Monday, April 11, 2016
Mahana: a theological film review
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 90 plus films later, here is the review for March 2016.
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
He toi whakairo, he mana tangata.
The Maori proverb, translated in English as “Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity” is an apt summary of Mahana. Set in the East Coast in the 1960’s, two Maori families, the Mahana’s and the Poata’s, are locked in rivalry. Directed by Lee Tamahori (famous for Once were Warriors and Die Another Day), Mahana is an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.
The pacing is terrific, as screen writer John Collee turns 293 pages of Ihimaera’s prose into 103 minutes of silver screen. The rites of life, weddings historic and funerals contemporary, are the pivots around which tension is both focused and resolved. The ethereal beauty of the bee scene, with its haunting waita, is a rich window into Maori culture and the way people and place are interwoven.
While a period vehicle car chase and the annual Golden Shears provide authentic colour, the film is a reminder that life in 1960’s New Zealand was far from rural bliss. Mahana depicts family feuds and an entrenched racism that were a stain on the idyllic rolling green hills of our history. Mahana thus shares themes with Whale Rider, including drawing from Ihimaera’s imagination, being set in the world of East Coast Maori and depicting the courage required of teenagers caught in hierarchical patterns. Both Pai, in Whale Rider, and Simeon in Mahana, face the challenge of growing beyond a demanding and dominating grandfather.
In a Kiwi cast that includes Temuera Morrison (Grandfather Mahana) and Nancy Brunning (Romona Mahana), it is unknown Akuhata Keefe (Simeon Mahana) that steals the show. From Tolaga Bay Area School, the fifteen year old was in Auckland on holiday, when he was encouraged to audition. His repeated courage is the engine that drives the plot.
Turning from artistic excellence to human dignity, as might be expected in 1960’s rural New Zealand, religion is an ever present reality. Family meals around the Mahana family table begin with grace, while at the church, the priest buries and marries. Yet prayer and ritual seem unable to bring reconciliation in the family feud between Mahana and the Poata.
Instead, it is human dignity that provides freedom. It comes from Simeon Mahana. His belief in fairness and willingness to speak his mind are the means by which three generations are freed from their history. His courage is a reminder, from John 8:23, that the truth will set you free. It provides another way to begin the Maori proverb. Not “he toi whakairo” but “te hauto itoito pono tīari.” “Where courage and honest exist, there is human dignity.”
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and The Out of Bounds Church? (Zondervan: 2005) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at www.emergentkiwi.org.nz.
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