If there's a movie that begs Whale Rider comparisons it's Strength of Water, the debut feature by Armagan Ballantyne, which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival this week. CATHRIN SCHAER was there

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It's not easy being exotic. But that's exactly what cousins Hato Paparoa and Melanie Mayall-Nahi are, here on the red carpet in the middle of one of the world's most important film festivals in Berlin.

Ask the German kids who just saw The Strength of Water, New Zealand director Armagan Ballantyne's first feature film, what they liked about it and a random selection of 11 and 12-year-olds, queuing up to get their Kiwi counterparts' autographs, are fascinated by the young Maori actors - Paparoa is 13 and Mayall-Nahi is 11 - who starred in the film.

Same goes for the adults. "At the Berlinale I like coming to films that I don't know anything about," says one older Berliner. "And this was not at all what I expected. It was very moving. It also seemed like a great insight into the day to day life of the, um," he pauses pondering the correct pronunciation, "the Maw-oris."

Meanwhile Paparoa and Mayall-Nahi are thinking how exotic the Berliners are.

"They'll be talking to you in English," Mayall-Nahi notes. "And then they'll start speaking in German. It's pretty different," she laughs.

Dressed in identical black sports jackets trimmed with koru, the young actors and their mums have just spent five days in the city. Besides getting up, somewhat wide eyed, in front of the 900-strong audience at the film's premiere to sing Tutira Mai Nga Iwi and to field questions from the crowd, they've also seen a little bit of snow, they've toured the remnants of the Berlin Wall, walked under the Brandenburg gate and they even spotted star Clive Owen, who's here in town for his new film, The International, on the street.

"And we saw Barack Obama," says Paparoa, deadpan.

Barack Obama was in town? Really?

"Nah, at Madame Tussaud's," Paparoa and his cousin crack up laughing. Yep, this kid can act. And not just when he's making jokes at the expense of gullible adults.

In the film, a co-production between New Zealand and Germany (in fact, the German production partners, Pandora Film, are the same company that helped put together Whale Rider) Paparoa plays Kimi, a young boy living in the Hokianga who comes to terms with a family tragedy in an unusual way. Mayall-Nahi plays his twin sister. There's death, domestic drama, sex, violence, romance, a ferocious dog, a chicken called Aroha and more than a little ghostly

magic to his tale.

"I sat and watched this film with various different selection committees last year," explains Maryanne Redpath, director of the Generation section at the Berlinale, who just happens to be a New Zealander too; The Strength of Water is in competition in this section.

"And no matter where they originally came from, they all really loved it a lot. They liked that the culture seems so exotic, so far away - the Maori culture is so rich and so moving and German audiences are fascinated by it. And also, the fact that the film deals with issues that are very universal. And no," she adds briskly, "it's not a children's film. [Within the Generation section] we select films for young people and then we make age recommendations."

Indeed after watching the movie's moving debut in Berlin - one of the adult audience members sitting nearby left rather quickly, covering his reddened eyes - it's hard to equate the wise-cracking Paparoa, who's playing with his orange juice in a Berlin cafe the morning after the premiere, with the naive, tracksuit-and-gumboot-clad Kimi who roams the isolated coastline and farmland.

"He's like me in the way he acts with his family. I'm kind of like that with my brother," Paparoa tries to explain the similarities between himself and his character. "And I only had to cry once by myself," he notes, downplaying the compliments he's just been given for his acting, as any 13-year-old boy might.

"No, actually he's just being modest," director Ballantyne says later, when Paparoa and Mayall-Nahi have gone off to take one last look around Berlin before they fly back to New Zealand. "He was definitely able to turn it on and turn it off. It was a matter of explaining the acting process, letting them know that it's something they can go to and come back from. Both the kids were amazing. I've just had a child [Ballantyne's little girl, Carmen, is four months

old] and I was thinking about how, when she expresses herself, it is the purest form of her emotion. There's no mask, whether she's happy or sad or angry or confused. It's all written on her face. And that's the amazing thing about working with children. If you cast right, then you get that."

This kind of casting has been deliberate. Almost all the characters in the film, apart from familiar faces Nancy Brunning and Jim Moriarty, were played by what Ballantyne describes as "non-professional actors".

Most of the cast for the film, which has been around seven years in gestation - since award winning playwright Briar Grace-Smith and Ballantyne first met through a mutual friend, realised they had a lot in common and decided to make a movie together, in fact - ended up coming from all kinds of interesting places. Some were plucked from local schools, a grandmother character was sought out after Ballantyne saw her on a talent show on Maori television

and one of the male leads was spotted waiting to join a labouring crew.

And yes, Ballantyne knows this is just one of several similarities her first film has with one of this country's favourite, and most successful, films, Whale Rider.

The same co-production partner, unknown child actors in the starring roles, a small, coastal township, elements of spirituality and magic realism, lots of water and lashings of Maoridom. And hopefully, by the end of the film's festival circuit - Rotterdam was last week, Berlin this week - critical success and some international market momentum.

OK, so it's an obvious question - but could this be the nation's next Whale Rider? "There are similarities," Ballantyne agrees. "A small Maori community, children at the heart of the both films. And I'm sure the fact that Whale Rider was such a successful collaboration also helped [when it came to bringing the German production company onboard]. But I think we are telling a completely different story, we're dealing with different themes. So I guess you

could say," Ballantyne laughs, "same, same but different."

What: The Strength of Water, the debut feature by Auckland director Armagan Ballantyne screening at the Berlin Film Festival
When: It's likely the film may screen at New Zealand Film festivals before going on wider release.