Ten years ago, the New Zealand International Film Festival had the foresight to support the creation of the Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts. Co-curator Leo Koziol reflects on a decade of nurturing new talent, and looks at this year’s line-up.
Ten years ago the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) was looking to reshape its short film programming, following the closure of the Moving Image Centre in Auckland. As a result, it introduced a New Zealand’s Best competitive short film programme and the new Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika short films programme.
Back then, there was not the plethora of film festivals we have now. Wairoa Māori Film Festival (which I founded in 2005) had a relationship with NZIFF whereby we could screen some of the films at our marae in Wairoa before their official premiere in the big cities. This relationship was formalised and expanded with the creation of Ngā Whanaunga in 2012, which I have curated from the beginning (and with Craig Fasi of Pollywood since 2014).
I honour the late NZIFF festival director Bill Gosden who had the vision and foresight to partner with Wairoa Māori Film Festival and Pollywood a decade ago, and thank outgoing festival director Marten Rabarts (Ngāti Porou) who bravely rebranded his festival to Whānau Mārama and has woven te reo throughout NZIFF.
Looking back at the first programme 10 years ago is a fascinating snap shot of where we were.
The first year included films by Nikki Si’ulepa, Hamish Bennett, Briar Grace-Smith and Libby Hakaraia. All four filmmakers have gone on to direct or produce landmark feature films.
Si’ulepa made the film Same But Different, an adaptation of her true love story of meeting partner Rachel Aneta Wills at the Wairoa Māori Film Festival (I had a cameo in the film, as Hemi the festival director). Bennett’s story of life on a dairy farm, Bellbird, was released in 2019. Grace-Smith co-directed (with Ainsley Gardiner) the landmark adaptation of Patricia Grace’s Cousins, a box office smash this year. Hakaraia was a producer of Cousins, and in 2014 launched the Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki (a festival inspired by Wairoa Māori Film Festival, after Libby’s uncles visited for the screening of Lawnmower Men of Kapu and came home to say: “We want one, too!”).
Over the past decade more than 50 short films made by or starring Māori and Pasifika talent have screened at NZIFF thanks to the curation of Ngā Whanaunga. At the time, the name of the programme was a gift by my late mother Huia Kaporangi Koziol as an expression of “connectedness by culture and bloodlines across the Pacific”. My mum always loved the Māori and Pasifika stories that came through each year, and it’s a privilege for me that this film programme continues in the spirit of her aroha for movies.
For eight of the past 10 years this whanaungatanga has been expressed by the presence of co-curator Craig Fasi (Niue), the founder and festival director of Pollywood Film Festival. Wairoa Film Festival has been going for 17 years, but Craig’s festival has been going for way longer – more than two decades at last count. Based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Pollywood plays to its urban Pasifika fan base each year, with its latest iteration screening this very weekend in the post-lockdown city.
It has been a privilege to work alongside Fasi each year to uplift Indigenous voices across Aotearoa and Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Two years ago he fulfilled a lifelong dream by taking Pollywood to his home village in Niue. Like me, his strength and passion for film comes from the wellspring of his own people and tribe. In Wairoa, we screen films in a big commercial venue (the historic Gaiety Theatre) but I am most proud of our film nights and afternoons at our marae, this year for the aunties at Kahungunu Marae, Nūhaka, and Iwitea Marae, Iwitea.
Chantelle Burgoyne’s Sista (also screening at Pollywood) tells the heartfelt and honest story of how her sister got in trouble (with a boy!) and the punishment eked out on the return home. Burgoyne was there at the start: her debut film Tatau was in our first line-up back in 2012. She has just wrapped filming a chapter in the new anthology feature Ngā Pouwhenua, which I am very excited to see out on the festival circuit.
In Disrupt, playwright and journalist Aroha Awarau tells a wrenching tale of redemption and hope in the face of the horrors of P addiction in our community. Directed by veteran actress Jennifer Te Atamira Ward-Lealand, Awarau’s story finds full expression on screen with Kararaina Rangihau as the powerful and forgiving nanny we all wish we had. His story puts down a wero for us all: whānau are whānau, no matter what, and we must never turn away. We must turn our face to the sun, and let the shadows fall behind us.
Mīria George expresses her Kuki Airani heritage in Fire in the Water, Fire in the Sky. Pilgrimage and potential are explored in this adaptation of a dance performance work, with cinematographer Elise Lanigan’s work immersing audiences in George’s vision. She is also a rising star of Pasifika film-making, having been one of the directors of the stories in anthology feature Vai back in 2019.
Raymond Edwards’ talents have shone mostly in other people’s works – most recently as the cinematographer on Cousins – but in True Love he tells a true-to-life story of a Māori fulla in Ōpotiki who just has to “get the fuck out” if he is to protect his partner and whānau. Edwards shot on 16mm and his gentle film is saturated with East Coast light and modern romance angst.
Maruia Jensen is a new talent at NZIFF this year, and it’s exciting to see her Māori potential being realised. She, like Aroha Awarau, was supported by the Māori screen production agency Ngā Aho Whakaari, one of two Aho Shorts in this year’s Ngā Whanaunga. Jensen took out two top prizes at NZIFF this year – the Unesco Wellington City of Film Award and the Letterboxd Audience Award.
Her film Disconnected is a surprise, and for me as a film curator, has a feel, look and story I have not seen before. Jensen lets young actor Scotty Cotter’s talent shine through in a rough and tumble story about grieving for your mum. Like Disrupt, this film deals with addiction, but in a darkly personal way. We’ve all experienced dark times in our lives, and perhaps for some this film will touch on memories and moments that break our heart. It certainly did for me.
At last year’s Ngā Whanaunga, I was asked by Hiona Henare (rising filmmaking star and Wairoa creative partner for over a decade): “Leo, what is the state of Māori cinema?” I said to Hiona: “The state of Māori cinema is good.” That year’s programme included Mika’s breakout hit Gurl (the story of trans diva Carmen), Forgive Me by Oscar-nominee Chelsea Winstanley, and Kath Akuhata-Brown’s meditative calling card Purea. This year, Akuhata-Brown was winner of Best Short at NZIFF NZ’s Best, along with fellow Māori filmmaker Josephine Stewart Te Whiu. Trans actress and director Awa Puna took out emerging director in the same programme.
The state of Māori cinema is good, and the state of Pasifika cinema is good. I look back at the past 10 years with pride at how Ngā Whanaunga has been a kōhanga kiriata for up and coming filmmakers and actors in Aotearoa and across Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. It is a privilege each year when the latest crop of films come through for me to sit down with Craig Fasi over a cup of java (or kava) to muse and make our final selection. We’re both excited for the new talent coming through, and look forward to following their journeys ahead – as they and their short films travel the world, and they make the transition to the grand feature filmmaking tradition.
Most of all, we are simply just happy to see ourselves and our stories on screen.
Ngā Whanaunga Māori Pasifika Shorts 2021 are now available online at NZ Film On Demand