Being a writer of filmic things, I already knew TIFF was putting on a film retrospective of First Peoples Cinema (June 21 to August 11). What I wasn’t aware of was how broad the spectrum of Indigenous films would be, and from how far away. Turns out, the programme is filled with works from Australia and New Zealand, in addition to Canada and the United States.
Full disclosure: I have a deep affection for New Zealand. It was my home for over four years, while I was doing my graduate work. As a student of both cinema and history, I naturally tried to soak up all I could of New Zealand history and culture; I tutored a university course on New Zealand cinema, spent several enjoyable hours in the NZ Film Archive, and watched as much film and television as I could get my hands on. And while the annual flight over the Pacific took a couple of years off my life, you lucky Torontonians have a chance to view several cinematic treasures from New Zealand without having to suffer the cramped quarters of an airplane – because it’s coming right to you!
One of the real highlights of the New Zealand programming is the late Merata Mita’s work. It includes Bastion Point Day 507 (1980), documenting police raids against a peaceful land occupation; Patu! (1983), a truly fascinating (and at the time, controversial) look at the 1981 protests against the South African rugby team’s invitation to New Zealand, seen by many as the government’s acceptance of South African apartheid; and Mauri (1988), Mita’s first foray into fiction film (and the first fiction film ever made by a Maori woman).
For me, the true treasure is Mita’s Mana Waka (1990), a film that represents the culmination of fifty years of work. In the late 1930s, with New Zealand’s national centenary celebrations coming up, Princess Te Tuea Herangi commissioned a group of traditional Maori carvers to reconstruct a great fleet of waka taua (war canoes). A filmmaker was hired to document the construction, but the film was never completed, nor even developed. Unearthed in the 1980s, the film was restored and Merata Mita went to work putting the priceless footage in narrative order, consulting with Maori elders, and adding a bilingual soundtrack to the silent footage.
The film footage of Mana Waka, considered a sacred cultural treasure, cannot be screened without appropriate tribal members in attendance – which is one reason it has so rarely been seen, or even taken out of the country. Merata Mita’s son, Heperi Mita, will be attending the sole screening in Toronto of this historically and culturally significant work at TIFF Bell Lightbox this Saturday, June 23 at 1:00 pm.
Of course, there are other New Zealand films on offer, and some notable highlights include: the first feature ever made in the Samoan language, The Orator (2011); Taika Waititi’s short film, Tama Tu screening along with his Eagle vs. Shark (his most recent film, Boy, will be part of TIFF’s new releases on July 13); one of New Zealand’s most-watched films, Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994); and Barry Barclay’s lovely film Ngati (1987), about a seaside Maori community, was the first fiction feature ever made by a Maori filmmaker.
Many of these screenings are coming up soon, so check out the schedule and don’t miss out. Click on the names of the films above for details and showtimes, or refer to the First Peoples Cinema page on tiff.net.
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