As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.
I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.