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Māori Cinema: A New Dawn, with Hiona Henare

by Thomas Giblin (he/him)

culture & lifestyle writer

Whānau Mārama: The New Zealand International Film Festival has once again rolled around. This year, the festival's 54th iteration will see an incredible number of homegrown films grace our screens. The Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts finalists represent the best up-and-coming local talent who are set to shine on the international stage. Curated by Leo Koziol (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka), Director of the Wairoa Māori Film Festival, and Craig Fasi (Niue), Director of the Pollywood Film Festival, these shorts establish new forms of Indigenous cinematic expression and envision Indigenous futures.

Debate was fortunate to speak with Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts finalist Hiona Henare (Ngāi Tara, Muaūpoko, Ngāti Huia), director of I Am Paradise. Noted by Koziol, her dreamy, escapist fantasy film "contrasts deeply with the reality of lived experiences for many Māori; yet aroha and hope remain and our tamariki keep us strong." This fascinating kōrero peels back the layers on her filmic inspirations, the genesis of I Am Paradise, and the importance of pūrākau.


Also, thanks to our friends at the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival, we've got 3 double-passes to give away, so keep your eyes peeled to our socials! The festival screens in Tāmaki Makaurau from the 19th of July to the 6th of August, showcasing an incredible collection of films from around the world.

Stills from I Am Paradise, supplied

T: What drew you to filmmaking?

H: When I was a kid, I'd get really spooked out by films and music because there was something haunting about it that affected me so deeply. I know now that I was experiencing emotions, new emotions, and the power of story and performance really hit me. I started to like how emotional it made me feel. I remember having these crazy ideas too, like, maybe when I grow up I should make films.

T: Is there a film or filmmaker that has inspired you throughout your career?

H: We watched a lot of Jidaigeki movies and big motion pictures at our house. Dad loved Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson films so I got to watch a lot of those Western and action movies too. I've always been a fan of animation, fantasy and puppetry.

T: How do Māori values and practices inform your filmmaking sensibilities?

H: It's hard to pin down my exact sensibility recipe, but I'd have to say my personal life experience and having good commonsense is what informs my sensibilities first and foremost. Of course, Māori values are helpful for keeping a production team and kaupapa interconnected but if we're talking more along the lines of intuition and matakite - I'm definitely working with magic.

T: What was the genesis of I Am Paradise?

H: I knew I wanted to tell a story about a young mum trying to live her best life despite social, racial and economic hardship. Also, as a solo mum and a filmmaker, I knew I had a responsibility to use this film to interrogate social norms and challenge the perception of young Māori mothers.

T: What was your working relationship with Rickylee Russell-Waipuka (Boy, Vegas, Beyond the Veil) like?

H: Rickylee is truly an exceptional actor. I'd cast her again in a heartbeat, and she has that old-school marae mentality about her too, you know? She'll be the last person to bed and the first one up making scrambled eggs and coffee for everybody. I live for this sort of behaviour.

T: Could you speak about the importance of whanaungatanga during the production process and on set?

H: I forget who came up with the kōrero about how a Māori production should operate seamlessly, like how whānau operate the marae seamlessly. That's whanaungatanga right there. We mahi together, and everything gets done.

T: What inspired the dreamy and escapist fantasy elements of I Am Paradise?

H: I can be a little dangerous and impulsive during post-production, I think. If I spot a place in my edit where I can add something fantastical to liven things up, that's what I'll do. I'm an opportunist. I'm always looking for a place to add more magic.

T: Could you speak about the importance of Māori using the medium of cinema to tell their own stories?

H: I really believe we should place more importance on Māōri learning how to make cinema rather than Māori using cinema to tell a story? Thing is, we're Māori so pūrākau comes naturally to us, right? But the art of making cinema and knowing technically how to construct a film is a whole different set of skills. Worst-case scenario, the filmmaker gets stuck in their script development stage, and the only way out of this conundrum is to accept to use a script format that isn't Māori. It happens all the time, and all our films end up looking the same because we didn't put any effort into learning the technology or the potential of the technology we need to make our films.

T: What does the future of Māori and Indigenous filmmaking look like in Aotearoa?

H: I have a feeling that if a mid-career Māori or Pasifika female filmmaker hasn't had their feature film greenlit by 2025, they'll be waiting in line for New Zealand Film Commission funding with filmmakers that aren't even from Aotearoa. That's what the future looks like to me.


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