Film Review: Muru - 100 years of Ngai Tūhoe and two raids of ancestral land
By Briar Pomana (she/her) “He told his people not to go to war. Let the white man fight the white man’s war.”
Rua Kenana & Maungapohatu As the population of European immigrants increased, Māori land- ownership wavered. In 1905, this was entrenched in legislation with The Māori Land Settlement Act, which limited the autonomy Māori had over their land. Within a year, this act had spread across the North Island, apart from Te Urewera, the tribal territory of Ngai Tūhoe. Māori of this region were anxious that the selling of what was labelled “Māori wasteland” would begin in their communities, so they retaliated.
Ngai Tūhoe prophet Rua Kenana had a utopian vision for Aotearoa. He believed confiscated land should be returned and that Māori way of life should be restored. Rua was uplifted as a messiah by the people of Mataatua regions and his homelands of Maungapōhatu. Maungapōhatu was a settlement deep in Te Urewera, separated from European settlers. This meant Rua’s followers could practise their traditions without persecution and strategise a resistance to colonial forces, returning sovereignty and ownership of land to Māori. The Crown saw this as a threat and in 1916 Rua Kenana was jailed for resisting arrest for the illicit sale of alcohol.
However, itis widely argued that this was a cover for flimsy treason charges, as Rua Kenana famously advised Māori against enlisting in the military, fearing they would become pawns in the games of white men. After failing to appear in court for these alcohol charges, Police commissioner John Cullen brought an army of police onto Maungapōhatu to arrest Rua. As per tikanga Māori, Rua Kenana awaited his arrest, but would not leave until the officers were properly welcomed onto Maungapōhatu. It is said that this protocol was ignored entirely, as John Cullen is recounted riding onto the marae, armed with weapons - his posse following closely behind. There was gunfire across the marae and many were wounded on both sides. As Rua and his people fled from the police, Rua’s son, Toko and close family friend, Te Maipi were shot dead. Rua was eventually charged on multiple offences, serving one year of hard labour and 18 months imprisonment. The people of Tūhoe never forgot these injustices. Rua Kenana’s legacy lives on and many Māori political movements still take heed from his visions of a better future for Tūhoe and Māori overall.
Tame Iti & The 2007 Urewera Police Raid
Fast forward nearly 100 years, the same outrage would be sparked again as homes in the village of Ruatoki were raided by police. Police and SIS planted surveillance in the belief that Ngai Tūhoe activist Tame Iti and others were conducting bootcamps for a domestic terrorism plot. Police believed nearly 60 people were involved with these camps run by Iti - the primary target during their ambush.
In the early hours of the 15th of October 2007, road blockades were set up by the Armed Offenders Squad to control people coming in and out of the valley. There is one image of a school bus full of children on their way to kura. Some of these children shared stories of men dressed in black with firearms walking up and down the bus, ensuring the children they had nothing to worry about. Simultaneously, their parents, kaumatua and whānau were pulled from their cars and from homes, some still in their sleepwear, being held on the ground and apprehended forcefully. I can’t even imagine the hurt and pain this caused the people of Tūhoe.
Of the 17 people arrested, none were charged with terrorism. However, Tame Iti and three others would be later charged with the illegal possession of firearms. Iti and another were charged with 30 months imprisonment and the other two were given home detention. The parallels between the Tūhoe raids of 2007 and the arrest of Rua Kenana in 1916 are disgusting realities of ongoing colonisation in Aotearoa. Some argue that the raids could have been a means to expand police powers and implement harsher penalties for gang-related activity. This is an ongoing discussion in the Beehive today.
Muru is a film that had my mum and me walking into the cinema frantically making sure we had enough tissues for the both of us. The poster for the movie was dark and grim, with familiar faces like Uncle Cliff Curtis and Papa Tame Iti. Their distinctly Māori features oozed with emotion on the walls of the boutique Newmarket cinema we had chosen simply for the reclining chairs. If we were going to have to endure a film we were anticipating to be a difficult watch, we were going to do so comfortably and with plenty of legroom.
After finding our seats in an otherwise empty cinema, Mum and I settled in. The movie opens with a set of disclaimers, one of which explains Muru is not a historical reenactment of events, but rather a response to them. The film is based in Ruatoki, which like in many rural communities, everyone is whānau and this is communicated clearly throughout the film. The characters give life to how Māori exude whakawhānaungatanga.
The main protagonist in the film is the local cop, Tāwherau, or Taffy. He’s played by Cliff Curtis and if anyone had forgotten how talented this man is, Muru is a stark reminder. In between driving the tamariki to school and the kaumatua of the village to their health checkups, Taffy is also the primary carer of his elderly father. There are moments in the film, especially shared between Taffy and his Dad that remind me of my own grandfather and the love we pour into our elders. These scenes where Taffy is with his community and with his Dad were incredibly tender and poignant.
Rusty, played by Poroaki Merritt-McDonald, is a teenager who has returned home to the valley after what can be assumed as time away in some sort of youth rehabilitation/correctional facility. There is a deep hurt within Rusty’s character and Merritt- McDonald portrays this mamae intimately. Tame Iti, now an acclaimed artist and activist, naturally plays himself. A man of few words but drenched in this electric energy Iti’s character takes over the screen. Iti’s character and community in Muru is caught in the middle of politicians and their power moves. The valley becomes a target as an anti-terrorist operation is led by SIS officer Gallagher ( Jay Ryan).
The New Zealand that is sold on the pages of travel magazines and multi- million dollar franchises is steeped in a colonial tradition. It will always seek to diminish tangata whenua and those that don’t fall into the jagged outline of whiteness.
Muru is by Māori for Māori and this natural connection was apparent. I don’t wish to give too much away, but on top of this film feeling extremely well thought out, there are references delicately placed in multiple scenes to both Rua Kenana and Tame Iti’s arrests. Although sometimes infuriating to watch and bear witness to, Muru’s pacing was phenomenal. The film effortlessly switches between Te Reo Māori and English, which never felt forced or unnatural to the characters and context.
Furthermore, it was a real treat to hear actors of Tūhoe descent speaking in a motion picture film, using their dialect and colloquialisms.
Director, Te Arepa Kahi, known for Mt Zion (2013), Poi E (2016), and Herbs (2019) demonstrates his mastery of ‘showing not telling’ in this film. This is poignant in scenes with little to no dialogue; like when Taffy fixes his father a cup of tea, or when Rusty gallops past the school bus on horseback. These moments offer so much for the audience to read into and reflect on, even after leaving the cinema.
Muru was difficult, in the way it is a reminder of our tarnished history and how easily Māori are criminalised and prosecuted - often on bogus charges that reinforce this country’s hegemony. The New Zealand that is sold on the pages of travel magazines and multi-million dollar franchises is steeped in a colonial tradition. It will always seek to diminish tangata whenua and those that don’t fall into the jagged outline of whiteness.
Muru is a film everyone needs to watch even if you’ve never heard of Rua Kenana, Tame Iti, or where Ruatoki is on a map. Stories like these are more a part of our national landscape than Hobbits running along hillsides in Matamata. These films are important. We as Māori are important. Politicians and those in power continue to try to ‘crack down’ on our communities in an effort to control and dominate. We’ve seen how history repeats with Rua Kenana and Tame Iti. What I’ve come to understand is that in order to break these tragedies, it is important for Pākehā and Tauiwi to understand that what is good for Māori in Aotearoa is good for all. I was going to write something to close off like ‘there is not a cheat code to end this unnecessary cycle of trauma and colonial violence’ but maybe there is. Give us our land back and leave us the fuck alone.
Muru is a film everyone needs to watch even if you’ve never heard of Rua Kenana, Tame Iti, or where Ruatoki is on a map. Stories like these are more a part of our national landscape than Hobbits running along hillsides in Matamata. These films are important.