Scene from Waru | Image source: ImagineNative
WARU (2017) is a series of gritty single take short films focused on the aftermath of a Māori boy’s death due to child abuse. These eight compelling stories were all created by Māori wāhine (women) using this simple yet formidable formula: one day and one shot. This method proved to be cinematographic gold for award-winning producers Kerry Warkia and husband Kiel McNaughton, co-founders of Brown Sugar Apple Grunt Productions, as Waru continues to earn well deserved praise in the film world.
This must-watch film creates a beautiful glimpse into Māori traditions and contemporary culture. The shorts examine individual and hapori (community) responses to the tumultuous situation of Waru’s tangi (funeral). The characters follow traditions, they channel the power of ancestors, they cheat or find other outlets like addiction, they lash out, they succeed, they speak up, they take on extra responsibility for their whānau (extended family). They become everyday heroes and warriors, but above all they present as realistic and relatable.
Cool temperature and bright natural light give Waru a sense of stark realism fitting for such raw emotive content. But the slight overexposure can feel surreal and far away, like the characters reeling between intensity and disassociation after trauma. The technical viewer can become as fascinated with the expert camera work as the gripping stories.
Each short begins at 10am lasts ten minutes as a single shot. The impeccable use of this challenging technique displays a serious calibre of filmmaking, fitting for the seriousness of the issues addressed. Despite being different interpretations of the same situation written and directed by different women, the stories flow seamlessly. The visual continuity is so pervasive, one could almost assume it to be a feature length instead of a series of shorts.
Waru is richly layered with meaning throughout. The stories contain eerie contextual similarities including the time of day, the music, and some overlap of the same actors. Even a pop song threaded through two narratives betrays a deep significance. New Zealand born Ladi6’s song, “Diamonds” might sound like cotton candy but is actually a ballad about the day to day struggles of poverty. Another self-referential double take is Waru’s mother being played by the same actor in both ‘Charm’ (directed by Briar Grace-Smith) and ‘Ranui’ (directed by Renae Maihi).
The deceased Waru himself speaks to open and close the film. He hauntingly opens with, “When I died I saw the whole world,” and goes on to a heartbreaking description of things he’s seen since his untimely death. The last shot breaks with convention, filmed in black and white. This could allude to a different perspective – possibly through Waru’s eyes? In fact, the entire film could be interpreted this way. The final camera angle is shot from the backseat of a car in which his disembodied spirit could very well be sitting. While disturbing, the spiritual elements are important to the film’s cultural congruency and overall themes. Waru says, “When I died I saw that people are angry. Their anger is a lightning bolt that lights up the sky.”
Indeed the film is based on the outcomes of anger, substance misuse and violence. A parallel to the award-winning Once Were Warriors (1994) is too obvious not to draw. Waru is very similar in set, tone and topic, and is every bit as good of a film. But it’s also sad that a generation later these topics are still so relevant in Māori culture.
Aotearoa (New Zealand) has high rates of violence against women and children. Exacerbated by poverty and cheap alcohol, substance misuse and related violence wreak havoc regardless of race or gender. However, the deaths of children are portrayed as a Māori problem. Richard, the ignorant reporter in Kiritapu’s (Kiri, directed by Chelsea Cohen) story, blamed it on the “warrior gene”. He parrots the tendency of the privileged to rationalize their power as deserved. His convenient genetic argument ignores deeper issues like colonization and structural racism that created the environment for Waru’s death.
Kiri’s story is focused on her gratifying disruption of racism in the workplace. She confronts Richard on live air, stating that this is “everyone’s problem”, and pointing out the names of pekeha (white settler) children who died from similar causes. Kiritapu is a Māori wahini who finds her voice and refuses to be put in a box of either the good Māori, the bad Māori, or not enough of a Māori.
Similarly, Mere (directed by Paula Jones) confronts an abuser in an explosive monologue using the traditional language. She holds her deceased Grandmother’s cane while women gather behind her in solidarity. Both Kiri and Mere’s characters embody the overarching messages of the film: unity and speaking up against injustice. Masterfully curated by Warkia, each one of these shorts could easily stand alone, yet together they generate a new Māori classic. Despite the premise of tragedy, Waru offers a message of healing and hope for future generations. It is a film of phenomenal strength in both quality and through the powerful messages it portrays.
DIRECTORS OF WARU:
Briar Grace-Smith (Charm), Casey Kaa (Anahera), Ainsley Gardiner (Mihi), Katie Wolfe (Em), Chelsea Cohen (Kiritapu), Renae Maihi (Ranui), Paula Jones (Mere), Awanui Simich-Pene (TB)