horseback going through the old Maori tracks in the bush," says Rotberg. "It was pouring with rain and for me it was like a baptism.

That was the first time I understood visually, and in other ways, the meaning of the land and that bush.

That night I slept at the marae and asked permission to tell this story."

This movie is no Boy. There is only one smile in the entire 96 minutes and that comes at the end, probably the 95th minute. It's a serious and sad examination of identity and cultural loss for Maori in the early part of the 20th century and the Pakeha racism, brutality and bloody-mindedness that was part of it.

White Lies has two settings; Ruatahuna in Te Urewera, Tuhoe territory, and the inside of a Victorian mansion in a nearby unnamed town, Gisborne in the novella, though the homestead filming was done in Auckland.

Discovering the Oputao Marae, in Ruatahuna, was a boon for the director. It's absolutely authentic and little had to be done to take it back a century. It was also undoubtedly helpful that Richard and Meriann White were happy to support the project in hundreds of ways and that Richard knows the territory and the beauty of Te Urewera as well as he knows his whakapapa, which includes, ironically considering the title of the film, one rogue Pakeha great grandfather who left this branch of a proudly Maori family with the surname White.

Meriann teaches at the Ruatahuna School so it was easy to arrange for children from the school to audition for parts in the movie (about 20 locals act in it) and she says the process was good for the children, too; confidence building and insightful for kids from an isolated Maori community. For two weeks the small community opened its hearts, houses and marae to the film crew, about 70 of them, and it seems to have been a mutually happy, respectful and exciting learning experience for locals and visitors.

I was disappointed that there wasn't more Ruatahuna in the movie, and more magnificent Te Urewera scenery. And I could have done with less of three women facing-off unpleasantly about their degrees of whiteness and Maori cultural identity.

It is, none-the-less, a splendid art-house film. The photography is superb; thank you Alun Bollinger. Each frame is absolutely beautiful, even when depicting barbaric events and traumatic childbirths. The musical score is outstanding, perfectly tuned to the mood and to the varying cultural moments of the story and it includes judicious inclusion of birdsong and ancient Maori instruments. And the acting was excellent; Whirimako Black, Rachel House and Antonia Prebble played their difficult parts well.

When the movie finished I felt bleak but, to be fair, there is not much good that can be portrayed about the Pakeha treatment of Maori in the early 20th century. The movie has grown on me in the ensuing weeks, the unbeatably beautiful imagery has stayed with me. I'll be happy to see it again.

White Lies opens in cinemas on June 27.

- Herald on Sunday

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