Thursday, August 18, 2022

Whina: a theological film review

Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 165 plus films later, here is the review for August 2022.

Reviewed by Rev Dr Steve Taylor

Dame Whina Cooper towers over Aotearoa. Aged 80, she trod the 1,000 kilometres from Panguru, the land of her birth, to Parliament. Joined by 5,000 others, Te Matakite (the Māori Land March) gathered 60,000 signatures to a memorial of rights, asking the Crown to honour Te Tiriti and preserve Māori turangawaewae. Whina’s cry “not one more acre” inspired generations of Maori.

While the events of 1975 are a central and recurring theme, the movie brings all of Whina’s justice-making to life. Born the daughter of Heremia Te Wake (played by Wayne Hapi), the young Whina (played by Miriama McDowell) is arrested for passive resistance. Aged 19, she filled in drainage ditches to halt a Pākehā farmer draining her local mudflats. She works with Sir Apirana Ngata (Ngāti Porou) on land development schemes in the Hokianga, then the centenary celebrations of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. As the first President of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, Whina became a pan-tribal Māori leader, honoured as Te Whāea-o-te-motu (Mother of the Nation).

Like all mothers, Whina is far from perfect. Rena Owen, who played the older Whina says she struggled as she learnt some things about Cooper. The advice from directors Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones was necessary: “Just remember Rena, you are portraying a very flawed person.”

Yet flaws can form. Acting Dame Whina also led Rena Owen back to Mass. “I went to confession … I prayed a lot during those seven months because it was so important to me to get it right” (CathNews, Monday, June 13, 2022). Such was the faith that shaped Whina as Te Whāea-o-te-motu.

While Whina is a profoundly Aotearoa story, it cleverly works with global dynamics. We see the fatal impact of global pandemics as Whina’s father dies from the Spanish flu in 1919. The impact of World War 2 on the young men of Panguru shapes Whina’s building of a meeting house.

A highlight of Whina is the immersion in Māoritanga. Much of the dialogue is in te reo, while the creative dynamism of matauranga Māori is clearly evident. Whina challenges patriarchy by building a meeting house, not a marae so that women can speak. Describing Te Matakite, Whina reframes the march. “Māori only march for war. We march to wake the conscience of the Pakeha.” This is a dynamic approach to culture, demonstrating agile and creative approaches to tradition in the seeking of justice.

As Te Matakite march gathers support, it inevitably attracts protest. The final steps toward Parliament include an attack by young and angry white men. Whina falls, a poignant witness to the frailty of this 80-year-old woman.

The fall also provides a striking witness to her faith. Whina remains Catholic, despite the cultural ignorance of the movie’s only prominent Pakeha character, Catholic Priest, Father Mulder (played by Erroll Shand). Three of the fourteen Stations of the Cross involve Jesus falling. These stations illuminate the cost of Jesus marching toward peace. As Whina falls, the crucifix around her neck twisted by the violence of the impact, Te Matakite becomes an indigenous expression of Christian pilgrimage.

Posted by steve at 03:42 PM

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