Industry initiatives, as well as social-justice movements, have drawn attention to their stories

Books, arts and culture
Prospero

WHEN THE Maoriland Film Festival opened on March 24th in Otaki, New Zealand, citizens of many countries could only look on with envy. Thousands of people crowded together in cinemas to watch a total of 120 films. The return of the festival of indigenous film after its cancellation last year also reflects the dramatic growth in movies made by native peoples. It has been a dizzying ride from the day in 2013 when Libby Hakaraia, a Maori film-maker, stood on stage at the imagineNATIVE Festival in Toronto and invited the world to the new event she was organising in a town of 6,000 people with two motels and not a single cinema.

Taika Waititi, who was born in Raukokore in New Zealand, may be the world’s best-known native film-maker. In 2020 he became the first indigenous person to win an Oscar for a screenplay, adapting the novel “Caging Skies” into “Jojo Rabbit”. (Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first indigenous person to win any Oscar, for Best Song, in 1983.) But the international profile of native-made films has been building for the past 20 years. This is largely thanks to indigenous film festivals in Canada, America and Latin America. In Maoriland’s first year, it showed 50 films; eight years later the roster has more than doubled. The hugely influential indigenous programme of the Sundance Film Festival, meanwhile, has supported more than 350 indigenous film-makers since it began in 1994. All have played a critical role as incubators for a new generation.

“Cousins” (pictured), the film which headlined the festival in Otaki, and was voted best feature drama, is a prime example of the network. It is a visually stunning, deftly woven story of three girl cousins separated by colonialism and culture, and their attempts to reconnect over a span of 50 years. Ainsley Gardiner, who co-directed the film with Briar Grace-Smith, produced several of Mr Waititi’s early efforts, and participated in the Sundance indigenous programme 15 years ago. Like many directors showing films at Maoriland, her goal is not simply to entertain, but, in the words of her mentor, the late Maori director Merata Mita, to “decolonise the screen”.

Women film-makers are well represented at the festival and in native movie-making in general, partly due to the example of Mita, who first tried to make “Cousins”, from a novel of the same name, 30 years ago. Her efforts were thwarted by racism and funders’ resistance to a different style of film-making, Ms Gardiner says. Yet in recent years things have started to change. Native- and female-focused stories have caught the world’s attention, due in part to the #MeToo movement and protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock in South Dakota. Ms Gardiner says that the demonstrations for racial justice last summer have only added to this “massive groundswell in terms of representation and diversity”. Ms Hakaraia agrees: “We are really on the radar now.”

Maoriland attracts the most prominent native storytellers working today. This year the programme included “Monkey Beach”, a haunting feature from Loretta Todd, a celebrated Métis-Cree film-maker from Canada, and documentaries by both lauded and emerging directors such as Sterlin Harjo (“Love and Fury”) and Brooke Pepion Swaney (“Daughter of a Lost Bird”). Viewers also saw “Kapaemahu”, about the stones on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, which is nominated for next month’s Academy Awards, the first indigenous animated short to be so.

Indigenous films wrest control of native stories from white film-makers. They follow a century of demonisation of Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns, and more recent, well-intentioned efforts such as “Dances with Wolves” and “The Revenant” that nonetheless foreground white characters. Most observers date the rise of indigenous cinema to the mid-to-late 1990s, with groundbreaking films such as “Atanarjuat”, an Inuktitut tale from Canada, and “Smoke Signals” and “Once Were Warriors”, set in the contemporary Native American and Maori worlds respectively.

These films help preserve indigenous culture while giving native peoples a chance to see themselves on screen. Beyond this, audiences of all kinds have proven eager to hear stories from communities they know little about. “That’s why indigenous film is so exciting,” says Ms Hakaraia. “People see faces very rarely seen before, different environments and humour and ways of doing things.” Ms Todd, an experienced maker of documentaries and children’s television, believes that indigenous storytelling gives non-native viewers a new way to experience the world. Indigenous philosophy and politics have always been embedded in art, music, theatre and dance, she says: “It’s all these rich, rich ways in which our stories are told.”

Drawing on ancient and distinct storytelling traditions, indigenous cinema can feel strikingly different from Hollywood’s pace and plots. Ms Gardiner, after taking a storytelling workshop in Los Angeles, says that the experience showed her that “a key point of difference is that the Hollywood model of storytelling is conflict-based, and indigenous storytelling is connection-based. The idea that you look for conflict as a way to drive a story forward, and create a journey for your central character, is a fundamental difference.” Indeed, the characters in both “Cousins” and “Monkey Beach” mainly seek reconnection and reconciliation with their communities and pasts.

This approach is appealing to audiences. “Cousins” was New Zealand’s top-grossing film on its opening weekend in March, beating a Disney release, “Raya and the Lost Dragon”. That success may help to overcome one large remaining hurdle for film-makers: the lack of indigenous films on multiplex screens and major streaming services. Ms Gardiner hopes that good box-office receipts, and the popularity of festivals such as Maoriland, will encourage more distributors to recognise the value of these stories.

Some films in the programme of the Maoriland Film Festival are available to stream via video-on-demand services