The kids came first - literally - at Parihaka. When soldiers invaded the small settlement near the tip of Cape Taranaki in November 1881, the kids were the defence's front line.

The military assault was intended to snuff out Maori resistance to the arrival of settlers on confiscated land. But if the soldiers expected opposition, they were in for a surprise: the local advance guard was made up of 200 singing children, many bearing the now iconic white feathers of peace.

"There was a line of children across the entrance to the big village, a kind of singing class directed by an old man with a stick," wrote historian James Cowan barely 40 years later. "The children sat there unmoving, droning away, and even when a mounted officer galloped up and pulled his horse up so short that the dirt from its forefeet spattered the children, they still went on chanting, perfectly oblivious, apparently, to the Pakeha, and the old man calmly continued his monotonous drone."

The kids also come first in Tatarakihi, Paora Joseph's engaging documentary which begins a season in Auckland today.. The film, subtitled The Children of Parihaka, foregrounds youngsters, who are known locally as cicadas (tatarakihi), because of their fondness for noisy chatter.


Yet little of the film is actually shot in Taranaki. The kaupapa is a road trip in which the kids, from Te Kura Kaupapa o Tamarongo, are taken to the sites of their forebears' suffering, far away from their ancestral lands.

For the most part, this means visiting jails. The veterans of the campaigns of passive resistance, including those whose hands had steered ploughs across the occupying settlers' grasslands, were incarcerated and put to hard labour in Christchurch and Dunedin. Joseph's camera unobtrusively documents the long trip south to these sites and vividly conveys the awestruck nature of the children's experience.

Aptly, the film is very Maori in its style and tone: traditional narrative structure goes out the window in favour of a subject-centred approach. The kids tell the stories - historical and present-day - and their point of view is privileged at every turn.

This directness of approach makes for an unusual and very affecting movie. When one of the kids tells us that "inside the prison, I hear the crying", we can hear it too. Impressive.

What: Tatarakihi: The Children of Parihaka
Where: Rialto Newmarket from Thursday. Director Paora Joseph will attend the Friday 6pm screening. Also screening on Waiheke Island (Nov 18 and 20)
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