Costume design is a crucial part of any film but clothing the Mother of the Nation for Whina was achieved only through the generosity of her whānau, teamwork and a few hundred ostrich feathers.
Filming took three months longer than planned, critical costume pieces came together just an hour before they were needed, and production received pushback from the very beginning.
In true Whina Cooper fashion, “Everything was a challenge,” says costume designer Kristin Seth. “But if you have the right team, you know you can do a lot.
“I know there was a lot of controversy at the news of production. There were people that weren't too into it. The main thing was that her family were into it, and that was all we needed to move forward,” Seth says.
Recognising the Whina film as a whānau effort from the very beginning was important to directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones. With mokopuna [granddaughter] Irenee Cooper as executive producer and family helping out at all stages, the mana of the Cooper family was felt throughout.
Seth also credits the effort of the Te Rarawa hāpori [community] in providing a rich resource, not only through kōrero tuku iho [stories] but Whina Cooper’s personal taonga.
“When you have these people here, it's a really beautiful thing because opportunities like this don't come around that often.”
The first job on Seth’s list: to replicate the kahu kiwi that followed Te Rōpū Matakite in 1975.
Seth tells the story best in her own words:
“So, I pretty much started day one. It was always the mission to get Whina’s kahu kiwi. The weight it would bring to the film having such a precious taonga captured on screen for eternity.
“I fell down this rabbit hole speaking, soliciting and searching for a lookalike. I went down many avenues as there were two kahu kiwi. So in the very beginning I got a cab ute and I left Auckland and drove to Whangārei stopping in at every op-shop … And still no kahu kiwi.”
“I was going all around the country, and I was talking to all these different people. I kind of got led down some path at one point.
“And then finally, her son, Joseph, invited us into his home in Panguru.
“Inside, the house was filled with mementos and precious moments of Whina and her whānau. Joseph had two rooms, one filled with busts and portraits, the other filled with her clothes and taonga.
“He lent a korowai to the team, and we gave the responsibility of kaitiaki to one of the granddaughters, Pakete Puru, who was interning with us. We bought a beautiful archival box and all the right tissue, so we could really care for the piece.”
However, the job wasn’t over yet, Seth says.
The team needed another kahu kiwi as a “stunt cloak” but, because kiwi feathers are difficult to source, they decided to use feathers of another bird variety.
“We knew we always needed another kahu kiwi as a double/stunt cloak. This proved hard and after some dead ends from so-called ‘experts’ we took matter in our hands.
“We ended up getting ostrich feathers from an ostrich farm up north. We were dying ostrich feathers, finding similar fabric and we just all went hard,” she said.
“We stitched day and night to get camera ready for the scene where Rena was to fall at the land march. Final hour, seat-of-the-pants stuff. I’m so happy with the results. With more time we would have tweaked a bit more, but a wonderful result from the whole team pulling together.”
Seth says the first time Miriama McDowell – who plays Whina in her younger years – wore the kahu kiwi, there was an unforgettable moment.
“It was a fully still night and we [the crew] were huddled behind some bushes. As soon as she goes to join the ope and walks up to them, this huge gust of wind just blows through the feathers, and we all just like look at each other,” she said.
“’She's [Whina] watching us,’ we thought. It was quite incredible. There were a lot of moments like that where you just get the chills. Like wow, that's what the right track feels like.”
While she isn’t Māori, Seth felt a connection to the project from a mana wāhine perspective.
“This is a strong woman. This is someone who I can relate to, this is how I'm going to relate. I’m honoured to be visually in there for people and younger audiences to learn about her. I feel proud of that,” she said.
“Throughout production, we had established such a great relationship with the whānau that we were fortunate enough to go up to her marae, Waipuna, in Panguru, and we did the first screening there.
“Our production designer had put an old sail up on the wall I and blacked out the windows with some mattresses, and we all just kind of lay back, marae-styles.”
Seth said whānau were emotionally moved by the movie which brought them to tears as well as fits of laughter.
“So I'm just grateful that it's there to be for everybody to watch and share and learn and hopefully be inspired by her and her work.”
Whina is now showing in New Zealand cinemas
This is a Public Interest Journalism funded role through NZ On Air