Aotearoa is often touted as a nation that punches above its weight for filmmaking prowess. Our slate of internationally acclaimed writers, directors, producers and editors might easily dupe one into thinking our local film industry is more progressive than our Hollywood peers. In some ways we are, but it’s something of a disgrace that, in 2021, we can only boast two feature films written and directed by wāhine Māori - nearly 30 years apart.
It’s a disappointing statistic given many of our most successful cinematic outputs are stories about Māori, yet at the same time we seldom afford indigenous voices - and especially indigenous women - a spot in the director’s chair.
Thirty-three years ago the imitable Merata Mita (Te Arawa, Ngāti Pikiao) released Mauri (1988), a thrilling genre-fusing saga that cemented the late director’s status as the godmother of indigenous cinema.
For a pioneering wahine who truly decolonised the screen within and beyond the celluloid world, it’s taken almost 30 years before other wāhine Māori filmmakers were afforded the opportunity to direct their own stories.
As 2017’s Waru demonstrates, the creative possibilities of indigenous filmmaking is infinite, with eight wāhine Māori creating a gripping and ambitious anthology of 8 x 10 minute short films anchored through the tangi of the eponymous Waru. And while some may argue that Waru isn’t a feature film per se, it’d be remiss to exclude it given how it shattered any lingering fallacy that such filmmaking talent doesn’t exist.
And finally, 33 years since Mauri, there’s Cousins (2021) from Ainsley Gardiner (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Awa) and Briar Grace-Smith (Ngā Puhi & Ngāti Wai) based on Patricia Grace’s acclaimed 1992 novel following the fate of three Māori cousins in post WWll Aotearoa.
When one cousin, Mata, is removed from her whānau as a child and thrust into state care, the trio are profoundly affected for decades to come until a chance encounter changes the course of their lives.
Unsurprisingly these three cinematic feats share a whakapapa of sorts, palpable not only through their subject matter centring on identity, belonging and community, but in reality, too; the late Merata Mita originally held the rights to adapt Grace’s novel into a feature, a dream that sadly couldn’t come to fruition before her passing in 2010.
Merata’s vision to see Cousins materialise onto the big screen sat in limbo for almost a decade. In that time, Ainsley and Briar worked as writer-directors on Waru and various other projects, only to fortuitously reconnect as co-directors on Cousins two years later.
The result is a film that is both epic and intimate in equal measure.
To unpack its layers both in-front of and behind the screen, I sat down with the co-directors to discuss the filmmaking process, divesting from Hollywood protocols, and what changes they want to see for the next generation of filmmakers.
• Cousins is in cinemas around Aotearoa from March 4, and will open in Auckland cinemas when alert levels change.
LITIA: After I watched the film I was reminded of Moana Jackson’s quote that “whakapapa is a never ending series of beginnings”. I’m hoping we can talk about the whakapapa of this film; how it fell into both your hands and when you both knew the time was the right time to translate the story into film.
AINSLEY: I had read a script of Cousins about 18 years ago. At the time it was a beautiful script, like the book when I first read it, it felt like something that I’d never seen before resonated really deeply. It was Patricia’s way of writing, that it was about Māori women and the way she narrated the story.
With Merata’s script, I loved how she captured the spirit of the novel. I had this experience of reading it where it felt like I was looking at the painting. I can’t articulate it any better than that. It wasn’t plot driven, it was more experiential. I hoped that Merata would make that film, but unfortunately she was unable to and sadly passed away. A few years later Briar was working at the New Zealand Film Commission and said to me “why don’t you do Cousins?”
BRIAR: Yeah, I was contracting at the Film Commission and aware that Merata had tried to make that movie. That was her big dream and after her passing it was languishing and possibly wasn’t going to get made. You do start to fear that projects might expire because of so many attempts. I eventually rang Ainsley and asked if she thought about picking it up. This reignited something in her and, eventually, I came on board because she needed a writer. I didn’t put my hand up at first [laughs] so I had to ask her, “hey why don’t you ask me?”...
AINSLEY: [Laughing] We often talk about how there’s such politeness between us. I wanted to ask her [Briar], and thankfully she wanted to do it.
LITIA: And did aspects of Merata’s script make it to your film, or did you approach the script writing process with a fresh perspective?
BRIAR: It was a fresh start but Patricia Grace had written a draft of her version of the film. I took parts from that and used them as a point to fire off and grow it into something of my own. In saying that it was really important that the initial feeling Patricia ignited in the script remained.
LITIA: I like what you said Ainsley about the story being more impressionistic, like a painting. Indigenous stories are rarely linear and weave through past, present and future. That’s true of both the book and when you watch the film. What was it like to translate that non-linear narrative onto the screen?
BRIAR: Reading the book is an experience that I liken to whaikōrero; the speaker, in getting to their point must jump between past, present and future before coming to a conclusion based on all that was heard. That style of narration was very important to us. Any attempt to make the film linear simply wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been as compelling nor interesting. The non-linear narrative is true to the spirit.
LITIA: Did you experience any pushback to telling it in that way? Especially as it goes against the more ‘traditional’ modes of storytelling?
BRIAR: It’s definitely not what people are used to, but we kept believing this was part of what it was. Especially in the editing process we wanted to ensure the film would make for a compelling watch and hold the tension - even with that fractured narrative. There was some push-back to try and make it a linear story, and we did try and arrange it like that.
AINSLEY: And I’m usually big fan of going linear. I’ll always say “let’s try it and see what emerges”. And there are many ways to edit a story but we always returned to the script. When we were struggling in the edit, it was a matter of revisiting the script and how it naturally allowed for the order to emerge. Really, it was how Briar so brilliantly translated Patricia’s book. There’s something inherently indigenous in Briar and Patricia’s writing - they hold secrets you can’t articulate through reason or logic, it just is. Like Tikanga. The story has its own shape.
LITIA: Definitely, as you watch the film it’s incredibly layered and covers many complex issues but I never felt that over-explained itself. There’s a lot of beauty in what’s left unsaid. You get a feeling of things, but it’s so rich you almost need to see it twice.
BRIAR: Yeah, you do. Actually, we were encouraged to put timestamps on the screen saying the date and location for different scenes but thankfully we rebelled because that would’ve been really distracting for the viewer.
LITIA: And the art and costume departments did such a superb job of making the timeframes clear for the audience. This circles back to the point you spoke about Ainsley, before the film started, that as much as Merata wanted to make this film, the institutional support wasn’t really there for her to do it.
Do you there’s sufficient support now, especially for wāhine Māori, to embark on films like this? I was pretty shocked to learn that this is only the second feature by a wahine Māori director, although I do count Waru, too.
AINSLEY: It’s not that the support isn’t necessarily there, I mean intentions are good but what matters are those deeper layers of understanding. Like we can’t tell Māori women “Yes the door is open BUT you must follow this path”. Actually, if the door is truly open, we need you to follow your path. Waru gave me an experience of how Māori women work creatively; at a table, collaboratively, starting with whakapapa and whanaungatanga, sharing stories, then getting into robust social and political debate and then creativity and scriptwriting. So yeah, the support is there but the structures are so deeply entrenched in patriarchal and monocultural ways.
Briar and I are senior enough that we didn’t have to deal with those troubles younger filmmakers often get. We were lucky with this experience to have control over the story.
LITIA: Could you explain a bit more about the choice to co-direct? Filmmaking often prides itself on the cult of the ‘individual genius director’, that we don’t often think about filmmaking as a truly collaborative endeavour.
BRIAR: We never really intended to co-direct but by the time the film came around for production we had so much more experience as directors that it seemed silly to not put ourselves forward. I mean, neither one of us would’ve usually raised hands, but I just said why not? We were so immersed in the story and knew it inside out. When discussing a script you’re really talking about a vision for the film, and we had that. We were already halfway there with how we wanted to see it.
AINSLEY: Our thinking about filmmaking is so often colonised by the practices we’re used to. As a producer, I fight hard for writers to direct if they want to, especially early on in their careers. Because they own those ideas. We work in an industry that too often asks people to give away their power. My thinking for Cousins wasn’t the same. For me, it was doing Waru that flipped the myth that there’s “no wāhine Māori directors”. I was like “wow, there are so many of us!” and it was such a good wake up call to see that.
For Cousins, I agree that we knew the story the most intimately. To come on and co-direct, I just needed a way into the material in order for it to resonate with me and to recognise myself in the story. For me it was the character of Mata. I was raised like a pākehā girl and felt very isolated from my identity and culture when I was young. Once I had that ‘in’ I could give the story an authentic perspective. It provided quite an elegant way for Briar and I to co-direct. As I identified most with Mata, I was the kaikōrero for her story, and Briar with Missy.
BRIAR: For me, with Missy’s character I resonated with the community scenes and that aspect of her character. As a writer, I write stories and films within and about our communities. People always used to tell me to cut back on characters, and I did, but it never felt right because that’s who we are as Māori. Like Waru, I like exploring all these characters because we are a community. The main thing is to make a story strong even though it has all these people woven into it.
LITIA: How was it directing children alongside such experienced adult actors? Especially navigating intense issues about state-care, loss and trauma.
BRIAR: It was really different. With the kids, we did the work to make them feel like a family. We spent time with those kids all together and were very knitted as a production. But with the child version of the main characters all the actors naturally carried an essence of their character. They were chosen because there was something about them that inherently evoked the spirit of Mata, Makareta and Missy. In many ways they were just being themselves. What can go wrong with kids is when they feel the need to start ‘acting’.
AINSLEY: Yeah! And the toughest thing is never the kids themselves, it's the expectations adults put on them. Everyone is so used to working in a particular way, but that ‘way’ is usually with adults. That was an important lesson for me.
I love working with kids and Cousins was a big reminder that the kids are never the issue. We must change how the processes are done because we’re following rules handed from Hollywood and it often doesn’t suit us, especially as Māori. We have a flow and a way of working.
LITIA: Definitely. There’s a lot of trauma this story carries, at various levels. How did you navigate dealing with trauma authentically whilst ensuring the safety of the cast and crew?
AINSLEY: We established a tikanga around all the issues in the film. We had karakia to start and end the day. It’s a simple but effective way to create safety. When you’re doing it at home, sometimes just as a practice, you’re not truly aware of how effective it is.
Libby Hakaraia (co-producer; Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira and Te Āti Awa) did a beautiful karakia day and night. She’d tell us where we were in the Maramataka, what moon cycle we were in and what it was good for. It was a very beautiful reminder that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, that it’s just a film, everything is fine. In certain scenes which were more sensitive or traumatic, extra kōrero with the actors was required, and we’d discuss issues openly.
BRIAR: As directors it’s important to provide protection and space around the actor to help them get in the zone. I also think about manaakitanga as it’s so incredibly important in filmmaking but it’s so underestimated in the film industry. It’s really just care and respect for each other. We must make sure everyone is safe and okay or people can fall out of the fold. We must always keep tabs on each other.
AINSLEY: We also had a flat hierarchy on set that was akin to working in a marae. The people performing the whaikōrero are no more important than those in the whare kai. It’s all about inviting the spirit of democracy. It’s not us at the top chain of command; we all do a job and show manaakitanga between all of us.
It’s funny because the industry is starting to adopt these ideas but they’re actually ancient principles and very old ways of working, but ‘new’ to the industry. When you have people who’ve worked in the industry for such a long time it takes a while to understand that there’s a better way of working and to decolonise their processes. It’s a work in progress to create a truly kaupapa Māori environment on set.
LITIA: It goes to the idea that what’s good for Māori is often good for everyone! I read that much of the filming took place around Lake Rotoiti at Te Waiti Marae. What involvement did Mana Whenua, Ngāti Hinekura and Ngāti Pikiao, have in the film?
AINSLEY: Yes, Ngāti Pikiao are my iwi and helped contribute to the film. Part of filming on their whenua was having training positions for youth from that hapū to learn about filmmaking. We had people in front of the camera, behind the camera as half the shoot was in that area.
There was a huge amount of goodwill and an excitement around the film from the local community. Filmmaking does have such a glamorous perception [laughs] and people get excited to be on set, and it really is fun. We were so lucky to have massive buy-in and a real fluidity and flexibility with tikanga. There was their tikanga for the marae and then our tikanga for the creative process and both fitted together. It was an incredibly rewarding experience.
LITIA: And reading the credits it was great to see so many Māori in various roles across the project. While it’s important to have that on-screen representation, was there a clear production goal to have more Māori in roles behind the camera, too?
AINSLEY: It is, but it’s sometimes hard, too. The goal is not just Māori, but Māori women. We did a great job in terms of women behind the scenes and having a higher than average number of Māori on set.
It sometimes needs to be a political act to get those numbers right because people say “oh we just want the best person for the job”. But often those are the same people who keep getting the opportunities. And what does “best” mean anyway? It’s a work in progress but a deliberate effort for us to have as many Māori, as many women, and as many Māori women as Heads of Department. Like our Director of Photography Raymond Edwards (Whakatõhea and Raukawa), and Miriama Grace-Smith (Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Toarangatira and Ngāti Porou) in the art department as co-art director
LITIA: Oh yes, the film is so beautifully shot. What was the process for creating that visual style?
BRIAR: Everyone on set was really a master of their craft. With the visuals, a lot of what you see is Raymond’s instinct. He’s wonderfully instinctive, following the spirit of the story and where it’s travelling.
LITIA: It felt very organic, but you can tell there’s a specificity to each shot. The lighting and everything is incredibly lush.
AINSLEY: He has a great eye. It’s a relief to have expertise where you need. Briar and I worked hard to ensure the story was being conveyed truthfully through the performances, and we also had some strong ideas about visuals, but you can’t hold it all. To trust Ray was great. And it’s fine to disagree at times, that’s all part of it. Briar you definitely had some kooky ideas [laughs].
BRIAR: [Laughing] Yes, sometimes it's hard when you have a vision in your head and you try to articulate it in words...
AINSLEY: Ultimately, because a huge part of co-directing and truly inviting the spirit of democracy is grappling with one’s ego and personal perspective. You should fight hard for your vision when it feels right, but also be able to let things go. That’s what we did a lot of.
LITIA: The film releases this week in cinemas but you’ve been touring it with various marae for the past few weeks. Could you tell me more about that?
BRIAR: It’s something Ainsley has done before, for example with Boy (2010)-
AINSLEY: - it’s essentially about taking the film home.
BRIAR: There’s a practicality to it, too, as many of our rural communities live a long way from the cinema so they can’t access that experience.
Word of mouth is key amongst our people. We talk and talk. It’s like part of the film’s distribution plan [laughs].
My experience in taking it to my marae up north was really special. I wasn’t raised there so I, like many others, often suffer from imposter syndrome. But taking it to my marae was wonderful on so many levels.
Cousins is a story about dislocation and returning to the papakāinga. The film was welcomed, I was welcomed, and we all talked about this feeling of returning home. There are so many of us that have felt dislocated at some point in our lives. That was the kōrero that emerged in the most gentle way. People in my marae felt safe to discuss these issues and the film in a place they knew, amongst whānau. It was quite profound, all of these things happening at once...
LITIA: That’s really beautiful, as though art was imitating life. It’s not hard to see that this film was a labour of love. Some artists, when talking about filmmaking, push the idea that it doesn’t matter what people think about it. But I feel like indigenous and directors of colour carry a sense of responsibility for their art to their communities. Would you say this was true of Cousins?
AINSLEY: Filmmaking is always about checking your ego. I was always reminding myself that I’m in service to something bigger. I’ve always been a service person in this industry. It’s a weird paradox, because you’re often told just to forget about what people think and just make the best film. And I do think Briar and I made the best film we can. In order to be an artist you’ve got to bring your full self to the table, and be clear about your point of view, or, in this case, our shared point of view. But at the same time the film is also about whakapapa and that comes with responsibility. It informs our being. You’re always serving your whakapapa whether you’re intending to or not.
LITIA: And sometimes that responsibility comes with a pressure to be everything to everyone, which is an impossible standard. But were there those whose opinions mattered most for you with this film?
BRIAR: Definitely our own people. It’s a Māori story. If it doesn’t resonate with them, then you’re missing something.
AINSLEY: And our own are our harshest critics [laughs]
BRIAR: [Laughing] So straight up!
AINSLEY: With any of these things, and it’s a bit of a cliche, but if the film moves those who've had an experience like these characters and they can identify with it because it’s truthfully representing it back to them, then that’s what’s important. For anyone who has experienced a struggle with their Māori identity, felt disconnected, disenfranchised, suffered cultural loss…if it resonates with them, I’ll be relieved.
LITIA: Yes, and although it’s specific to Māori I imagine it will resonate with indigenous peoples worldwide. Being tauiwi I was still incredibly moved by it, but for my friend who is Māori she engaged with it on another level again. In many parts there was hardly a dry eye in the room. Everyone was just fixated to the screen, even as the credits rolled.
BRIAR: When we first watched the film in cinemas we still had our critical hats on. I heard the woman next to me start breathing heavily and thought she was unwell. Then I realised she was crying. When the lights came up nobody moved. They were all still sitting with it.
LITIA: As this chapter of Cousins, from book to film, comes to an end, what ‘beginning’ do you hope it opens for the future?
AINSLEY: The biggest thing for me is about the filmmaking process. I hope we’re on a journey to change some of the processes behind how we write, fund, and tell Māori stories. Also creating an audience for films that aren’t wedded to the Hollywood structures and sensationalism in order to express who we are and what's important to us.
BRIAR: Beyond that, I hope that for emerging Māori women filmmakers we’ve helped crack the ground open a little more for them. We need more of us not just writing and directing, but as sound engineers, distributors, technicians. All of us, all the way through.