I'm not Māori, and I'm not a woman. The gulf between my experience of the world and the wāhine of this country is a wide one.
But it's been narrowed by a powerful, sad, and sublimely beautiful film.
Cousins, directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, has enhanced my understanding of what it is to be Māori and a woman in a world still coping with the trauma of colonisation.
Through slow-burning intensity, artful cinematography and brilliant character acting, my empathy was fully commanded.
Credit first goes to Patricia Grace, whose 1992 novel the film is based on.
A novel's success rests on the author's ability to create empathy for its characters, even if they are very different from the reader.
Likewise, with the film, once you immerse yourself in the world of Cousins, it's impossible not to care about the three wāhine at the centre of the story.
This does take some time. The first part of the film is the most demanding of our attention. Characters are introduced to us in widely different scenes across time: a middle-aged woman homeless on the streets of Wellington, three girls in dresses playing on a hillside, a girl being bullied at an orphanage, a woman in the kitchen of a wharenui organising the whānau. What are the connections? We don't yet know.
We're introduced, however, to sadness, loss, innocence and resilience.
There's incredible intimacy in the opening sequences of the film that is maintained throughout. I can't recall a film where close-ups of the characters' faces have been used so extensively.
Over time, we make the connections, helped by the similarities of the female characters' hairstyles as children, teenagers and adults.
Mata's hair is black, coarse and unruly. Missy's is long and reddy brown. Makareta's hair, long also and black, is usually well-brushed or tied back behind her head. For Māori, the head is tapu, and each character's hair has symbolic significance.
The pivotal story is Mata's. She is left by her mother at a Christian orphanage for ambiguous reasons. Then "claimed" by a Pākehā woman, whose motivations in the film are puzzling, but whose attitude to the vulnerable girl is clearly racist and exploitative.
While still a young girl, Mata gets to visit her Māori whānau one summer before her legal guardian blocks contact and conceals her whereabouts as an adult.
Mata goes from a strict Christian world to the Māori world of land and whānau.
This experience isn't overly romanticised; power relationships between children and adults are revealed. But overall, the interconnections of whānau in a tiny run-down house with old newspapers for wallpaper is warmly portrayed.
The three similar aged cousins develop a bond, one which is subsequently severed and lasting into their adult years — a tragedy for Mata and a source of sadness for her cousins Missy and Makareta.
Without giving too much away, a central moment of the film is the respective choices made by Missy and Makareta as teenagers. They are difficult choices, with consequences for each of them. Those choices bear the weight of cultural, social and historical forces. Nevertheless they are choices these two wāhine are free to make.
This contrasts with Mata, who is denied the ability to make choices. Her life is tragically impacted by forces beyond her control, separated from aroha and te aronga toi whenua (a sense of belonging). Psychological trauma is the result.
For all the seriousness and sadness, there are moments of humour, often delivered by Missy, as a child and later as an adult.
Rachel House gives what I think is her best film performance as the adult Missy.
House is from Whangārei of course. As is another person whose role in the film I'd like to single out, Warren Maxwell (Trinity Roots and Little Bushman). He provides the exquisite but never intrusive musical score.
Even if Cousins might not sound like a movie you would normally enjoy, I'd encourage you to brave going to see it on the big screen.
I took my 14-year-old son along, who was somewhat reluctant. He really enjoyed it and didn't stop talking about it in the car on the way home.
This deeply moving film will have special significance for the Māori women I saw laughing and crying in the cinema. Yet it succeeds also because of its universal qualities. All of us often experience life as a struggle.
Cousins is a tragic story with a redemptive grace; it points to the cultural and individual qualities inside us all that enables us to face adversity heroically and with mana.