October 29, 2016

Auteur theory, East Coast


Mahana (Lee Tamahori, 2016). It’s been a really good year for Maori cinema – Poi E: The Story of Our Song, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Mahana have all come from different directions, and tackle different eras, but all have had confident Maori directors in charge. In the closing seconds of Mahana, adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha by screenwriter John Collee and directed with a strong sense of nostalgia and affection by Lee Tamahori, a girl asks teenage Simeon (Akuhata Keefe) to the movies. The story’s tyrannical patriarch is dead and this meeting happens at his tangi (there is a sense of liberation: this tangi rhymes with the gloomy Christian funeral that opens the film). The patriarch had outlawed trips to the movies along with any fraternising with another local family, so this invitation breaches two of his now redundant rules. Who’s in the movie, Simeon asks the girl. Elvis, she says. Who made it, he asks. Don Siegel, she says. Oh, he made Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Simeon replies. Which means the Elvis movie is Flaming Star and the year is about 1961. This outbreak of auteur theory among teenagers on the rural East Coast in the early 1960s might seem unlikely but that hardly matters because it really signals that Simeon is the stand-in for Ihimaera, himself a famous movie-lover and, more broadly, his love of the movies and their escapism and glamour relates to the ways that Simeon, more sensitive than the other boys and young men around him, can see the fantastic, mythical and epic in the everyday, including in his own family history, even though this is an aspect of the material that Tamahori, cleaving closely to a kind of sentimental realism, never fully capitalises on.