Ainsley Gardiner (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui/Ngāti Awa/Ngāti Pikiao) co-directed the film Cousins, which has its world premiere in Rotorua on March 3. She reflects on a project that was a whānau affair.
E hoki ki tō maunga kia purea koe e ngā hau o Tāwhirimātea/Return to your mountain and be cleansed by the winds of Tāwhirimātea
We all come from somewhere and we all belong somewhere. For most Māori this is determined by whakapapa. For Pākeha New Zealanders, both from here and from elsewhere, this might be your town, this country, the country of your origin. The point is that where we belong means something. In this Covid world, more than ever, the need to feel connected is essential. I grew up referring to myself as a half-cast. I carried this sense of fracture and displacement for most of my life. When I moved to Whakatāne from Wellington in 4th form, a classmate, Josephine Stewart, helped me pronounce the word Māori "properly" (like mouldy bread) and referred to me as a "white Māori, like her", but Māori nonetheless. It was the beginning of my journey to "becoming" Māori. Telling the story of Mata, displaced and searching, has connected with me, and I expect will move many others, deeply. Filming in my iwi, Ngāti Pikiao (Rotoiti/Rotoma), fulfilled a professional dream of making movies in the places I whakapapa to. Taking the film back to my hapū and feeling at home, with the breeze of Tāwhirimātea sweeping up from Lake Rotoiti beyond, was indeed cleansing. The journey can be lifelong, but the destination in this case, home, belonging, connection, is worth every step.
Whiria te tāngata/Weave the people together
Cousins is a film about whakapapa and has its own whakapapa and long history, that begins in our shared colonial history and its impact on my people, and is passed to Patricia Grace, whose novel draws on those things and the stories and experiences of her whānau to Briar Grace-Smith, who takes those things and writes the script for the film Cousins will become. It is a book, a film, and it carries wairua and whakapapa, it speaks to important political and social issues that are still hurting Māori today. It is made by Māori with Māori in front of and behind the cameras, held by tikanga, in a place that I descend from. It has reminded me that, like the film BOY, a decade ago, my purpose is clearest when film-making, culture, community and social justice align. Weave together all the things that matter. In the convergence of these things there is true resonance, momentum and maybe, just maybe, even change.
Smashing the Patriarchy
Ka whawhai tonu matou, mō āke tōnu atu/We will keep fighting, until . . .
We have a lot of faith and investment in the Hollywood/Western model of making feature films, a patriarchal, hierarchical practice that is about 115 years old. So many cultural practices of storytelling, including Māori oral traditions, outdate that by at least hundreds of years. What happens when we stop following the protagonist/antagonist, three-act structure, conflict-based model? We missed out on the work of art that would have been Merata Mita's Cousins because a multi-protagonist/passive-protagonist narrative with ghosts that only appear at the tangi and unsympathetic Pākeha characters, wasn't an acceptable way of telling the story. What other ways of storytelling are we missing because we can't throw away the current rule book?
Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi - engari he toa takitini ke/This is not the work of one, this is the work of many
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Film is the Act of Collaboration, it is the Art of Compromise.
Who said the director should sit at the top of the food chain? We invited the spirit of democracy into our film shoot. We follow Dick Grace's theory of flat hierarchy, which in fact, is just emulating the natural way a marae is run. Everyone has a place and while some may sit out front or speak first or carry a certain amount of mana, everyone is important, every role is essential. Co-directing with Briar allowed us to demonstrate these values explicitly. We both brought our full selves to the table, both very different people with hugely different life experiences, but we worked to collaborate so that a shared vision would elevate, not dilute, our own individual visions. How wonderful to not have to hold something so big on your own. True collaboration, making films as a community, has reminded me that we don't need to do things alone, connection again, is key.
Timing - is everything
Poipoia te kakano, kia puawai/Nurture the seed, it will bloom.
While we missed out on seeing the masterpiece that Merata's Cousins would have been, sometimes a long history is necessary to reach the right place and time. For us, among the many things the future gave us was a wealth of wāhine Māori actors, experience at all levels, from which to cast the film. So many wonderful practitioners, we were spoiled for choice and could have pieced this puzzle together in so many ways. From the power and presence of Rachel House, the quiet grace and charisma of Tanea Heke, the gentle but fierce determination of Briar Grace-Smith to the enigmatic magic and exuberance of our emerging young actors and tamariki, we began to truly run the gamut of representation for Māori women. I can't name them all here but suffice to say that the wall that held the photos of the faces of our cast strained under the weight of their combined beauty, strength and potential.
Whaia te iti kahurangi ki te tūoho koe me he maunga teitei - Aim for the clouds, if you stumble, you will still land on the lofty mountain
Films are their own living breathing organisms - they take us where they intend to go. Our job is to collect the necessary ingredients and assemble them the best we can. Our goal is not to achieve perfection, though we might strive for it, our goal is to reflect our own humanity to ourselves, flawed and beautiful. Cousins speaks to us as a nation, as a collection of peoples, as women trying to find our place and purpose in the world and most significantly as Wāhine Māori, for all that is lost and all the strength it has taken to still be here, not just to be resilient but to continue to grow in grace and power.
Cousins is in cinemas March 4.