............................................................................................nz films
This is the introduction to the New Zealand film section. Let's see now. I live in New Zealand. I like to make films. I like to watch films. I like New Zealand films. New Zealand films have a certain feel to them that make them far different from anything out there. "It's 'cause you got no money!" comes a shout from the back of the room. Ah yes, possibly, there is that wonderful feel of a low budget (no budget?) feature, but I think it's something more. We do afterall make some pricey features (Utu I believe was and possibly still is our most expensive feature and not to forget LOTR). NZ films are part of our history, part of what we are as kiwis. Be it that can-do attitude (Geoff Murphy driving a police car into a lake when budget restraints meant no stuntman) or sheer determination (Bad Taste took 8 years of weekend filming to complete), NZ movies have made their mark (on my life at least!). There, how's that for an intro. <<<

UTU - Geoff Murphy's Magnum Opus (1983)

Utu, a film by Geoff Murphy is perhaps one of the most graphic portrayals of cultural conflict in modern New Zealand cinema, from the opening slaying of a Maori village to the poignant execution at the end. Cultures are represented in various ways throughout the film through such diverse elements as, cinematography dialogue and soundtrack.

The first and most striking scene that will be discussed in this essay is the confrontation between Te Wheke and the Vicar in the church. The entire scene plays out like a western show down, with Sergio Leone style close-ups and tracking shots. The scene begins with a clever juxtaposition of shots. Te Wheke and his men are not shown in the opening scenes, the director has chosen to show the camera creeping through bush, crunching over dried leaves and twigs with birds singing in the air. This is in stark contrast to the church interior, which is interlaced with the creeping shots getting closer. The Church is not naturalistic at all with its constructed walls and stained glass windows, it is not silent either, instead of nature’s sounds, an organ and singing can be heard. The effect of this is inspired as it shows that Te Wheke is associated with all things natural (or so it seems) while the Vicar is something introduced and intruding upon the natural environment.

Te Wheke’s cultural status as natural and traditional can be questioned though, through his dress and mannerisms. When we finally see Te Wheke he is in a red colonial coat, wearing a soldier’s cap and brandishing a gun – all western items, not traditional Maori things. However he relinquishes the gun to the Vicar and lays down his challenge, his wero. This is perhaps the most pivotal scene in the film, as it shows Te Wheke finally returning to his cultural heritage. The gun is shown flying through the air in a tightly edited cut-away shot. The Vicar catches it and in doing so creates a definite cultural divide between the two characters. Te Wheke is now truly a Maori warrior armed with a traditional style axe (although he does revert back to guns in later scenes, as they are more effective than axes) and the Vicar is the white invader armed with a gun. He is unable to shoot Te Wheke even though the gun is loaded, “Would I give you a loaded gun; of course I would” (Geoff Murphy, UTU) – this shows how sure of himself Te Wheke is and how he fully relates to his Maori ancestral background by completely defying this Pakeha coloniser and his weapons which once gave him power. The wearing of western garments could also be a mockery of strange pakeha ways by mimicking their dress while fighting against them.

It is important to also note that the church-goers are predominantly of Maori descent, however we are clearly shown that many of them feel very out of place in the church setting. This is illustrated by the boy who refuses to take off his hat when told to and by the tall man who awkwardly watches an elderly lady sing, but does not sing himself. This implies that these people are not in there true cultural environment, that the church is something that has been forced upon them, as it would have been when missionaries first arrived on the shores of New Zealand. The entire scene attacks the role of the church in colonial New Zealand times; not once in the segment does the Vicar seem kind-hearted, instead he gives a ferocious speech warning of the evils of society “Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword” (Murphy, UTU) and no doubt is himself attacking the old traditional Maori ways through his sermon “…persist in heathen blindness… murderers following false prophets…”(Murphy, UTU). It could be argued that this a link to Te Wheke being a false prophet to his followers, however this is questionable because never does he (Te Wheke) proclaims himself to be a prophet, he has no religious or grand scheme, he only wishes for retribution, “utu”. He may be seen as a prophet by some, but that is their interpretation of him. Te Wheke calls himself “…one of God’s children” (Murphy, UTU), not a prophet or a god, when warned by the Vicar further illustrating that religion seems to be the main focus of cultural conflict here. He goes on to say, “so shall we die in the fire that burns them… fanned by the breath of the Pakeha’s words of God” stating that church is a western construct made to bind them (Maori/indigenous people in general) in a certain alien cultural mould.

The second scene of cultural importance is the final trial scene, where Te Wheke is judged in front of an open fire. This scene is interesting as it shows a wide range of cultural backgrounds, not just Maori and Pakeha. We see Te Wheke – a Maori angry at the Pakeha for killing his iwi; Wiremu – a Maori who is part of an English army; Lieutenant Scott – who sorrows from the loss of Kura; and Williamson – a crazed man seeking revenge; as well as many Maori army soldiers. What is of important significance is the omission a racist white character, none of the Pakeha present hate Te Wheke on purely racial grounds, they hate him for killing there loved ones and wounding them. This can be seen as a flaw by the filmmakers, they are not addressing a fundamental problem that was present then and still is now – racism. The only form of real racism emits from Te Wheke, and that is because of his great loss, so the audience feels some compassion for him. There would have been a large number of white settlers who would have thought the Maori people vastly inferior to themselves and therefore hated and feared them (same could be said of indigenous people disliking colonisers). This hole was filled by Colonel Elliot, who showed hints of being a racist, but his character is killed before this pivotal final scene.

Everyone in the scene has a motive for not liking someone, except for Wiremu. Wiremu, although he fought along side the English/colonial army, does question his part in the battle: “Then does it matter which side we’re on?” (Murphy, Utu). Wiremu is pivotal, as he sets himself up as the only unbiased judge at the trial, he is a Maori of the same iwi and has no real conflict with Te Wheke, he is also revealed to be Te Wheke’s brother: “My name is Wiremu Manaweka Te Wheke”. This is a significant discovery as it levels out the conflict between different cultures and brings it to a very intimate level – the story of Cain and Abel: brother against brother. The camera sweeps down as Wiremu kneels down before Te Wheke and they both hold Scott’s gun levelling the two as equals. They are of the same culture/indigenous background, both are warriors, yet they are at the same time different, Wiremu has no tattoos, while Te Wheke’s face are adorned with many. By this time Te Wheke knows he is defeated, but still feels no remorse for what he has done, he feels that is status a Maori, as native person of Aotearoa has been violated through the killing of his tribe and he seeks justified retribution for his loss. He now accepts he is condemned, not by a court “presided over by a fat German woman on a distant shore” (Murphy, Utu), but by his own blood, and therefore is willing to take his punishment as he hands over the execution bullet to Wiremu. And so in the final scenes, no Pakeha feature only two integral Maori characters. Wiremu has stated earlier that, “…I think Pakeha have killed enough Maori and Maori have killed enough Pakeha” foreshadowing his final actions.

Another important character in this film is Matu (Merata Mita) the only female present at the end trial. She is willing to be Te Wheke’s executioner because he has killed her family (Kura). Wiremu stops her “…you are only a woman from a different tribe. For you to settle this is to create new conflict” (Murphy, Utu). This shows another cultural layer within the context of being Maori or associating with a particular iwi or people. Within those Maori boundaries are further lines and borders, in this case it would be unsuitable for Matu to finish this conflict as she is a woman (of a different tribe) and does no have a right to do so. The status of women within a Maori cultural context was a focus of the media in past years when Helen Clarke was refused speech at Waitangi and parallels can be drawn here. Once again, the trial shows how there are many elements at play within Utu, not just conflicts between Maori and Pakeha as first impressions may give.

In conclusion, although the film was made by predominately Pakeha production crew (Geoff Murphy, Kerry Robbins) and draws heavily from western cinematic influences such the western / action film, the film does not suffer from a “colonial gaze”. A fair representation is given of Te Wheke and his men; the colonial army and of the tortured Williamson with the audience feeling sympathy as well as anger towards all parties involved in the film. We feel compassion for Te Wheke’s loss, but his killing spree is not treated with an approving hand by the filmmakers, neither is Williamson’s vow for revenge, but we understand his rage. Overall, cultural representation is not a clear-cut, “black and white” matter in the film. Cultures are shown as much more complex than just Maori and non-Maori in Utu, just as it is reality – things are never so simple, because divisions can always be made within cultures to produce more complex sub-cultures.  [Rajeev Mishra 2001]

A NZ film will be outlined and reviewed here every so often

These are some of the NZ films (and films made by NZers) and NZ filmmaker that I like and/or are very influential to me. Of course not all the films I like are listed, but I have tried to limit it to the ones I consider more important (hopefully).

     Geoff Murphy      Peter Jackson      The Rest

Wild Man
(Haven't seen it yet, sorry)

Goodbye Pork Pie
Two men travel the length of NZ in a stolen yellow mini

When a Maori soldier's entire village is slain by the army he shuns the military and seeks revenge against the white opressors

The Quiet Earth
A man wakes up one day to find he is the only person left on earth

Never Say Die
A journalist and his wife are caught in an intricate web of deception and conspiracy

Bad Taste
Aliens come to earth to harvest humans as food. Looks like a job for "the boys"

Meet the Feebles
The muppets, but with more gore, sex, drugs and violence!

Rat monkeys, zombies, a lawnmower and plenty of gore

Heavenly Creatures
True story of teens who plan to kill one of their mothers

The Frighteners
Michael J Fox plays a PI who sees ghosts and must deal with a new horrible evil

Forgotten Silver
Spoof documentary about "pioneer" filmmaker Colin McKenzie. Had much of NZ fooled

Lord of the Rings
Masterpiece fanasty epic. Need I say more?

Sleeping Dogs
NZ suddenly comes under the grip of a fascist police force and government

Smash Palace
Character study of how a man reacts to the fact his wife maybe leaving him and his drastic retalatory actions

An Aussie arrives in a coastal NZ town to uncover many hidden truths about his past and family

Once Were Warriors
Powerful dissection of modern urban Maori life starring Temuera Morrison & Rena Owen

The Starlight Hotel
A child runs away from home and joins a lone Aussie drifter on the run

Entertaining comedy about a group of pool playing friends who get themselves in a bit of trouble









NZ Film Commission


Wellington Film Guide

Deluxe Cinemas

Lord of the Rings



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