Recreating the iconic beginning of the 1975 Land March, for the film Whina. (Photo supplied)

Tainui Stephens is one of the producers of Whina, a feature film on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, released nationwide last week. As Tainui writes here, making a film biopic about the iconic Māori leader who was known as The Mother of the Nation was a daunting challenge.

 

New Zealand has long denied itself a formal education in the dynamic stories of our history. And with only a very small number of biopics in our film catalogue, we’ve also denied ourselves a big-screen celebration of our heroes. 

That is changing.

Dame Whina Cooper’s life story always warranted film biography treatment, and Whina now delivers that story in cinematic fashion.

Whina was born in Te Karaka, in northern Hokianga, at the end of 1895, and died in Panguru in early 1994, aged 98. Most people know of her only from the period after the historic 1975 Land March. 

In those latter years, she became revered as the Mother of the Nation, a role she played with shrewd relish, never hiding her convictions of steel. Those years secured her legacy. The little old lady with the headscarf, holding her mokopuna by the hand at the start of a long journey into the future, is now a meme.

Few today would realise that, for the entire 20th century, Whina led a full and influential life. The dimensions of that life were worthy of a dramatic telling.

Many people have wanted to tell Whina Cooper’s story in film. After connecting with the family in 2009, producer Matthew Metcalfe sought a script that could do justice to her long life. When writer James Lucas spent extended time with the family, the script took a big step forward. I saw for the first time a deeper story about mana. The divine authority of ancestry, made personal, and passed on. 

Matthew and I had produced The Dead Lands, a popular Māori action film and television series. We understood the appetite for Māori stories at home and abroad. With acclaimed actress Rena Owen on board, we started to get the market support for an historical feature film on Whina’s life, spanning the years 1895 to 1975. 

I also committed to the project because Whina and I are of the same Te Rarawa tribe. 

Miriama McDowell as younger Whina, Matu Ngaropo as Apirana Ngata, and Vinnie Bennett as William Cooper, Whina’s second husband. (Photo supplied)

Miriama McDowell. (Photo supplied)

With new confidence, Matthew and I drove up to Panguru to meet with Whina’s children, Joe and Hinerangi, as well as Moka Puru, her beloved son-in-law. I enjoyed spending time with these well-respected kaumātua and their daughters and minders, Catherine and Kathleen. We agreed the heart of the film would be a love story between Whina and William Cooper, and the 1975 land march would be its narrative spine. We pored over old photos and learned more and more about Whina. 

Her assertive leadership from the very beginning won her faithful supporters, as well as staunch detractors. Her personal life was as busy as her public life. When she married her second husband, William, she did so against the prevailing attitudes of church and community. 

Whina was a woman who spoke out. She was ostracised from her Hokianga home for part of her life, but in time she returned. We wanted to reveal the character of this irrepressible leader, not just portray her deeds. 

Hinerangi told me one small but revealing detail. I regretted we couldn’t use it in the film, but it still makes me giggle. Whina was born into an old Māori world and paid attention to all the signs of nature. Clouds, winds and birds could have certain meanings on any given day. She also saw signs in the dregs of teacups and loved to read tea leaves. Depending on her mood and whatever she saw in your teacup, you might be promised a very good, or very bad, day. This pastime gave Whina much pleasure, and I can only imagine how grumpy she must have been when the era of the tea bag arrived.   

Joe Cooper made the point that they viewed the leaders of the 1975 march as family. I took that as a message to get the land march story right. It was as significant as anything we might say about her private life. 

Irenee Cooper, Whina’s mokopuna, and Miriama McDowell who played younger Whina. (Photo supplied)

Rena Owen, who played older Whina, preparing for a scene. (Photo supplied)

Whina generated controversy all her life. News of our film project sparked some scurrilous mutterings on social media. Mostly it was ill-considered innuendo aimed at Matthew or at Māori working on the project. The brief fever passed as the full support of the Cooper family and Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa became apparent. The family were kept up to date with the script and the creativity required to compress such a huge life into a one-and-a-half-hour film. 

But first we needed a director. Someone the film’s investors could believe in. 

We knew we had a great story and script. We had Rena Owen to play Whina in her older years. And we knew we had an audience. But without a director, we had nothing. 

A producer is in charge of the momentum of a project. You look for the planets of expectation to align in a way that convinces you the time to act is now. Matthew and I hunted high and low for someone willing to take on the task of directing the film. The best Māori directors were committed elsewhere. I was happy to work with a Pākehā or Indigenous director who had the chops and a humble soul for the kaupapa. But everyone I knew who would bring mana to the task was busy, or unwilling to take up the challenge.  

One day, I rang a trusted friend in Māori drama. She suggested a name: James Napier Robertson. James needed little prompting to see the cinematic potential of a story about Whina Cooper. He had already told a stunning Māori story on film with the masterful The Dark Horse, which he wrote and directed. Any director who could work so successfully with Cliff Curtis would have benefited from that actor’s staunch commitment to cultural and artistic integrity. 

James took time to speak to his confidants and family before coming back to say he was on board. He was aware of the challenges of being a Pākehā director of such a Māori story, but not dissuaded. He felt the time was ripe for the film. And I knew he was a brother who would serve the kaupapa.

Matthew and I leapt into action and took our proposal to the next steps in the long journey to get a green light for production. On that journey, the best way to make a film becomes apparent.

As James familiarised himself with the script and the project’s expectations, he made suggestions for further development. That included a rewrite of the script. He quickly felt that, to do the film justice, he wanted to work in equal collaboration with a Māori woman as a fellow director and writer.

From the start, Matthew and I had wanted the film to be the result of a full creative relationship with the best Māori practitioners we could attract. One of those was Paula Whetu Jones. 

Paula had impressed us as a gritty documentary and short filmmaker. She was also a director for the brilliant portmanteau film Waru. She was keen to advance her knowledge of the craft. James had great respect for Paula’s film voice, and he wanted to work with her. We suggested the two of them spend time together, to see if they clicked. 

CLICK!

From the very beginning, they functioned as brother and sister. They were in love with the film’s kaupapa. They launched into a six-month rewrite of the script. We had our directors. 

The directors, Paula Whetu Jones and James Napier Robertson, with first assistant director Gene, after a long week of filming. (Photo supplied)

One of the first things we did together in early 2020 was to travel with Rena Owen to the unveiling of Dame Whina’s statue at the Waipuna marae. It was the ideal occasion to introduce our directors to the family. James and Paula were welcomed with enthusiasm, as was Rena, who everyone knew anyway through close whānau connections in Moerewa.

That trip made us aware we had to bring the best of ourselves to the project. It demanded no less. Rena would research thoroughly and immerse herself in the role with great physical and emotional commitment. James and Paula would function as one questing imaginative mind during an arduous shoot disrupted by Covid. Their easy honesty and delight in each other’s ideas flowed through the entire cast and crew. It was there right through to the last day of filming.  

In the closing hours of that very last day, we had to shoot the final scene of the film, where the elderly Whina is working the soil with her mokopuna in the shadow of Panguru mountain. On set, a big crowd, including Hinerangi and Moka, as well as Panguru locals and key cast like Miriama McDowell, Vinnie Bennett, and James Tito, looked on. 

Whina had to deliver lines that connect her with the whakapapa of her people, the land, and the man she loves. Rena became the stooped old matriarch and performed with her customary artistry. We did a few takes. She nailed it. James and Paula called “Happy!” Our first assistant director Gene called “Cut!” and we wrapped the shoot. We all hugged and cried with the whānau and each other, took selfies and had our mihi and karakia. 

There’s an old Hokianga proverb that shaped my thinking as I faced the challenges that came with making a film like Whina. It speaks of two rocks at the mouth of the harbour, and it’s a comment on leadership. 

One rock is above the waterline and is bathed by the rays of the sun. This represents a leader who is always on public display, but who may achieve little. The other rock is below the waterline. You only know it’s there because of the ripple on the surface of the water. This is the leader whose presence is known but who works in the background to get things done. Best, too, to stay at a respectful distance of this rock in case it shreds the hull of your canoe.

Te toka i Ākiha                              The rock at Ākiha

he toka whitinga rā.                     is visible all the day long. 

Engari ko te toka i Māpuna        But the rock at Māpuna

ko te ripo kau tāu e kite ai.          Is known only by its ripple.

For me, Whina Cooper represents both rocks. As a leader, she was both seen and unseen. She cultivated a dynamic public image and did the private work to warrant it. She delivered. In the end, though — and even after our film — there remain unfathomable depths to this most visible of Māori leaders who helped forge our Māori nation. 

Hinerangi Cooper-Puru, Whina’s daughter, and Rena Owen, after the last scene of the film has been shot. (Photo supplied)

I knew that before I could take our kuia‘s magnificent story into the world, it had to be accepted in her own Hokianga valley. We showed the completed film to the Cooper family and people of Panguru, and we did the same for the Te Rarawa rūnanga and kaumātua in Kaitāia. Their enthusiastic acceptance and karakia convinced me we’d captured the mana that I felt in the script a long time earlier.  

We had relied on our directors to engage their hearts and minds to turn that script into an epic film and to tell a story that captures the all too human frailties and joys of a rangatira wahine and honest-to-God icon.

As I spent more and more time with the Cooper family, the overwhelming feeling I had was of the pure love that Whina’s children and her mokopuna have for their Mum and Nanny. For all the majesty of Whina Cooper’s story, it’s as simple as that. 

Love is the final word of the film — a transcendent love of place and time, as much as of the heart and of each other. And if, with the sublime filmic arts and crafts of our colleagues, we’ve captured a glimmer of a love that overcomes and endures, our work is done. 

Kua tatū noa te kaupapa.

 

Whina, starring Rena Owen, Miriama McDowell and Vinnie Bennett, is in theatres nationwide now, and at the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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