Interview with Renae Maihi / Waru

Tiana chatted with director Renae Maihi (Ngati Whakaue, Ngapuhi) during the Winda Film Festival. Maihi is an award winning and critically acclaimed writer & director in theatre & film.

Would you first be able to tell me about your background that informs your work?

Sure! So I actually started writing when I was very young and wrote poetry, music as well as creative writing. It was a very big part of how I could express things that I was going through. I was raised in South Auckland which was predominantly a place where there was a lot of broken dreams however was fortunate that every single holiday I went up to my tribal lands in the far north, which was a very official place where my Maihi family would tell us stories. So all through my life and through my childhood, I was part of Maori culture groups and drama and through all of high school I did drama.

When I was eighteen, I got pregnant with my son which was not a good thing at the time, so I ducked over to Sydney to escape and I worked there and had my son here. I came back and saw myself in a not so great situation with my son’s father and then a friend of mine, asked, at the time I was going nineteen onto twenty, what I really wanted to do with my life. She asked me what I actually loved and I said, look I’ve always been quite strong in drama. So then she put me forward and I enrolled and got accepted into a drama school.

I spent three years training as an actress and also training as a theatre maker, a storyteller. Through that, we were able to tell stories about our experience growing up as Maori and aspects that resonated with us. So I created one of my first works which was about the cycle of abuse. Through those three years I was a single mother and was juggling a university degree which was really tough. I then came out into the industry and started working as a professional actress in theatre though at the time there was no Maori theatre.

I had been a writer and a friend of mine who worked for an agency which was looking for new writers encouraged me to write a play and enter it into a competition. So I did and I won that competition. I had a lot of support and I developed the plays. Within the year I had the play up on stage and it was Keisha-Castle Hughes’ professional debut. Katie Wolfe, one of my collaborators, directed the play and I was in it as well as being the playwright. This really kind of launched me because the reviews in the New Zealand Herald were r stunning, combined with the comment another writer said to me which was you can only wish for a review like that. After that Katie brought me in [in the industry] and they said we want you to write a short film and helped to train me in writing short films.

I started writing and made a work called Redemption which ended up going to Sundance and I had this realization at that point that I knew that I was also a director. Then I wrote another play and directed. This was based around child abuse. This also had a very strong sell-out season and at the same time, I wrote a short film – which was about eight years ago now. This got chosen out of quite a few, which I was very grateful for, for funding through the film commission. Then I was also working in television as a writer and I made my first film which was called Butterfly that I directed. This went around the world and ended up doing really well and I really wanted to continue that journey. I kept making theatre plays but then I had to have a break for a couple of years. After that, I realized that I was serious about my work and committing whole-heartedly to it. So I approached the New Zealand Film Commission and said I recognized that as a director I’ve got these skills here but technically I need to upskill if I wanted to one-day have a feature film.

So I went to New York on a scholarship for two months. While I was there, I made a film called Mannahatta. This came about through the deep call that came to me through my dreams from a Native American spirit. I asked permission from their people if I could tell their story and I then made the film. It is currently on the global circuit now. I then got invited to work on Waru, and we went through that process.

So my involvement in the industry really, if I based it on the age of my son now, has been 14 and a half years. This has just been acquiring the craft skills and all my stories, really in some way, nod to my deep desire to find ways to restore the Mana. This is what Maori describe as the theme to Indigenous people and all my films and stories really do speak to that.

So in regards to that, what motivates you as a film director and writer and what subject matter do you feel drawn towards?

So the idea of Mana, which you can find the definition of in the Maori dictionary. What motivates is that I would like to find ways with my stories to potentially help restore the Mana back to Indigenous people in the world. So it is about the telling the story of our people who had Mana or steam or had their authority or pride taken away from us through the taking away of our land – our land was our culture and our spiritual beliefs. This as well as the onset of the post-traumatic stress disorder on our people and our people being the indigenous people around the world who have been colonized, and how we cope with that and situations of poverty [that arise] and why.

My stories are about giving context to it so that non-native people can perhaps understand our fights a little a more. So I’m really interested in telling stories that in some way tell our story because our story is not just one moment in time right now but it has taken a lot of years of oppression to get us to this point and that I really do believe that society deserves. Our own people can become educated on their sense of trauma and how that is manifesting and also an audience an audience can gain insight into our world and our history through film. I believe it [film] is one of the most important mediums of our time to educate through story and allow people to walk in someone else’s shoes and find empathy and thus it is all about the restoration of Mana, to the people of the world.

Film thus becomes a form of activism and post-colonial theory and a response to that?

Yeah, absolutely!

In regards to that, would you be able to tell me what drew you to Waru?

What drew me to it was this issue of children being killed through violence has been with me for a very long time. I remember being 11 or 12 years old and learning of the death of a little girl called Daphelia who was tortured to death and being profoundly affected by that and not understanding why this happened to this little girl when I was so fortunate. If anything, we were indulged and we were loved but at the time I didn’t understand how someone could do that. This stayed with me for a very long time which caused me again to write a play and direct that which was about child abuse.

When Waru came to me, I knew that what I wanted to say, I hadn’t finished saying it. When I knew it was based around the death of a child, I was not fearful at all. Some of the other women said they were a little fearful but I just knew that we had to tell the story because this was an opportunity for us to tell a story that might make some type of change and children will stop dying. That was the key motivating factor for me. There was a callout to Maori woman directors and apparently there was about 50 who had applied to be involved. I had a chat with them [the producers] on the phone and they asked me if I would like to be part of this and I said absolutely. Also, I knew that the other women, a lot of them I had a long time collaboration. Katie Wolfe for example directed my first play. Ainsley [Ainsley Gardener] and I had been friends for years and respected each other’s works. There was another woman, Briar [Briar Grace-Smith] who was from my tribe, who was in the first theatre play I ever saw at 15. She has always been a mentor, an older mentor, and a friend to me. Chelsea [Chelsea Cohen} , I had a lot of respect for her work. A lot of us women knew each other and when you are working in these creative circles, all women and we know each other, I knew that I was safe going into this table because I knew there was a lot of craft on the table and I knew that we were going to tell a deep and meaningful story.

Furthermore going into it, I was really interested in the non-negotiables or the parameters that were put in place because I understood that it encourages you as a creative to raise to another level. I always had parameters anyways. When you are making theatre, there are multiple parameters and when you are trying to make a film there were multiple parameters because you are not always going to have the budget or everything you want. I was comfortable going with the parameters and seeing how they could shake up creativity but at the time I was directing another series for Maori television. This [the series] was all in my own native language and I was deepened. Some of the Elders whom I was dealing with had knowledge of the very old world and also our own system of lore that we had in place. We were talking about this loss and in my own manner as well, the idea of spirituality was really important to my family. Right down to my nan, who said when she passed away that her gravestone was not to be unveiled until everyone in our family cemetery had their unveiled. She would not be able to rest peacefully until that happens. So we went around the table, there were no stories. We sat there and we had the five non-negotiables. Each of us women said where we were feeling our instincts are to come into the story and I said, look I don’t know who at this stage but somebody will come and ask for our child [within the film]. So instantly, we started laying down a [plan], saying I want to film in the ancestral house or I want to contextualize what has happened to our people or I want to honour the spirit of our child.

At the end of those five days, I had the first draft. This is the fastest I probably have ever written from nothing to a first draft and this speaks to the conversations that we shared and the questions that we knew that we needed to ask about the premise, the world, the characters and who these women are. Many of us have our mothers as well and thus [we questioned] how these different characters make us feel and different parts of our lives being with these characters. It was the most crafted table I have worked on and we worked fast.

In regards to the parameters in place for shooting, how did you approach it?

Well I had shot a one-shot before in Mannahatta so though it was only two and a half minutes, I understood the amount of blocking and choreography. I understood the technical aspect however I knew that Greek Tragedy would inspire my work. When I was at drama school, we studied and performed plays on that, one of them being called The Woman of Troy. So I knew that the one-shot couldn’t be a contrived device that you put on top but rather it had to be within itself in the story and that I wanted to let the story unfold and I had to understand the nature of the camera. The camera itself becomes the spirit of the Albatross bird, which is one of the ancestral animal totems.

Also in terms of my directorial style, working with the actors, I had two days of rehearsal. I did exercises, which I did as an actress and that when I am working in theatre I also do with my cast and I also did hot seating which is sitting down with the actors and asking them to be in character. Then you ask them a series of questions on who they are and how they fit in this puzzle. Then I just blocked the scene, as I would anything however the scene would have to be a lot longer. So about half-way, coming up to eleven o’clock or twelve o’clock on our first day, we had already really explored our characters and we had some read-throughs and then I laid down some marks and said guys we just have to do it. We ran it and I was with them the whole time and I wish I had a camera on that one because it was just magic.

I had sent quite an extensive breakdown to my cinematographer of all my visual references, the tone and the style and I was very specific about what I was looking for – the camera must move in circles because it needs to mimic the flight of an albatross or the spirit of the boy. So on the third time that we ran it I told them that I would be the camera. So basically I just held up my phone and just really fleshed it out. Then they [the cast and crew] are also comfortable knowing that that was what they were aiming for tomorrow when we actually did shoot. I was really proud of the work they all did – it is about casting as well.

It was hard to find the two leads but as soon as I found Kararaina [Kararaina Rangihau] I just knew it was her. They needed to be native speakers of our language. The woman who played Hinga the other grandmother [Merehaka Maaka], was her first time ever on screen. But I have worked with experienced actors and also raw talent so I worked really hard with her to teach her to relax and really understand how to listen in a scene. She picked it up really quickly – I knew she had it but she just needed to trust herself. And then the other actors who I placed and cast around them – the two boys and the other grandmother by the coffin were very experienced actors. I said to the two men that they were the wing and she [the grandmother] is the great albatross bird through the entire scene. Thus in order for her to fly you must maintain some type of strength and that structure. Also I said to Tanae, who was cast, that she glides to the professionals and that you need to ensure that you are here fully to do your job as actors but also to support these two [new actors] who have a very big job to do in this scene. I also told them I want you to bring all your experience and all your support to set the level and that they [the new actors] feel safe and that they know that they can go to that level because that is what we are doing. All of this comes from my experience and history of being an actor and my understanding and love of ancient Greek theatre, Shakespeare.

Were there any particular New Zealand directors or films that you drew your inspiration from?

I absolutely love and have a lot of respect for Jane Campion. One scene that really stands out in her film The Piano and is absolutely stunning is the scene where the lead character is having a fight with her daughter and it is just beautiful. She is a director who has so much depth and everything is really considered. I also have a great respect for a lot of the women whom I have worked with and are some of the most experienced practitioners in our country. I also admire Hitchcock since he was also very specific about why you choose certain shots and that every frame that you choose is deliberate and creates an emotional response and psychological reaction for the audience, though they [the audience] might not necessarily understand what they feel. I also really admire Nicki Caro. She made Whale Rider many years ago and now she is working on a huge big-budget film, the largest budget for a film that any woman director has ever held in Hollywood. She is a really lovely woman and I have a lot of respect for what she has achieved in her career, though it has probably taken far too long. You know, that’s what happens to us women.

Would you be able to comment on the role of women within the industry itself?

Yeah, absolutely. The mindset of sexism which is a real plague in our society because quite often, look I’ve been on set directing my films and on two occasions I have had crew come on and walk straight past me looking for the director. They are looking for the director and they always go to the white male and one time I remember the guy [part of the crew] he went straight to my cinematographer. It is about being underestimated all the time and being expected to be in a system of development forever because nobody trusts that you can actually hold work. I think, Paula Jones, one of the other directors on table, added everything up and collectively on our table we have over 150 years of experience and yet people are still unsure about whether you are ready.

The thing about women is that we are our own harshest critics and I have seen that men are more likely to jump in and say I’m ready when they are not ready. But us women really make sure that we know that we are ready and that we have done our due diligence and developed in the craft areas that we need to before we put our hands up. So when we say we are ready, we are ready.

I expect that while there is a lot of positive gender scenes going on which is excellent, the industry still needs to work on the mindset. So many times, I have seen unexperienced male directors go past me and the sense of distrust in your skills and your craft. I’m thinking to myself, wow, I’ve got a degree in drama which I went to study and did every day for three years and that person has just decided that they want to make a film and look they’ve got all this support around them because they are a male. So it’s the underestimation and the massive opportunities that are coming past women and therefore we need to really observe our mindset and people in the industry really need to [change], not just men but also the women who block other women. It is lateral violence, this is what lateral violence is all about – believing that there is only a few scraps so “let’s keep the other ones out.” We just have got to stop that because we are missing opportunities and to think that we had this opportunity to make this film.

We made this film from first sitting to shoot/edit in four months. I had four hours to shoot my scene and we had a really tight budget. So what we are saying is for everyone to stop saying that we [women] are not ready because we actually got the funding and development opportunities and the phone call and what would have taken some people a couple of years to make took us four moths. If we just had that support and people just put that stuff aside and hey let’s just look at the history, the background and the experience of this person rather going hey she’s a female and she probably doesn’t understand lenses. If you are not going to be able to direct a camera crew because women are not technical, I just don’t want to hear that anymore. It is time that we move past that because we are very capable and actually cinema needs to grow to a whole other depth and I really believe that women can bring depth to a screen.

Would you be able to give advice for women that are emerging as film directors?

Yes! Absolutely! My advice is really practical and is understand the craft skills that are involved and understand the current talents and skills that you have within yourself and whatever you need to develop, find ways to develop that but also really back yourself. Work hard on your stories because ultimately and hopefully it comes down in the wash and if you keep putting forth good stories then people will eventually back you. Just know that the truth in the matter is that expectations on us is always gonna be a lot higher and that sucks.

You know, that’s why I went to New York actually for a couple of months to study. I did an intensive filmmaking course so I learnt everything – I didn’t know how to edit or have an understanding in cameras and lenses. By now, I have shot a few films as a cinematographer, I know how to light a scene with three point lighting, I understand the craft of storytelling and editing and how light behaves as well. Just learn all of it! If you can, find really practical ways to learn all of it so that when you are on set, you don’t have people rolling their eyes behind your back. Unfortunately, you have to step on and control your shit and work collaboratively but ultimately film is not democracy but a hierarchy and every ship needs a captain. If you doubting yourself then people will sense that, so don’t make it about you but make it about your craft. If you know what you are doing then people cannot run over you.

So focus on your craft skills and believe in yourself and your stories and why you want to tell stories. This is the thing that carries you through.

You talked about collaboration and working independently, when you were filming for your particular vignette for Waru, did you have a lot of interact with the other directors in regards to how yours would fit in or did you take a more independent approach?

I probably made more works as a writer/director than some of the other women. I had enough experience as a director to feel confident in my abilities and I had a very strong vision from the beginning. You do the prep work and really explore deeply on why you make decisions and I already had provided my notes on cinematography – 26 pages of breakdown on the feeling and the look. So in terms of the directing, Briar, Katie and Ainsley, I respect them all and Briar gave me notes throughout, you know saying “I read this draft and it’s nearly there”. So then she’ll say something like that and then I’ll go ah yes and I’ll go deeper. Then Katie will say “this is so close” and ask me “what is motivating our voice?” and then I’ll go and I’ll look deeper there. In terms of the actual direction, the women turned up on set, we all do if we were in town and would go along and support but they sat off location and were just there for our opening prayer and be there to support but otherwise it was just me, my crew and my team. We all respected that on each other’s sets.

Would you be able to give me an insight on the industry within New Zealand?

Sure! So we’ve got a pretty long history of film in New Zealand actually, with the first cinematographer in the country who also then became a writer and director in the 1950s being a Maori woman, called Ramai Hayward. We have had quite a lot of success with our films internationally and I think we have continued to be committed to our craft and telling stories.

I know for Maori, the film commission always says that the top fifteen highest grossing or critically acclaimed films, ten of those are either Maori written, directed or themed. So we have quite a well-established industry for such a small country. With the Cannes Film Festival, I think, no other country has had as many films within the completion outside of France as New Zealand.

Through the period during the 80s and the 90s, there were a lot of the stories that were based around identity. This was common for a lot of Indigenous people. Then at some point Mereta Mita became the last Maori woman to write and solely direct a feature film, 30 years ago and has since then passed. It has been 30 years since a Maori woman has written and directed a narrative feature film. This has been because of the entrenched racism and sexism. There has been plenty of males that have come through. Films like Once Were Warriors, a film that made massive impact on New Zealand and globally. Identity then was the focus.

Then there was a period where everybody was making coming-of age stories which really started with Taika’s [Taika Waititi] success with Two Cars, One Night. Now I feel that we are moving towards a place of telling stories from our imaginings which I think is pretty cool. Generally people’s first films are them, them as a child or some type of trauma which they want to get out. But I feel like now we are evolving as storytellers and our expectations. At a certain point I basically said I don’t want to see any films with a grandfather and a grandchild because we are sick of them. We don’t want to tell coming of age stories anymore because it is so done and Taika’s really influenced our industry here.

Ultimately I have never been one to be with trend anyway. I just listen to the call of my ancestors and that is how it comes to me when I’m telling stories or something that is deeply affecting me and my life or something that I feel called to.

Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

Yes I am actually. I am in the stage of a contract negotiation for my next feature film. It is a story that , again, I felt called to and it is based on a true story. However at this moment, I probably can’t reveal what it is because it hasn’t been completely signed yet.

It will take the next two years of my life up because I just want to solely focus on this film and try and get it into cinemas and out there as soon as possible because of the fact that this legend who has passed on now has two living children who are still alive but they are very elderly. So I want to be able to show them their mother’s story, while they are still in this realm. I’ve got a lot of support around the world for this and in my country so I’m really looking forward to going on this journey to tell my first feature film solely written and directed by me. Also there are a few of us other Waru women who are developing films as well and the wonderful thing is that, like I said, it has been thirty years since a Maori woman had written and directed a feature film solely however Waru broke the thirty year drought and I think it was wonderful that we did that together and that there was nine of us. I think that is how it needed to happen and now it has paved the way.

Interview by Tiana Malhotra


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