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September 11, 2017 | by  | in Film |
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Mahana — Lee Tamahori

Once Were Warriors director Lee Tamahori gives an interesting portrayal of Witi Ihimaera’s 1994 award-winning novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies in his 2016 film Mahana. Tamahori has the ability to initiate any city dweller into daydreams of manure with his sweet cinematography of rolling green hills. He also features a handsome cast with lead roles performed by well-known Kiwi actors Temuera Morrison and Nancy Brunning as well as industry newcomer Akuhata Keefe. Told predominantly through the perspective of youngest grandson Simeon Mahana (Keefe), we are given an intimate view of the dynamics of a patriarchal Māori Whānau from the bottom of the pyramid.

Whakahīhī — “too big for your boots, boy!” — is strewn throughout the film by Koro Tamihana Mahana (Morrison) who carves his whānau with the knife of a certain type of mana. Hard mahi and labour. Simeon, wanting to forge a path of his own mana, outsteps the tīkanga of his whanau and often finds himself at the receiving end of his koro’s erratic whip as he attempts to navigate and shift his social environment. This aspect of the film can resonate with many of us as the shift from “labourer” to “academic” still holds much relevance today. Stats from the 2013 census show that labourers are the most common occupational group for Māori. My dad is a labourer, my mum grows marijuana plants; whakahīhī, neither of them have much respect for tertiary education. Hailing from a low decile suburb where empty Woodstock cans litter the streets, having consistently negative pregnancy tests before 20 is a grand achievement.

Nancy Brunning embodies the serene, seemingly all-knowing character of Kuia Ramona, who sits at the left hand side of her husband Tamihana. As expected in a patriarchal whānau, the women cook, clean and keep their mouths amicably shut at the dinner table. “Men fight for what they want. That’s the way of the world” is said by Kuia Ramona once she unveils the mystery behind the Mahana and Poata rivalry. I was disappointed in the complacency of both men and women. I was disappointed in how the big plot punch left no hole in the wall. Where was the outrage? It was taken and trampled on by English Common Law of the time where women and children were merely chattels to be used and abused by the paterfamilias as he saw fit.

Overall, I was left feeling underwhelmed and a little bit disenfranchised about the state of Māoritanga as Tamahori had portrayed it. I felt the influence of a colonial world in the interactions between characters of the film. The story speaks in to a small community, but my strayed to the rife reality of racism against Maori especially given the set time period of the film. It was not until as recently as the late eighties where Te Rēo was recognized as an official language. The use of Te Rēo was heavily, sometimes forcibly discouraged from public spaces. Today still, a single Te Rēo issue in an assumedly progressive student publication once a year sparks much controversial debate.

In spite of my reservations, the flatmate I watched Mahana with reckons that she had a “wholesome, good time”! So give it a watch, e kare (


–three stars out of five–

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