The Māoriland Film Festival caravan that also doubled as the Box Office. From the first festival in 2014. (Photo: supplied)

Seven years ago, the Kāpiti Coast’s Māoriland Film Festival began with a little movie made in Ōtaki. Tainui Stephens explains.


It all started when Aunty Borgia said yes.

My wife, Libby Hakaraia, had written a short film about the aunties bringing some stubborn nephews into line to breathe life back into their lonely marae. I was the producer and Libby was the director. Our first task was to get approval from Ngāti Kapu to use the marae as a filming location.

When you ask the permission of an iwi to film on tribal property, or agree to a story being told, it doesn’t matter whether you’re local or not. There’s a respectful process you must go through, to give the people a chance to say no. Most iwi offer ways to communicate and get decisions made. It’s a filmmaker’s job to find out what they are.

For us, we had to discuss our kaupapa with key members in the community and get their support, before meeting with the hapū’s marae committee. Which is where the aunties came in.

Over the years, I’ve been at hui where careful plans for filming have been scuppered by irate aunties. The uncles can be like that too, but sometimes men just huff and puff. There’s often a more persuasive power about an elderly woman’s anger or contrary position.

Aunty Borgia and her cousins had that power. They wielded great influence among the Ngāti Kapu whānau in Ōtaki for many years.

Borgia Hakaraia was a career army nurse who had returned to her Raukawa people after a lifetime of service, to work in community health. There was also Aunty Betty Raureti, a formidable teacher who decided mainstream schools weren’t working for her mokopuna so she built them a kura.

Then there was Aunty Chrissy Gray, a weaver who delighted in hearing and swapping stories. She would turn what she learned about life into heartfelt poems as private gifts for those she loved.

And there was Aunty Janet Marino, who’s still a pillar of the Ōtaki Māori Catholic community. As a musician, she long oversaw, with ruthless efficiency, the choral contributions of the Pukekaraka faithful.

These staunch, loving kuia were beloved by everyone. They’d spent a lifetime working with the tikanga of the marae, and in the whare and the kitchen. Their voices in iwi matters counted. Among the four of them, their individual opinions were made very clear. If they disagreed, they never thought any less of each other. And they never retreated from a final position.

Aunty Borgia on the set of The Lawnmower Men of Kahu. (Photo supplied)

Filmmakers always face the question: “Who is your audience?”

Libby wanted to make a film for her hapū, and she wanted the hapū to take part in making it. The aunties themselves were her target audience. If they liked it, there was a good chance everyone else would too.

One way to entice indigenous viewers to our films is to make them in an indigenous way — involve the whānau and train the young people. The benefits of collective creativity and energy is felt on the screen.

But Libby also wanted her aunties to act in the film, and there was determined reluctance at first. We sweetened the proposal by suggesting that the lead actor, Rāwiri Paratene, could be their personal acting coach. Borgia swooned a little at that idea, and her approval was all that the others needed to step up.

Which was just as well because, by the time we got to the marae committee meeting, the first question I heard from Rāwiri Rikihana was: “What did Borgia say?”

We said: “She said yep. And Betty and Janet and Chrissy, too.”

Rāwiri said: “Well that’s that then.”

The cast and crew of Libby’s film, The Lawnmower Men of Kahu, outside Kapumanawawhiti wharenui. The aunties are seated in the second row from the front. (Photo: supplied)

Ōtaki itself is a stronghold of reo and tikanga, and there are storytelling genes everywhere in the village. Our stars were Rāwiri, Sonny Arahanga and Rob Mōkaraka. But apart from them, the cast for the film were whānau.

Pat and Tania Hakaraia came on board as iwi liaison and lawnmowing experts. They trained the actors to drive the mowers convincingly in the film’s highly choreographed climax.

The shoot was an adventure. The aunties made it so. They were in most of the scenes, so we placed our hope in the acting coaching we had arranged for them. The classes were a lot of fun but I don’t think they learned anything. They also had an interesting approach to learning the lines of their script. They decided not to.

So Libby’s best and only option before each scene was to ask the aunties to do this — and talk about that. They followed instructions if they wished, and sometimes wandered off the set, just because they could. Libby coaxed them into being themselves and not looking at the camera.

We finished the shoot safely, and I remember a delightful blooper where Janet and Betty are cleaning watercress. It’s about the sixth take. Janet tells Betty that “the good Lord chose to make me with my bum too close to the ground”.

Betty had no idea what to do until Janet reminded her (not very quietly): “Go on. You’re meant to laugh now!” Betty goes: “What?” We all crack up, and then so does she — and her helplessly laughing face falls forward into the watercress.

Aunty Janet and Aunty Betty . . . and the watercress.

Our film, The Lawnmower Men of Kapu, was completed after the wise attentions of the editor, Annie Collins, and the soundtrack composer, Warren Maxwell.

Our short became a gently humorous Māori tale that had a simple and profound point to make about sharing the duties of the marae. The cast and crew screening at Te Pou o Tainui was a joyous occasion. The aunties approved of our work. We then sent the film out into the world.

We hoped it would be accepted by film festivals where indigenous films are supported, and we were disappointed when key festivals like ImagineNATIVE and Sundance turned us down.

But when the film won the audience award at the marae-based Wairoa Film Festival, we knew that other Māori audiences got the point. It was then picked up by 32 film festivals around the world.

Eventually, there were many whānau and friends saying to us: “Hey, we saw Aunty Borgia on the flight back from LA.” They’d seen the film on the plane. This was proof that it could not only reach its audience, but it could also travel.

On the set of The Lawnmower Men of Kahu. (Photo supplied)

So we got to thinking that, if the world was interested in indigenous films, we’d create our own film festival to tell those stories and get the world to come to Ōtaki. We’d also make the festival industry-focused so we could develop the careers of our people.

At ImagineNATIVE in Toronto 2013, Libby launched the Māoriland Film Festival.

The Māoriland name has distinctive film origins. In the 1920s, an experiment to turn Ōtaki into the “Los Angeles of the Pacific” saw the creation of Māoriland Films, a company which made six films. The local picture theatre in Ōtaki was also known as Māoriland which, for decades, here and around the world, had been a popular name for New Zealand. It was a name ripe for reclamation.

We had to call upon our indigenous filmmaking colleagues of many countries to support our festival. They let us screen their films and promoted us on social media. Mates like Taika Waititi, Lawrence Makoare, and James Rolleston turned up along with their own films to bring some indigenous star power to the community fans.

For our local publicity campaign, we couldn’t afford the several thousand dollars required for a billboard on State Highway One. But Libby had the brainwave of buying an old caravan and covering it with festival branding. We parked it up on the highway, and also towed it around the country as a mobile billboard, ticket office, and cuppa tea space for the kaumātua.

From the very moment Aunty Borgia led the karanga to welcome manuwhiri to the inaugural Māoriland Film Festival in 2014, we have continued to serve our audiences — and the festival kaupapa has kept growing and evolving.

Seven years later, that caravan now sits nestled in the organic gardens that form part of the Māoriland Hub, the headquarters for the film festival and its year-round concerts, screenings, and exhibitions.

We define ourselves by the stories we choose to tell about ourselves. When we make films for our own people, it’s not just about the art, nor the business. We are testing the empowering potential of film.

While we need to make films that speak of the unjust impacts of a long colonisation, we also need to produce films that reflect our own interests — to explore what we want to do, rather than portray what has been done to us.

As the aunties of Ngāti Kapu pass on into that great eternal night, we appreciate the role our short film plays to preserve their memory. Just as the past masters of wood and weaving and patterns left stories in the tūpuna whare for us to remember them by, so, too, do we preserve the best of us in film.

Koia pū i taonga ai tēnei mea te kiriata Māori.

The 2021 Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki runs from March 24–28. The programme for the festival can be found here.

A free Māoriland outdoor screening. (Photo: supplied)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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