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March 22, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Film Archive short films

Film

Fish Skin Suit (2000)
Directed by: Peter Burger

Ruia Taitea: The World Is Where We Are (1990)
Directed by: Barbara Cairns

It is not often an Indian fellow called Moses emerges from the sea in fish scales, joins a rural New Zealand community, breaks up a marriage and repairs a family, all in 46 minutes. But then it is not often I visit a cosmopolitan and hip place like the Film Archive, so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge what is commonplace or not. Nevertheless, whether you are a regular cat on the Archive scene or a lowly minion to the mainstream mass cinemas as I am, most people would agree that with its deliberate wackiness, archetypal characters and blaring themes, Fish Skin Suit is unconvincing in its attempt for Archive-esque trendiness, and far more suited for the ignorant masses of a primary school classroom.

But both school kids and a wider audience will fall in love with Heremaia (Luke Tarei) and Rata (Rachel Batty), the children who drive this film, and the actors who rescue it from bland fabrication. The kids are sincere, funny and charming in their depiction and provide a genuine foundation for the film. It’s just unfortunate that Fish Skin Suit’s fake Elvis, fake American accent and fake fish skin suit complete the layers of phoniness and predictability that construct the remainder of the film. Madeline Sami is amusing as self-centered Aunt Libby, but struggles to perform past the superficial layer and bring dimension to the superficial character. Similarly, Nancy Brunning (Mere) and Kirk Torrance (Toa) step passively into their stereotypical skins of strong Maori mother and abusive father but wear the suits uncomfortably, leading the audience to question whether their acting capabilities aren’t, well, just a bit fishy.

Fish Skin Suit
’s grasps authenticity with its New Zealand setting, but even this is hindered by the director’s decision to harass his audience with generically reproduced New Zealand-isms—the strong accents, the exaggerated Maori culture and the blatant New Zealand symbols are cringingly deliberate. Typical Kiwiana themes literally slap us in the face, and this lack of respect for a potentially intelligent audience results in the film’s better fit as a dramatised school teacher’s aide, rather than the quirky New Zealand narrative it tries to be.

Despite my pink lycra tights, neck-protector sunhat and mum-bum jeans, I can honestly say that vomit-coloured sweater tracksuits were not included in my list of 90s fashion faux pas. Maori writer Patricia Grace, unfortunately, cannot.

Twenty years on, Patricia Grace should regret her embarrassing fashion choices and express a sigh of relief over their demise. Twenty years on, what Patricia Grace should not regret are her stories—achievements that resonated with New Zealand and the world, and that, unlike the sweater tracksuits, continue to live on and influence people today.

Documentary film Ruia Taitea: The World Is Where We Are, introduces the voice from behind the stories and presents Patricia Grace as she discusses life—the life of the dead, the life of her culture and the life that exists in her writing. The film features dramatised excerpts from three of Grace’s stories and provide a visual support to Grace’s insightful dialogue. However, the obvious acting, bad electro pop and excessive wardrobes of Sneans evoke more cringes than emotion during these scenes and are evidence that Grace’s simple but powerful words exist better on paper than screen. Luckily, the film successfully balances the fictional and the real—it prevents the audience from being carried away with the laughable acting, and encourages them to instead be absorbed by the cultural understanding and passion that drives Grace’s art and exists behind her spoken words.

Patricia Grace is a stimulating cultural force in literary New Zealand, an honest and necessary Maori voice, and a campaigner of the telling of stories young and old. Regardless of the age or quality of the film that presents her, Grace’s humble and knowing character will always be evident. However, it is a shame that in the case of Ruia Taitea: The World Is Where We Are, the subtle strength of Grace’s stories are not as palpable. Unfortunately, the bad 80s soundtrack, dated cinematography and those god-awful tracksuits stunt the film’s ability to resonate with today’s audience. While Grace and her stories will always be contemporary, Ruia Taitea: The World Is Where We Are fails in leaving that same impression past its expiry date of the early 90s.

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