You may not have noticed but Ainsley Gardiner has had quite a hand — as a writer, director, and especially as a producer — in a range of movies we’ve warmed to in recent years. Like Two Cars, One Night, back in 2004, the first of several films she made with Taika Waititi. And, since then, Tama Tū, Mokopuna, Eagle vs Shark, Boy, The Pā Boys, Waru, and this year, The Breaker Upperers.
In this kōrero with Dale, she talks about the role she plays in bringing Māori stories to the screen and encouraging all New Zealanders to embrace the Māori world they share.
Kia ora, Ainsley. It’s clear, as it has been for years, that you’re proud of your Māori heritage, but I understand that wasn’t always the case when you were growing up.
That’s true. At some point early in his life, my dad decided that the way to get ahead was to succeed in the Pākehā world. He didn’t turn his back on his culture, but he strived to be successful in the Western world.
As a result, when we were kids, we grew up in Wellington in a middle-class suburb with very few other Māori around us. We very rarely went home to Rotoiti — just for the occasional tangi, or what have you. And we were described as half-caste, which always felt like a knife through the heart. I never understood why, but I definitely felt like I was only half of something.
I think there were maybe only two other kids at our primary school who were Māori. So I had no real concept of what it was to be Māori. Then we moved to Whakatāne when I was in the fourth form. And I remember one of the girls in my class started calling me Māori, or a white Māori, like her, because she was also fair-skinned.
It sort of blew my mind how they saw me and who I was to them. And it took me another decade trying to understand that feeling of disconnection, or feeling only half of something, and then having this other feeling of being defined as Māori — even though I didn’t know that’s what I was.
I guess a lot of my film work has been a kind of exploration of identity and self — and that has been really important.
My mentor was Merata Mita, and that was a really influential relationship in helping me come to terms with the fact that it’s my whakapapa that makes me Māori. And that my version of being Māori, and my experience of being Māori, is as Māori as anybody else’s because all I need to define me that way is whakapapa.
So I started to develop a greater sense of pride in being Māori, as a result of being in the film industry, working on the projects that I did, and being associated with Merata and people like her.
You and I have got a few things in common because I’m Te Whānau ā Apanui and from Te Teko. And like you, I’m half-caste Pākehā, too. So I’ve grown up with a bit of an internal struggle because you hear of the hara and the raru between Māori and Pākehā, and you see that playing out in the Treaty issues. You look at the injustices of the past and then you realise that, within your own body, you’ve got the uri of both the colonisers and the colonised.
Absolutely. I think, in some way, that’s beneficial because growth is about balancing the parts of self. You have a part that is childish, a part that is parental, a part that is adult. You’ve got all these aspects of yourself and your life’s work which you need to balance. So being both Māori and not Māori, and being both coloniser and colonised, is to balance those things.
We have a unique culture in New Zealand, and, for the descendants of the colonisers, there’s a certain amount of natural guilt associated with that. But the blessing for them is that they’re now in a place where being Māori is the most unique and special thing about this country. And if you’re not Māori by blood, you’re certainly connected by association.
For me, being both Māori and Pākehā allows me to look at the past, see that it’s been tough and painful, but also see that there’s a way forward. Both parts of me allow me to embrace fully what it means to be Māori.
So, for Pākehā New Zealanders, I honestly think there’s a transformational moment when they take, not ownership, but accept a deep connection with what it means to be Māori in this country.
I fully believe that if every New Zealander spent time at a tangi, it would transform them. Because, in that experience, you see the whole gamut of life and death, and you see a community that’s at its absolute best for three days. Any negative stereotype that Pākehā New Zealanders associate with being Māori would just be overturned if they were to spend three days at a tangi.
The awful thing for Pākehā New Zealanders is that, so often, they feel like they’re outside looking in. But they’re already in. And they just need to start looking around. Turn their perspectives inwards — and realise what they can gain by embracing everything that being Māori means.
That’s a lovely point. Now, in your case, you have your dad, Wira, to thank for your Māori whakapapa. He’s been a prominent figure on many fronts ever since he finished his years of military service. But your mum, Pauline, has had a high profile too, hasn’t she? Can you tell us about her side of the whānau?
She’s from a big family, too. Dad was one of 18. My mum is one of eight. She’s from a Pākehā Presbyterian family in Christchurch, but a lot of what I learned about being Māori, I learned from my Pākehā mother.
The qualities of manaakitanga really came from her — and being from a big family, and using food to solve all problems. And she has a very strong connection to her family, most of them still living in Christchurch. I grew up around a lot of cousins from that Pākehā side of my family. There was a strong sense of whanaungatanga there and I guess it sort of conditioned me to understand what it was to be Māori, in a way that was comfortable to me.
There is another aspect of my mum, too, in that she’s very bloody-minded and tenacious. Otherwise, why would she have gone into politics?
Not me, though. I thank my parents for their love of politics because I’ve grown up with an absolute aversion to it — and I’m grateful I’m not interested in it.
She’s had a number of momentous occasions in her political life. Like winning the Wellington Central seat in the 1990s and turning that seat around from Labour to National. That was a massive swing. And she was the first waka-jumper when she jumped ship from National to United.
That’s because she was bloody-minded about the things that were important to her. She was, and always has been, interested in decriminalising marijuana, and drug and alcohol education and rehabilitation. So politics for her was a means to an end.
Of everyone in my family — my dad included, even though he’s a very hard worker — her tenacity, work ethic, and ability to get shit done, is second to none. It might be a generational thing. If I need to paint my house or fix something up, I’m better off asking Mum because she’ll get it done faster and better than I ever would.
Let’s talk filmmaking now. That’s been your career. I wonder how you got into that. When did you realise that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Pretty early on, I loved film. I remember all my early experiences of film, from the adaptation of Joy Cowley’s The Silent One, to ET and Star Wars. And, actually, earlier than that. When I was five, I remember watching a black and white version of The Little Mermaid on TV in England. And I remember weeping at the end of it. It wasn’t a cheerful Disney movie. It was a really depressing black and white drama.
I was pretty introverted, but I had a thriving imagination, and what I loved about film was always how transported I felt. I also read a lot and I found the same with reading. I was always amazed at how swept away I could get by a book or by a film.
As I got older, I guess the attraction of film was that it was just this intense but momentous experience. To watch a film is to feel transported. And that comes back to identity. The job of a filmmaker is to present a character and emotions that resonate and connect with the audience.
And I could always see myself in these characters — even though I watched some pretty crazy films. I remember one weekend in Wellington, I went to the Courtenay Place video store, and I ordered Christiane F, based on the real life of a young German girl who had become a prostitute and drug addict by her early teens. And Sixteen Candles, a teen film from the ‘80s. Then Porky’s — also a crass teen film.
I was amazed, even then, that I identified with the characters in each one of those films.
So, in my deep, unconscious search for identity, I found identification in film just about every single time.
In high school, I thought I wanted to be an actor. But I wasn’t that good at it, mostly because I’m an introvert. I don’t feel that comfortable in front of the camera. Then I went to Victoria University to study politics, accounting, and that kind of boring stuff. I sort of thought that’s what I should do. Then I dropped out of everything and landed a job in an accountancy firm. Ironically.
But I got on to a film and television course which was run out of Avalon studios in Wellington. Part of that was work placement, and I had the good luck to be placed with Larry Parr, one of the few Māori producers working in the industry at that time.
And, in a way, the rest is history. Had it not been for meeting Larry and learning from him, things could have been really different.
Your recollections are a reminder that Larry has had a significant influence and continues to do so — and that, back in the 1990s, there wasn’t as much Māori involvement in filmmaking as there is now. But you started producing relatively soon after joining the Avalon course and working with Larry, didn’t you? And it wasn’t long before Kombi Nation, one of your productions was in the running for best film at the 2003 New Zealand film awards.
Yes. I was producing really quickly. I think the one quality that Larry identified in me, that I guess gave him the confidence to give me opportunities early on, was common sense. Which makes me laugh, because it’s not a very romantic notion.
But that’s what helps make a good filmmaker because so much of filmmaking is common sense and hard work.
Films are so tough when you’re making them, and it’s only later when I look back that I realise how much I’ve learned in the process.
For instance, Two Cars, One Night was the film that gave me my first sense that what I was doing as a passion actually had some influence in the world, and that there was an opportunity for us to do good through film. We had people coming up to us for a long time after Two Cars, One Night to say thank you. Because that was the first time they could see themselves on screen, as themselves, in a way that they could recognise.
Merata Mita referred to it as “decolonising the screen”. I didn’t know we were doing that. We were just taking the stories out of Taika’s brain. But one of the things that we, I, certainly, gravitated towards was the idea of community filmmaking. Which is, if a film belongs somewhere, then you should go there to make it. If Taika’s from the Coast, then go to the Coast.
It’s hard to retain that as you get busier and busier because, logistically speaking and budget-wise, it’s not always the smartest idea. But I do think that when we made films, we made films that had other layers beyond just a script and a camera and some actors. That’s why Two Cars, One Night was great.
And I really loved making the TV show called Lovebites. It was a 26-part comedy series. I was 27 at the time, and it was me and these three young guys. We had made a feature film called Hopeless, and this was based on that. It was so much fun. It didn’t go 100 percent to plan. But I’ve looked back at it recently and thought: “Wow. We were actually ahead of our time.”
One of the most challenging and rewarding experiences for me was being a writer-director of Waru. You can feel very vulnerable when you’re sharing something quite personal, and something that’s had an impact on others.
As a producer, I’m one step removed from the vulnerability that’s required when you put your heart and soul into storytelling. Waru taught me how important it is to be vulnerable if you want to make meaningful art.
I’ve also learned that the main thing about filmmaking is finding your tribe and your community. I’ve always loved the people that I make films with. I‘ve always loved the experience of coming together with a group of people towards a shared vision.
Even working with Taika, one of the first things that we established was: Yep, he’s a genius. But he doesn’t do it alone.
In the end, he’s in service to the finished film as much as I am, as much as everybody else. This comes from being a filmmaker. These stories are told through us. We are all in service to the story that has a desire to be told. And I love being part of what it takes to keep everybody focused on that shared goal.
In your role as the producer, you may not be out front getting the same kudos as the directors and actors. But you’re in the background tying it all together. This is where your value is when you’ve been working with Taika and Cliff Curtis and many others. Is that how you’d describe the producer’s role?
I think that’s it. It’s looking after the logistics. Finding the money. Hiring the crew. Running the schedule and the budget. And making sure everything is ticking along. The producer is the building manager to the architect’s vision.
But, I guess at a deeper level, I see my role as being responsible for holding the vision while everyone else is busy doing one thing at a time. Above all others, the producer holds the vision and guides the practitioners and the contributors to stay on track.
I’d say the other main role is that I’m a translator and I help people who all speak different “languages”, as we do. We all have a different language to describe the way we see things. And I’m a translator between all those languages, to make sure that everybody is talking about the same thing, everybody’s on the same page, and everybody is working towards that shared vision.
As well as being highly regarded for your production skills, you’re seen as an advocate for the industry, especially for Māori film. What’s needed at the top table?
Good question. It’s the one place where I feel a little bit militant and a little bit political. I feel like it needs to change a lot. There are some great initiatives, and I benefit a great deal from the initiatives through the New Zealand Film Commission where more money is channelled toward Māori film and Māori practitioners.
I think, though, that the power is never ours. That’s a problem because the story belongs to us. So there are changes needed in how ownership is dealt with.
I’m an advocate for the storyteller more than I am on that bigger scale for Māori film. I connect with and gravitate towards Māori storytellers — as I do towards female storytellers — because they make sense to me.
My role as an advocate is to protect and care for the storytellers and the pursuit of their vision. I don’t always think that’s what’s important at the top table.
And you know what I really think? I think the global indigenous cinema needs a global indigenous fund. We need to see the value of our stories, which somebody else takes the profit from. And, as indigenous storytellers, we need to be at the distribution table, financing table, sales table, and at the development table.
And we need our own money. We need our own money because we’ve always been entrepreneurs. Our story is a hot commodity and always has been. So we should retain all of the elements ourselves — and also see all of the benefits.
What about at the practitioner level? What are we doing to nurture our next generation of Māori filmmakers?
That’s a tough one. The expectation on the next generation of filmmakers is that they should just get out there and do it. Pick up a camera, get together with their friends and just make something. Which I absolutely believe in.
But it’s really tough for them to take that craft to the next level, even though there’s a lot going on to support that. But, again, this is where, globally, we need an indigenous fund. So there can be talent development. And I feel like something needs to happen regionally. Within iwi.
I live in Whakatāne and my real desire is to be able to live and work here. Making films. And for others to make films here, and for those films to have an audience. And I feel like the focus should be at an iwi and a regional level so that we don’t have to leave where we are to do what we do.
That way, young people here can tell their stories and be supported to grow as storytellers here — where they’re from and where they live — before they go into the world. Or as well as going into the world. Or instead of going into the world. That’s my goal.
Meanwhile, I’ve got children to raise — I have three daughters, 17, 12, and 10 — so I have to keep working. I guess there’ll come a time when I’ll be able to turn my attention to how I can support those kinds of initiatives.
But, to be honest, especially because I was mentored by the likes of Larry and Merata, I still feel very much like a baby in this industry. And I have a long way to go before I’m sitting at the top table.
So I’d like to just keep working and doing my best to make good films, and growing my own small community and, maybe in 20 more years, I’ll have the wisdom and the tenacity to be able to make some greater contribution to the industry.
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