When Kerry Warkia's 7-year-old got an infected scratch on his back, she immediately took him to hospital, but she wasn't expecting to be told off for it.

"[The nurse] just rained down on me like: 'This is disgusting, how can a mother treat her child like this, how could you have let this happen? You're not fit to be a mother'," Warkia recalls.

"In that moment I kind of thought to myself, wow, we really do carry this."

As a non-Pakeha mother, Warkia carries the weight of New Zealand's past with child abuse, and the conversations around race that are often a part of those cases.


That's part of the reason she and her husband - producer, director and actor Kiel McNaughton - set out to make Waru through their production company Brown Sugar.

Waru is a confronting, difficult, heartbreaking and yet empowering story about a young boy named Waru who has died as a result of abuse.

The other catalyst for its creation was the Nia Glassie abuse case and the resulting conversations; many of which centred on race.

Husband and wife duo Kiel McNaughton and Kerry Warkia of Brown Sugar Productions. Photo / Supplied
Husband and wife duo Kiel McNaughton and Kerry Warkia of Brown Sugar Productions. Photo / Supplied

Between them, Warkia and McNaughton share Papua New Guinean, Scottish, Maori, Chinese and Pakeha backgrounds.

"We just kind of thought, 'Man, this is a really heavy thing to carry for a country, for the amount of abuse that happens to our children'. But it was also a really heavy thing to carry as a brown mother, as brown parents," Warkia says.

She still carries it now. Just last year, her son had an asthma attack and at the hospital, a doctor asked her son questions like, "do you live in a filthy house? Is your house damp? Does anyone in your family smoke?".

And then, when he continued to answer "no" the doctor asked; "Did your mum give you lollies to lie to me when I asked you these questions?"

"And I was sitting right there," says Warkia. "And I just thought: Holy haka, this is next level."


"But the other part of me says, 'Think of what they see every day, what they have to do'. So I understand that there's all kinds of reasons why these things happen and I think with this movie, that's what we wanted to get across; a child is not abused just because of one thing...there are a whole heap of issues that surround it."

That's why Waru doesn't just tell one story one way. It's told via eight short films each made by a different female Maori director, including Briar Grace-Smith, Ainsley Gardiner, Renae Maihi, Paula Jones and Awanui Simich-Pene.

A still from Briar Grace-Smith's Waru short film Charm. Photo / Supplied
A still from Briar Grace-Smith's Waru short film Charm. Photo / Supplied

Their stories centre on female Maori characters in different parts of the country at exactly the same time of day.

At 10am, one woman runs a busy marae kitchen catering for Waru's tangi, a solo mum deals with WINZ as she struggles to find enough food for her kids, a young girl confronts her abuser head-on, two sisters risk everything to save more kids from the same fate.

They're powerful stories about what will be hugely controversial topics, but Waru dives beyond the surface on which these conversations have been had in the past. It looks at how substance abuse, financial issues, spirituality, tradition and more all play a part in abuse and the aftermath.

"Originally Kiel was going to direct, but as we were writing, we knew that ... we needed to have Maori women telling these stories because we haven't heard from them in such a long time," says Warkia.

Each director was given parameters to work within; each story had to be about a Maori woman at the same time of day and each short film had to be done in a single 10-minute shot.

"The idea of real-time in one shot means you sit with those people for 10 minutes. When you're working within those 10 minutes, every minute, every second counts toward moving the story forward. It helps us to be really present in that story," she says.

A still from Awanui Simich-Pene's Waru short film 'Titty and Bash'. Photo / Supplied
A still from Awanui Simich-Pene's Waru short film 'Titty and Bash'. Photo / Supplied

"Each of these [characters], just in that 10 minutes of their day, they make a choice, and whatever choice they make...it's going have a ripple effect and the choice they're making is a choice that takes them in another direction that is for the greater good...a direction that is for more understanding and striving to work together."

But Waru isn't about happy endings. It's confronting as hell, even though we never see the boy Waru, or find out any details about his death.

So is Warkia nervous about the country seeing it when it releases today?

"Definitely," she says. "But also I'm really proud of this work and I stand by it 100 per cent. I'm incredibly proud that we are contributing to the conversation that has to be had," she says.

"All the children who have been abused or died from abuse, whatever makeup they are, in New Zealand, they're all our kids and they still sit with us wherever we go, whatever we do and we have to do better."