Jojo Rabbit is nominated for six Oscars, including the award for best picture. Siena Yates spoke to Taika Waititi at the Toronto International Film Festival last year where the film premiered. This article was originally published in October 2019.
It must be a sign of the times that film lovers, makers and critics from around the world sat in a massive theatre in Toronto and collectively cried with laughter while people donned Nazi uniforms and screamed "Heil Hitler!" at one another.
Either a sign of the times or - as it was frequently referred to at the Toronto Film Festival - "the Taika Waititi effect". Probably both.
The most anticipated film of the annual festival, and indeed the year, Jojo Rabbit involves a Māori/Jewish director playing an imaginary - and frankly absurd - version of Adolf Hitler, as the lovable, roguish imaginary friend of a Nazi Youth fanatic who's in love with the Jewish girl in his attic.
In short, it's nuts. And it's nuts in the way that only Waititi could get away with.
Waititi has built up his resumé over the past 10 years with the likes of Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople making his mark on the film world, before Thor: Ragnarok proved he had the chops to not only make it in Hollywood, but to change it forever.
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It was the success of this film that boosted Jojo Rabbit off the ground, as the project had been stuck in the development stage since 2011, when Waititi began adapting it from the Christine Leunens book, Caging Skies.
He shopped it around different agencies and studios but it wasn't until his wildly successful take on Marvel's Thor franchise that Fox Searchlight gave him the call.
Not only that but rather than finding an A-list actor to play the hugely controversial part of imaginary Hitler - as per the initial plan - the studio subsequently pushed Waititi to play the part.
"I was never originally on that list because - well, obviously. Look at me," Waititi says, gesturing at his face, "it's not the most obvious choice."
But it was the right one.
Waititi won over fans and critics alike in his absurdist portrayal of Hitler, communicating the sheer farce of the dictator's hatred as well as a boy's desperation to see only the best qualities in his idol - even when he knows it's wrong.
But right choice or not, it wasn't an easy one. For every critic who loved Jojo, Waititi was also panned by those who felt he wasn't taking his World War II subject matter clearly enough.
Indiewire called it "crass" and "disingenuous" and The Telegraph gave it one star, calling it a "a dismal dereliction of duty" for presenting Nazism and the Holocaust as "goofy can-you-ever-believe-they-went-for-this-rubbish? one-offs".
However, Jojo star Stephen Merchant points out that comedy has always been used a weapon throughout history.
"The thing about fascistic people, dictators, is the one thing they have is fear and if you mock them, it diminishes their fear.
"That's why they always banned art, they banned movies, they banned anything that opposed them - because they're terrified of being mocked and criticised. And I think the more we do that, the more … powerful we become," he says.
Waititi adds: "There's always gonna be someone saying, 'Oh you're not taking it seriously enough.' Can I remind you that Charlie Chaplin did The Great Dictator in 1939?"
For him, it wasn't a risk so much as a necessity, given the current political climate. While he never actually names the President, Trump is clearly on Waititi's mind.
"I think if you're making fun of someone, if you're punching up, then it felt like I was allowed to do that, like I had more permission to do that. For me, making fun of one of the most hated people in human history felt very akin to making fun of one of the most hated people around today, so it actually felt very easy," he says.
At the world premiere of Jojo Rabbit in Toronto, Waititi spoke about how when Hitler came to power, it was because small changes seeped into society day by day and the same thing is happening now.
"Little by little, every single day of every week, there was just one small change, one thing that made people go, 'Oh, that's wrong.' But it wasn't big enough to really get everyone up in arms. It wasn't big enough until it became too late and I feel like today the same thing's happening.
"Small little things … but the more you ignore it and the more you think, 'We're at the height of human civilisation and advancement, that can never happen again,' which is exactly what they said in 1933: 'Nothing can be as bad as the first World War' - that ignorance and that arrogance that allows us to forget is really the big human flaw."
He tells TimeOut, "We need to keep telling these stories and reminding ourselves why this period of history and this moment in time was so bad and atrocious. And the thing with this imaginary Hitler is that it's all part of trying to find more inventive ways and more unique ways of telling the same stories but also drawing an audience in and surprising them.
"I feel like the messages and the stories that we keep trying to retell need to keep being retold. Some people go, "Oh another World War II movie, we get it.' The problem is, I don't think we do."
TAIKA: A FILMOGRAPHY
Eagle vs Shark (2007)
New Zealand's answer to Napoleon Dynamite, this film fast became a cult favourite with its endearing awkwardness, quotability and sheer Kiwi-ness.
Waititi's take on absentee fathers, gang life and the power of childhood imagination instantly made Boy one of the country's most popular and highest-grossing films and put Waititi - and New Zealand - on Hollywood's radar.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
This mockumentary about vampires living in a shared flat in Wellington combined Kiwi relatability with fantasy horror genre tropes and became yet another cult classic, spawning two short films, the spinoff television series Wellington Paranormal and the spinoff US TV series.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
With the world watching, Waititi put New Zealand on a platter for the world to see but he also took the chance to say something important, focusing on Ricky Baker's journey through the child welfare system and his search for a male role model.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
This film changed everything not just for Waititi but for Marvel, as Waititi proved he can put his own spin on even the biggest and most well-established blockbusters and paved the way for greater opportunities in both his and the studio's future.
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Easily Waititi's most controversial film, Jojo Rabbit marks his first major individual project in Hollywood. It marries the themes of Boy and Wilderpeople with a not-so-traditional Holocaust story, to create a film that his entire career seems to have been leading toward.
Who: Taika Waititi
What: Jojo Rabbit
When: In cinemas next Thursday