Chelsea Winstanley

Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui), still in her early 40s, has already had a major hand as a producer or director in docos and movies that have made their mark in New Zealand and beyond.

For instance, she directed the documentary Tame Iti: The man behind the moko. And she was one of eight Māori female directors who made the film Waru, on the aftermath and impact of a small boy’s death at the hands of his caregiver. She also teamed up with Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, her husband, in producing What We Do in the Shadows. Her most recent project, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, is now showing in New Zealand.

Here she talks to Dale about her work and life.


Kia ora, Chelsea. Let’s start with you telling me what you regard as perhaps the most special moment in your life?

Well, I guess I should put this into context by explaining what I’ve been doing lately. I came home from Los Angeles to Aotearoa last week because we premiered a documentary about Merata Mita. And I think one of the most special times in my life was having the opportunity to work with her on a documentary, Saving Grace, a few years ago, before she passed.

Merata was one of those amazing wāhine Māori. An idol. And I never thought I’d ever have the chance to meet her, let alone work with her. I was working at Kiwa Productions with Rhonda Kite, who was my first boss when I left uni. Rhonda was working with Merata at the time. They were developing Cousins.

And, one day, Merata turned up there, at Kiwa. I think I was standing by the photocopier, and I saw this beautiful woman. You know, there’s a presence about some people you can feel before you even see them. And she was one of those.

She came up the stairs. And I was frozen. Like: “Oh my goodness!” Anyway, I got to meet her and then dashed downstairs to make a cup of tea for her. Then I looked outside where there was this funny-looking joker. A kind of hunched over dude. Wearing this big leather coat — and looking a bit shabby.

I thought: Oh man, she’s so amazing. She just swans in from Hawai’i, where she was living at the time, dealing with Māori issues and working on feature films and doing all this amazing stuff. And, what do you know? She looks after the homeless as well. Gosh, she’s amazing.

And I go out and say: “Excuse me, mate. Would you like a cup of tea or something?” He turns around and he’s got a cigarette in his mouth. And it turns out he’s Geoff Murphy, her husband at the time. And I was like: Oh my god. I was absolutely bowled over.

I think, for me, probably the most incredible experience in my life was being able to work with my idol. Merata Mita.

I understand that, when you were a student, you were brought to tears by one of the pieces that she’s renowned for. That’s the Bastion Point documentary. What were the images that prompted such a response?

The images that I found really haunting and will always stay in my head, are those showing the resilience of those people who, for so many days, stood there so peacefully. It brings me to tears even now to think about how strong and brave they were in the face of the army and police. To cope with having everything ripped away from them.

For instance, there’s the image of the old kuia who puts her arm around the pou of the whare. She’s standing there, so peaceful. Your heart just bleeds. Those Ngāti Whatua did nothing to be treated that way. It makes me cry even now.

Merata Mita

No doubt, Chelsea, you must feel proud of working alongside Merata’s whānau on the doco about her life and work. Especially as she had such an influence on you. But why do you feel it’s so important that more of us should know about what inspired her, and know more about her work?

I think because we tend to forget about the struggles she went through, and what she was up against on a daily basis. Not just as an artist or a filmmaker, but just as a Māori woman. The one thing about the documentaries is you get a sense of someone’s journey through life.

And, with her story, you can see she made some full-on sacrifices. And some hard decisions in order for people like me, and others now working in the industry, to be in a position to be making films and being a part of such a creative space. We owe it to her because she just kept going. In the face of adversity, she didn’t stop.

Her kids probably missed out on a lot — missed out on their mum a bit, although she took them along with her for a lot of rides. But they had to cope with racism and grief in their life. She knew, though, she was doing it for a bigger cause.

It’s really important that we remember that these things weren’t that long ago in our history. They really weren’t. And I think we tend to forget the battles that she, and many others alongside her, in the Ngā Tamatoa days, were fighting for everybody.

When you talk of the sacrifices she made, what are you referring to there?

They were on various levels. Some to do with having a family, because she was a young solo mother when she left Kawerau — when she left her marriage and moved to Auckland. In the documentary, she speaks about having to make up stories in order to find decent accommodation. Lying about the fact that she had only one child, instead of five.

Landlords would take advantage of the fact that she was a solo mother and they’d pressure her to have sex. Which she didn’t. She stood her ground. But she said the situation makes a liar out of you. Just imagine having to live your life day by day, not being able to be who you truly are. But that was her reality.

You, too, Chelsea were a young solo mum. But, while we know that must be almost unbelievably hard, I guess there’s a resilience that builds up in you too.

It definitely made me a fighter and made me determined not to just be a statistic. It made me more determined to get out there and achieve something. Also, for Maia, my son, I wanted to prove myself to him — to give him a better life. It made me want to achieve something for him. And for myself.

I mean, it’s so humiliating. I was on the DPB for a little while when I was studying, back at university. And you kind of feel like you’re doing something wrong. And all you’re wanting is just a helping hand to get you to the next stage in your life. But it can be debilitating because you’re made to feel like you’re a burden.

Then there’s the question of te reo Māori. I notice that it’s an important part of your lives now with your kids. How important was it earlier on?

I guess it’s always been important to me. I didn’t grow up with the language. I’d always wished that my mum had been able to speak it, but she came from that generation where her mum was strapped at school. Therefore, it was just not taught. And it wasn’t spoken in the home.

I think that’s why I loved my nan, who’s not with us anymore. I loved listening to Nan’s stories about how, when she was a little girl, she’d sit there with her nanny, who used to smoke a pipe — and she’d sit there beside her and read the Pākehā newspaper to her in te reo Māori.

That was so her nan knew what was happening in the world, or in Aotearoa. But it also helped her keep up with reo Māori. And I think: “Gosh, what a shame that she wasn’t able to pass that on to us.”

I remember always being interested at school. But it wasn’t really offered there. I grew up in Mt Maunganui where there wasn’t any kōhanga that I can remember. And, when I came to live in Auckland as a teenager, to live with my mum, even at high school it was only a small part of the curriculum. It wasn’t really a focus. It wasn’t treated as an equal language.

It gives me some heart now that there’s more of a push, more of a hunger and a desire to have Māori seen just as normal as reo Pākehā within schools. I wish it had been like that for me. When Taika and I had our babies — Te Hinekahu and Matewa — the reo was a focus for both of us. We wanted to have as much Māori as we could, because he didn’t grow up with the language, either. We both had to pick it up at university.

When our baby Te Hinekahu was little, she went to kōhanga in Wellington. I was doing a course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. We were trying to immerse ourselves. And that was awesome. Now, even though we’re not in that Māori-speaking environment here in LA, people can talk to her and she’ll understand. To me, that’s just beautiful. If you plant that seed early enough, you’ll retain that initial knowledge and, I guess, that thirst for the language too.

We try as much as we can to have, at least, karakia for kai and maintain as much reo as we can. We have lots of reo Māori books at home. But it’s hard if you don’t have that day to day interaction or just an opportunity to kōrero.

Maia, Te Kāinga o te Hinekāhu and Matewa (centre).

While we’re talking about little people, Chelsea, let’s pause to consider the impact of the Māori version of the Moana movie. Some thought Disney were trying to tāhae one of our proud stories about Maui and our ways in the Pacific. But it’s turned out to be something of a lesson for many of us. And, since it’s been dubbed into te reo Māori, it seems to have legs. Every kōhanga in the country is revelling in it. Certainly, my moko love it. Did you anticipate how important that effort might become?

I think it was one of those right time, right places. We just thought we had to try this. It seemed too much of a good opportunity at the time. Taika had initially been a part of the very first draft many years ago. And then he moved on and did other things and the story became what it became.

I suppose Disney were kind of clever in that they didn’t say this was specifically the Māori Maui story or the Hawai’i Maui story. They tried to make it pan-Pacific and as inclusive as possible. So, when we moved over here with the kids last year, I talked to Taika’s sister, Tweedie about what we might do.

We were just like: Here’s an opportunity to give it a go. Why not? What an amazing resource we could make. Nothing else other than for the reo. For the babies. For the mokopuna. It was really just a resource. How can we give back, kind of thing. And it seemed too much of a good opportunity to waste.

Trying to even get at the table to have a conversation with these high execs is nearly impossible. And purely because they’re just ignorant. They don’t know that we actually have the capabilities or can produce what we did. I think they were all blown away by the quality. And we did it in such a quick turnaround time as well. Like, pretty crazy.

Tweedie and Rachel House did such an incredible job. Rob Ruha and Cilla, his wife. Everyone on the ground back there just had to work so hard and fast. It was such a cool whānau project. There was Te Whānau a Apanui. Taika with his input there. Then we had to sit around the table with all these fancy lawyers and executives at Disney and basically pitch to them that we could do this.

The great thing was that Jemaine Clement was already on board. Temuera Morrison. Rachel House. We already had all of these amazing Kiwi Māori, actual characters, already within the story that they really couldn’t say no. They were buzzing out.

And, back here, we negotiated with the Ministry of Education and we got them on board. They were amazing. And now your mokopuna have it in their kōhanga. That was the whole buzz just to get decent resources out to our babies. So we’ve been blown away by the response.

Did you attend a premiere and revel in watching the audience reaction?

We couldn’t. We were stuck back here. I had the premiere of my film Waru up in Toronto. So I had to be up in Canada at the time. Taika was doing Thor stuff then. He was deep in the edit. So we didn’t get to enjoy the premiere, but we did see the awesome feedback. Tweedie was there, and Rachel. So we kind of got it secondhand.

The directors of Waru, back row from left: Katie Wolf, Briar Grace-Smith, Renae Maihi, Chelsea Winstanley, Ainsley Gardiner, Paula Jones, Casey Kaa, Awanui Simich-Pene.

Spellbound would be one way to describe our young people at the first showings of Moana in te reo Māori. Congratulations on that. Now, can we talk about Waru for a moment? Eight wāhine. Very powerful stories. A wonderful production. What do you recall about working on that project, Chelsea?

The most satisfying part was working collaboratively with wāhine Māori. It was cool because we all got together and were able to talk about a pretty full-on topic. Most of us were like: “Oh man, I don’t know if I really want to tackle this? Why do we have to be talking about this kind of thing?” But we were able to be courageous together, even though we all had different perspectives and had different things we wanted to say.

The fact is there’s not just one solution to this issue. There are many. And one of the things we achieved is that we brought so many different voices and perspectives to the widest audience possible. And it was such a cool, unique way to work. I’d like to do more.

Why is it, do you think, that Māori women make great producers of documentaries and films?

I wonder if it’s just because we have that natural whānau instinct within us, and we kind of want to wrap our arms around everybody and pull everyone up with us, together. Rather than just an individual pursuit. I think we can actually see the bigger picture. We can see that there’s strength in numbers when there’s a collaborative effort. And I think we’re really good at acknowledging everyone’s participation rather than just the person steering the waka.

Merata would be very pleased, wouldn’t she, if she saw Waru and the eight talents? Not just the directing side but throughout the whole production.

The great thing working on the collective was that we were all there for the same common purpose. We all wanted to win for the film — we wanted to win for Waru. We wanted to create something beautiful and unique.

Sometimes I think we underestimate how good we are, if you compare us with what other people are producing. We’re pretty damn good. But us Māori women need to get over our self-deprecation. Get over that hurdle.

A lot of men, Māori men, Pākehā men, tāne ma, they just assume their position. But we sometimes take the back seat when we should step up, assume our position — and be okay about making mistakes.

I’ve decided that, stepping back into the director’s role, I’m not going to be hard on myself. I know I’m going to make mistakes but I know that every single thing I do, from this point on, is heading towards that goal of making my feature.

Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves. We think we have to be perfectionists. There are masters in this field, and Merata was absolutely one of them. But it’s okay to blossom at any given time in our lives. We can take as long as we need and we’ll get there in the end. Just persevere.

The film Waru tackled some pretty dark themes, and we know, Chelsea, that you experienced some darkness, if I can use that term, in your early life. Has speaking out about it helped you?

It’s been incredibly empowering. I struggled with a lot of anger issues which came from all the childhood trauma that I suppressed for so long. I’d built up my own stories around what it was, and what my participation in it was. Because when you’re so young and so little, you don’t have a dialogue and you don’t have an understanding of the situation. Therefore, you craft something and you make something up.

I spent many years in an angry, dark place. But just being able to talk about it and understand that I’m not alone in this situation has made me feel a lot lighter. Especially now that I have two young daughters. When you’re a parent, you think you’d probably kill if something like that were to happen to your own child.

But now I feel a lot freer for some reason. I guess I didn’t realise how much of an impact it’d had on me and on my life. On my self-esteem. On my relationships. On who I was as a person. Not really feeling empowered because, as a small person, when things like that happen, your power gets taken away. You don’t know why, you just feel powerless. And it takes you this blimmin’ long to figure it out.

For me, talking about it is because I want to raise awareness. We need to talk about this issue, or any issue that is dark stuff. Like suicide. The more we talk about it, the more we realise we’re not alone and, hopefully, we can figure out solutions together.

The subjects touched in Waru are replicated offshore, aren’t they? And, for good reason, indigenous films are becoming very popular, globally. How do you see the impact that Māori films are making on the overall filmmaking scene?

It’s exciting. Merata talks about storytelling in phases. She said, when she was starting out, it was a matter of talking to ourselves and trying to come to terms with what was happening to Māori as a whole. Trying to understand the situation. Kind of like unravelling decolonisation, and figuring out how you fit in that whole space.

But now we’re at a point where Māori films, and other indigenous films, have so much heart, and there are so many different layers to what people want to talk about. They don’t have to be all dark and brooding and sad stories. By no means. Taika has proven that. He has a real resonance with international audiences because he has such irreverent humour and he’s a bit silly.

That’s the beautiful Māori humour where we can just cut through any cultural barrier. And we’re doing that. We’re funny as. We’re funny people. But I think the other cool thing is that women are stepping up and have some really interesting stories to tell.

If we keep creating spaces for women to take the next step and get their films done, then we’ll have more and more women’s voices out there. The truth is that we’re half the world’s population so there’s naturally a huge audience. It’s just that we’ve been served a diet of predominantly white-male-focused films for so many years — and now it really is just a matter of turning that on its head.

Taika Waititi, Chelsea Winstanley, Hepi Mita and Cliff Curtis at the premiere of Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen.

When we look at Māori development overall, I wonder how important you think our films are to our overall Māori development? We feel better when we see ourselves on screen, don’t we?

I think it’s super important. As Merata says in the film, we’ve had this white male dominant worldview for so long and we now need to see our own race up there. We need to feel we’re a part of the world. It’s easy to feel sidelined and that we don’t matter when there’s nothing reflecting us on our screens.

So it’s super important that we keep charging ahead. Making sure that we’re at the table where the decisions are made about what gets funded. Checking to see who’re the gatekeepers on the board of the Film Commission, and at the table at NZ On Air and Creative New Zealand or anywhere else where there’s money to help people tell stories, no matter what art form.

They are the ones who’re going to allow you and me to see what we want to see. And if all I’m going to see is a bunch of Pākehā up on screen, because the people making those funding decisions are Pākehā, because that’s all they know, then we’re not going to get anywhere.

You and I have a few things in common. Dale Husband and Chelsea Winstanley aren’t very Māori sounding names. And, like so many other Māori, we have Pākehā connections. What place do Pākehā New Zealanders have in the future of Māori film?

I absolutely acknowledge my Pākehā side. For sure. And yes, my name, Chelsea Winstanley — you probably couldn’t get more English than that. But only later in my life have I started to appreciate my Pākehā whānau. And I’ve only just worked this out for myself, but I think I was drawn to my Māori side because my childhood trauma and all the dark things that happened to me were from my Pākehā side.

So, from a really young age, I was just drawn to my Māori whānau. For me, they were the most loving, most loyal, most delicious, could sing, could cook — everything. They just wrapped me up in so much love. So I spent most of my life just being so pro-Māori. And it wasn’t until I was dealing with all my childhood stuff that I realised: “I can’t just put all my mamae on to my Pākehā side, because it was just one particular Pākehā whānau member that was involved in my trauma.”

But it’s helped me shift and embrace both sides. And I think it’s very important to look at yourself and come to terms with and embrace your whakapapa. Of course, there is an undercurrent of racism in our society. And we need to be honest and open about it. That stuff exists. More than an undercurrent. It’s thriving in our country and we need to address it.

But we have to be big enough and brave enough to have those conversations and to include Pākehā in those conversations. I think we have an opportunity to tell some lovely Māori-Pākehā stories, too. Stories that we haven’t had the chance to do much of because we’ve coming out of the colonisation process and we’ve had to deal with a lot of hurt and intergenerational trauma.

Thanks for sharing this whakaaro from afar. But, in closing, one last question. When you come home from LA, is there one particular place you visit or you stand and go: “Yep, this is me.” And get a little more inner strength?

We have a beautiful whare out in Piha. And I love to be able to look out into the water because I was brought up in Mt Maunganui. So, for me, the beach is the place where I feel most at home. And there’s Te Puna, where my Māori whānau is from, just outside Tauranga. A tiny, wee, yummy agricultural place. There’s something just about going home and being with your aunties. Having a cup of tea. So it’s definitely the beach. And definitely Nan’s whare where I can just melt. Aaaaah. Let it all go.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

© E-Tangata, 2018

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