Cynic's guide to becoming Maori

By Susan Edmunds

The taxpayer contributed $100,000 to make a film about rorting Maori grants schemes, writes Susan Edmunds.

Ben Edwards' documentary about discovering his Maori roots aired last Sunday afternoon, a time slot considered an "industry death sentence".
Ben Edwards' documentary about discovering his Maori roots aired last Sunday afternoon, a time slot considered an "industry death sentence".

Two years ago, Ben Edwards was just an average Pakeha living in Christchurch. His knowledge of Maori culture was scant. Now, two earthquakes, the end of his marriage and loss of his recording studio later, the 30-year-old sound engineer identifies himself as Maori - Ngai Tahu, to be precise.

The September quake destroyed Edwards' recording studio, and his business partner left town. Later, his wife would leave, too. The studio was rebuilt then levelled again in the February earthquake. He needed a new career.

"I thought, 'That's right, I'm part-Maori. Ngai Tahu have great funding schemes. I have a chance to start my life again'."

Connecting with his Maori heritage began as a somewhat cynical way to get funding for a new business and a good story for a documentary, but turned into a chance for a new beginning.

While his two brothers had identified as Ngai Tahu to get help with university fees, no one in the family had given much thought to their heritage, or to the woman known as Harriet Bates - his father's great-grandmother - who was their one link to Maoridom.

Edwards set out to make a documentary called One 16th about capitalising on his scant Maori heritage, obtaining funding from TV3 and NZ on Air.

Christchurch's Rehua Marae told him he would need to attend events there for three years before he could be introduced to the elders. Facing more pressing TV deadlines, he took his quest north, travelling up the east coast of the North Island, through Waihau Bay, where the movie Boy was filmed.

Everywhere, from marae to roadside fried-bread stands, he questioned people about issues such as urbanisation, race relations and identity.

In Waipukurau he met food van cooks Joe and Reiha, who laughed and gave him a kiss when he told them why he had come up from Christchurch. In Rotorua, the information centre sent him down the road to learn how to do the haka, complete with piupiu and moko. At first, the idea reeked of tourist cheesiness, even to Edwards, but he came out of it calling it a big step towards feeling "Maori".

Edwards' journey finished with a week in Riverton, where he visited Harriet's grave, before finally meeting Ngai Tahu's Terry Ryan, of Rehua Marae, and discovering he is not Maori, as he'd thought, but 1/32.

Ryan tells him it doesn't matter. As long as he can identify one Ngai Tahu ancestor, that's enough.

His wide-eyed transformation from cynic to believer is chronicled in a documentary that aired on TV3 last Sunday. If the documentary gets people to think more about their identities, Edwards says he will be happy. "I realised I didn't need to become a Maori. I already was one."

But chances are you haven't seen his work. The documentary aired last Sunday at 4pm, a time slot director Slavko Martinov describes as an industry death sentence. One 16th received $140,865 in funding, of which $95,865 was from NZ on Air and $45,000 from TV3.

After its provocative beginnings, the documentary gradually introduces viewers to a greater understanding of what it means to be Maori, of what it means to be a New Zealander - but Martinov believes TV3 was scared off by the potential for controversy. He says taxpayers are being ripped off by the broadcaster running the programme at such a time.

The funding contract included the stipulation that the broadcaster should make every possible attempt to show the documentary on a Thursday, no later than 9.30pm, as part of the Inside New Zealand brand.

The original proposal was clear about the intention to be provocative and Martinov says he was told by TV3 commissioning editor Sue Woodfield to make it more controversial while they were working on it.

It was then watered down after an assessment from kaitiaki Tainui Stephens, in the NZ on Air process.

Stephens says: "I didn't think it was a great documentary myself, but the guy told his story. I can understand why people might feel it's offensive."

TV3 spokeswoman Rachel Lorimer says producers often take issue with their time slots. "Making television is a creative endeavour and sometimes what is produced is not strong enough to be programmed in the time slot it was commissioned for. In such cases, we find other time slots."

NZ on Air boss Jane Wrightson is similarly dismissive of Edwards and Martinov's concerns. "It sounds like they're beating up a small conspiracy theory. Some programmes don't make the cut and this is one of them."

But Martinov wants NZ on Air to take some responsibility for making sure taxpayer-funded documentaries are used for their intended purpose.

"We were so clear about making it provocative in order to get to the politics.

"There are no surprises. Why are they getting cold feet over something they ticked off on?"

Edwards never found out whether his application for Ngai Tahu funding would have been successful.

He pulled it when his insurance company told him it would pay, in full, for his recording studio to be rebuilt.

But he says the documentary-making experience was life-changing, no matter how many people slate it as either cynical or naively well-meaning, or how few saw it on television.

"The biggest surprise is that I actually do feel Maori now."

- Herald on Sunday

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