(86 mins, 15) Directed by Briar GraceSmith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Renae Maihi, Chelsea Cohen, Paula Jones, Awanui SimichPene; starring Miriama McDowell, Tanea Heke, Kararaina Rangihau world … ” This ambitious portmanteau drama, made by a group of female Māori directors, opens with the voice of a child whose recent death haunts the narrative. His name is Waru, the Māori word for eight, and internecine accusations of guilt and neglect surround his demise. Waru’s plight has touched a nerve, provoking soul-searching and denial within the insular Māori community, alongside hostility and prejudice from outsiders. Over the course of eight interlinked interludes, the circumstances of this tragedy are elliptically examined, circling around the tangi (funeral) of Waru, revealing the social, economic and cultural forces at play.
Producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, who aimed to “communicate the shared feelings we have towards child abuse in Aotearoa [New Zealand]”, gave instructions for their directors as strict as those imposed upon Jørgen Leth by Lars von Trier in their 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions. Each segment must be filmed in a day and comprise a single shot (although some edits were employed). Starting at 9.59am on the same morning, and unfolding in real time, each story must focus on a different Māori woman and be somehow connected to Waru’s death.
We open with Charm (Tanea Heke), the “queen of the kitchen”, whom we find orchestrating a team of people preparing food for mourners. Anahera (Roimata Fox), a teacher in the nearby kindergarten, attempts to explain Waru’s death to her pupils while struggling with her own personal guilt. Meanwhile, harassed mother Mihi (Ngapaki Moetara) calls herself “invincible”, yet finds her precariously balanced world starting to crack, while wild child Em (Awhina Rose Ashby) returns home from a drunken night’s carousing to find her infant child home alone.
Things take a more profound turn in the fifth episode – the fulcrum of the film – in which tribal elders crowned with leaves clash at Waru’s tangi. As past and present meet, anger turns to sacrifice, ultimately arriving at painful spiritual resolution. Less haunting (although still provocative) is a sequence set in a local TV station, where reporter Kiritapu (Maria Walker) takes over the airwaves after her shock-jock colleague spouts racist views on child murder.
In the film’s most powerful sequence, teenager Mere (Acacia Hapi) dares to defy the silence within her own community (“you know who is responsible”), aided by a tokotoko stick that carries a touch of ancient magic. Finally, sisters Titty and Bash (Amber Curreen, Miriama McDowell), whose names evoke thunder and lightning, embark upon a defiant car journey to break the cycle of violence, becoming “a cleansing storm”.
While each segment has a distinct look and feel, cinematographer Drew Sturge and production designer Riria Lee provide a unifying aesthetic that draws the viewer right into the centre of each unfolding story. The phrase “we all could have done more” echoes throughout these tales and there’s a cumulative power to the chorus of voices that makes us feel a part of an evolving conversation.
Despite the restrictive challenges of the production (both artistic and financial) and the disparate nature of the individual vignettes, the end result adds up to a surprisingly coherent whole. While so many anthology films seem scattershot or disjointed, Waru is perfectly suited to its kaleidoscopic form, taking strength from its multitude of perspectives. It’s a remarkable achievement – authentic, impassioned, unexpected – that stands as a testament to the radical power of cooperative film-making.
Roimata Fox in the ‘authentic, impassioned, unexpected’ portmanteau film Waru.