Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Cousins: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 160 plus films later, here is the review for April 2021.

Reviewed by Steve Taylor

Cousins, directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, provides a tactile, immersive experience of a bi-cultural Aotearoa. Cinema is often a visual experience. Cousins uses closeups of the visual to invite immersion. Hands holding feathers from a pillow fight release childhood memories, hands braiding hair image the work of whakapapa.

The lives of three cousins – Māta, Makareta, Missy – offer three experiences of colonisation and the dispossession that results. Māta is stolen, forced adoption stripping away her connections to land and family. Cousins follows her through forced adoption, schoolyard bullying, work and loveless relationships. Eventually homeless, her mind locked up by multiple griefs, she wanders Wellington. Her life will personalise many a case that will be heard by the current Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care

Makareta becomes a lawyer, prosecuting the legal justice made law through Te Tiriti. All the time, she searches for Māta. Missy remains near the family marae. Protecting the whenua, Cousins opens with her phoning Makareta for legal advice as surveyors plot a new motorway through Māori owned land.

These three lives, imagined by writer Patricia Grace (Cousins), are historicised through clever use of historic footage. Makareta’s father sails to his death as part of the 28th Māori Battalion leaving for Europe. Māta’s grief absorbs her as news of the 1975 Land March blares on TV. Māta is adrift on Wellington streets as the Foreshore and Seabed Hikoi of 2004 marches by. Cousins might be fiction, but it offers an immersive weaving with the experiences of many in Aotearoa.

If you are teaching the Bible to children, Cousins suggests you tread carefully. Racist interpretations, that mis-apply a traditional Catechetical Formula, are delightfully exposed. The ancestors are “not strange gods.” Rather, they are “just ugly,” announces Missy, as Māta mis-applies her Catholic orphanage Sunday School teaching in her first encounter with the tekoteko (ancestor) carved on the roof top of the wharenui.

If you’re speaking of the cross this Easter, Cousins offers a powerful portrayal of atonement. In choosing to remain near the marae, Missy becomes a female Christ-figure. In a moment of family drama (seeking to avoid spoilers), she takes initiative to absorb the whakamā (shame) of her family. She acts not as a substitutionary atonement but to re-make broken promises. Shame is as crippling as guilt, particularly in cultures that value community. Missy’s actions restore identity and result in new relationship. She follows Jesus, who in crucifixion, took our shame and in resurrection, re-made our broken promises. Hence we find ourselves invited to God’s wedding feast every communion. Hence Cousins offers theological gifts as we approach the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.

It is no wonder then, that Cousins ends with himene (hymns). After the credits have rolled, and the cinema is dark, amid the emotions wrought by the desolations of colonisation, the chords of “Whakaaria Mai” (How Great Thou Art) begin to sound. Not matter how dark, in God’s grace there is always the possibility of praise. Such is the gift of Cousins.

Posted by steve at 06:51 PM

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