Māori Film-maker Nova Paul On ‘Hawaiki’, Her Entry Into The Sundance Film Festival

By Rebecca Barry Hill
Nova Paul. Photo / Darryl Ward

Shot largely on Aotea, Great Barrier Island, the short film represents something bigger than her.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, is how New Zealand artist Nova Paul (Te Uriroroi, Te Parawhau, and Te Māhurehure ki Whatitiri, Ngāpuhi) describes the experience of getting into Sundance.

She’d been having a terrible day when the news came through that her short film Hawaiki had been accepted to screen at Robert Redford’s prestigious Utah film festival — one of 60-70 chosen from 9000 global submissions. The 10-day event famously fuelled the career of fellow Māori film-maker Taika Waititi, whose feature film Boy premiered there in 2010.

That morning, in the midst of an asthma attack, Nova had scrambled to get off the bus, leaving her laptop behind in the process. Though she eventually recovered it, she was still reeling from the experience when that fateful email came through from her producer, Tara Riddell.

“I was elated,” says Nova, a film-maker whose work has appeared at art galleries and film festivals here and overseas, and who has always shared her skills, as both a senior lecturer at AUT, and on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) where she commutes weekly to teach film-making and encourage rangatahi to tell their stories. When we first connect by phone, she’s in the middle of shooting a pirate Western.

Today, however, we’ve met at her place, one of several former workers’ cottages overlooking a magnificent grove of trees near Birkenhead’s Chelsea Sugar Factory. Nova is “crazy about trees”, her 12-year-old son Hemi once remarked (and as you’ll see in the film in which he features, so is he). Hawaiki is about trees, and is made by trees — Nova employed an early 19th-century film-making technique, whereby she boiled down puriri and pōhutukawa leaves to create an acidic solution she could use as a film developer.

“It reiterates this idea that we have a relationship with the world and with trees, not just for Māori, but all of us,” she says. “If we’re going to address climate change, we all need to start deeply thinking what our relationship with trees is going to be.”

On the surface, Hawaiki, shot by renowned cinematographer Darryl Ward, is a nine-minute observational film, much of it set on Aotea, with some scenes shot near Nova’s hāpu from Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Wai in Northland, almost directly across the moana. A group of primary-school-aged children, Hemi among them, chat idly as they climb tall branches, collect sticks with which to build a hut, and weave a welcome mat from harekeke.

The viewer is drawn into this peaceful scene not only through the beauty of the landscape, but also the ambient sounds, which crackle with insect life and birdsong, rustling twigs and amusing banter. Part of the film’s charm is the way in which ancient cultural traditions are nonchalantly interspersed with play, as the children sing James Brown and giggle over toilet humour.

“The film is not just about their relationship with each other,” says Nova, “it’s about our relationship with the environment and how we connect to cultural form as well.”

But there’s a deeper story behind Hawaiki too, she explains. After Nova had solo-parented through the first lockdown of 2020, Hemi’s kura decided not to reopen for the final few weeks of school. Rather than succumb to another stretch of social isolation, Nova inquired into enrolling him for the remainder of the year at Okiwi School on Aotea, where she has a house, and has visited regularly since she was a child with her surfing-mad mum.

Okiwi couldn’t have been more welcoming, she says, performing a powhiri to welcome Hemi on to “Hawaiki”, the students’ self-created play area on the outskirts of the school grounds. It’s a physical space and concept that Nova explains was entirely of the children’s making. As an academic researcher and a parent, “that blew me away”, she says.

“The other parents and I came to the conclusion it was something special and almost intangible; that the land was guiding them. They spend a lot of time thinking about how they’re going to heal the trees and look after each other. And as you see in the film, they’re doing weaving, they’re making spaces to explore these Māori concepts.”

In Māori folklore, Hawaiki is a metaphysical space, a spiritual realm, a “deeply important space in our tradition”, says Nova.

“Our ancestors left us Hawaiki, which is a little bit like heaven, so that we could have a place that we could retreat to in ourselves or in our mind, a realm that would enable us to find refuge, to build a sanctuary. So in a way, what we’re seeing the kids do is actually what our ancestors left us. And you can imagine how that sits with [the disruption caused by] Covid. All of these things start to be quite layered.”

Even with the camera so close, there’s not a hint of self-consciousness in the film, an intimate window into the children’s everyday lives, one that Nova says she wouldn’t have been able to capture had she not fostered close relationships with all those involved, both on and off the camera.

Hawaiki is one of five works she’s made that straddle the worlds of film and art, each piece showing a different slice of Māori life — kaumatua and kuia singing and dancing, a father and his boys dragging a net through an estuary at a marae — that will screen at the Wellington City Gallery and the Whangārei Art Museum simultaneously. But Hawaiki is the film she feels most clearly expresses self-determination, the idea that Māori define and express their own outlook and sovereignty.

“I’m really committed to making films that enrich and uplift us and provide something to aspire to,” she says. “And to take delight in the small details, to notice them.”

It’s one of the reasons that, throughout her career capturing everyday scenes on film that connect to her whakapapa, Nova has opted to use 16mm film, a more expensive and technically challenging alternative to videotape that “forces me as a film-maker to really focus on the shot and to get it right”.

She set out to make a film that would be a “magical” experience for all involved, working with people she admired, such as cinematographer Darryl Ward, a friend Nova has known since she was a teenager. Artist-musician Larsen Winiata Tito-Taylor created the evocative soundscape — it wasn’t until they started working together on Hawaiki that they discovered they were actually cousins.

Being accepted to screen at Sundance feels especially gratifying, Nova says, as the festival has always championed indigenous stories and fostered up-and-coming directors. She hopes people watch Hawaiki and have the transformative experience she and the crew had when they made the film.

“I felt like I was really in service of telling the story,” she says. “How can I uplift and nourish through what I’ve been given, which is film-making? The whole film has been an absolute joy to make, an opportunity for us all to grow and learn.”

Hawaiki will screen at Whangārei Art Museum and Wellington City Gallery from Saturday, July 1, 2023.

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