The presence and success of the Māoriland Film Festival (running this year in Ōtaki from March 17–19) is an example of rangatiratanga in action, writes Tainui Stephens.
The Māori gods of our creation got it right. That’s why we remember what they did and how they made our world — and us.
After Tāne, the god of forests, birds and mankind, ascended 12 whole heavens in his search for knowledge, he made his request directly to the chief god, Io Matua Te Kore. Tāne’s wish was granted and he received knowledge in the form of three woven baskets. There are differing tribal accounts of what was contained in the baskets. One version sums it up like this:
Te kete tuatea Knowledge of the seen
Te kete tuauri Knowledge of the unseen
Te kete aronui Knowledge of potential
As human beings, we’re hardwired to use our knowledge and intuition to discover what’s possible when we explore our potential. Our species has survived partly because we’re curious. Being Indigenous doesn’t give us a road map to our destination, but it provides solid wheels for the trip.
Late one night in March 2015, I was driving through Ōtaki village after the last screening of our Māoriland Film Festival when my wife (and festival director) Libby Hakaraia said: “Hey, pull over!” I parked and she led me and her cousins Pat and Tania, and her niece Maddy, to a big, old building that was shuttered up. “Have a look at this,” she said.
The department store known as Edhouses had closed down. Many generations of Ōtaki residents had fond memories of Edhouses and its old-fashioned culture of service, credit and trust. In earlier decades, the vast shop sold everything “from a pin to an anchor”.
For a year and a half, Libby had observed the building slowly empty. All the stock had been sold, along with its fittings and furniture. She showed us Edhouses because her idea was to buy it as a home and base for our festival. Since the building wasn’t yet for sale and we had no money, it seemed like a crazy idea. Crazy but a goodie.
For two years, we’d managed a festival that had attracted big crowds to Ōtaki. In the months leading up to the annual March event, we’d work from our homes. For the week of the festival itself, we’d hire a couple of rooms in town as a base to organise and coordinate it all.
The tiny spaces were a nightmare. It was impossible to fit in our growing team and dozens of volunteers, let alone provide the best possible service to all the filmmakers, film fans, nannies, koros and kids.
Libby felt that, if our film festival was to capitalise on its success, we had to have a home. Our own land and our own bricks-and-mortar asset would send a signal that Māoriland was here to stay.
We met with the building’s owners, Don and Patricia Edhouse. Libby asked if the building was for sale. Yes, it was. Since their retirement, that was indeed the plan. And they shook hands with us on an agreement to give us a chance to make a serious initial offer before anyone else.
Sadly, not long after that handshake, Don passed away, but the spirit of the agreement was upheld by the family. Even though property developers from Auckland were sniffing around, Don had wanted the building to stay in community hands — if we could raise the cash.
We had only a few weeks to make a serious offer to buy the biggest building in Ōtaki. We would need a lot of money. So we considered what we had to resource the purchase, and what might be possible.
Libby negotiated a nine-month lease on Edhouses before the deadline to settle the financing and purchase. We used those months to repair the building that we now call the Māoriland Hub (MHub). At the same time, we held fundraising events and screenings, and hired the venue out to television production companies which used it as a filming location.
Before we could create anything that was Māori owned and operated, and which could endure for a long time, we had to have the local hapū onside. We wanted to use the power of stories to inform our community of native perspectives that would help us realise our personal and collective potential. We had the hui, talked the talk, and got the support we needed.
We put our big dreams and precious hapū mandate into establishing the Māoriland Charitable Trust. The vision was to show how the arts fit into our society, and the power that results when Indigenous connections are made through storytelling. Most of all, we wanted to secure a place for our community to celebrate our own stories, and for our young people to get jobs making them.
When the film festival came around the next March, we used the MHub as the box office, festival headquarters, and party space. Despite only one kitchen sink and two outside loos, we had a lot of room and a lot of fun. Our potential home was a huge success and quickly showed us the power and leverage we could have through owning our own premises.
With funds generated by our projects and grants from philanthropics, Lotteries and private supporters, the trust managed to buy the building. Since then, in only a half dozen years, the MHub has become a highly visible and vibrant Māori operation.
We are free to use our MHub any way we want to. It’s liberating to make our own decisions, and to pursue our own opportunities. We value our independence. We don’t have to defer to others for our mana motuhake, and others don’t get to defer to us for theirs.
The MHub is a hive of activity all year round. We’ve created a community home for Indigenous storytelling that’s earned us a reputation around the world.
When I go to the MHub on any given day, I’ll walk in through the organic garden that’s been created in what used to be the department store’s car park. I whisper a quiet mihi to the stone carving of Buddha on my left, and the stone carving of Papatūānuku on my right.
I might encounter a small group of enthusiastic locals learning how to make chutney or preparing food supplies that are distributed among those in the community who need a little help.
Walking into the back of the MHub, the first thing I might hear could be happy children in an acting workshop or a hip hop dance class. Or it might be a loud rehearsal of a well-known band who’s turned up for their soundcheck before a concert later that night.
In the middle of the MHub, I might hear songs erupting from the people we trained as computer animators and who now work on contracts and commissions. There could be rangatahi filmmakers dashing about as they check the camera gear for a shoot at a local marae.
The sound suite might be busy with actors who’ve come to record their voices for an animation series being made in Auckland. At the front of the MHub, there could be a pōwhiri for a whānau group of weavers who’ve turned up to offer their work for sale in our popular Toi Matarau art gallery.
Upstairs, the young team who runs our programmes are in meetings or glued to their computer screens and headphones, or celebrating someone’s birthday with presents that make them squeal in delight.
The presence and success of Māoriland is an example of rangatiratanga in action. We aren’t alone. Far from it. We live in an era when Māori are clawing back control of our own destiny. We choose to wear moko and speak our own language. We choose to teach ourselves, and to heal ourselves. We choose to celebrate the promise of a new future by doing things our way.
We know very well that Māori assertion and self-confidence frightens and angers some Pākehā. They’re not used to Māori being in control. Rangatiratanga gives visibility to Māori decision-making.
We Māori are exceptional and flawed human beings like any other. But the evidence shows that, when we’re secure in our Indigenous identity, we’re better able to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative of our fraught humanity, for the benefit of everyone.
I sometimes see that point of view expressed as I drive home from the Māoriland Hub. I pass by Te Kura-a-Iwi o Whakatupuranga Rua Mano, a highly successful local school with its own history of insistent Māori decision-making.
Last year, the school’s beloved former principal, Sam Doyle, passed away at a tragically early age. Above the entrance is a big digital noticeboard that sometimes shows words often uttered by Sam and remembered by all who knew him.
Sam, who was also a former Hurricanes player and Māori All Black, always wanted to make a film. If he had, it would’ve been about the potential behind those few words.
Mā te whakaaro pai, tātou e whakaaro pai ai.
With good thinking, we remain good thinkers.
Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.
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