The Observer - The New Review - - Critics -

(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.

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