by Becca Whitehead

If art is the antithesis of war, they still have many similarities. Muru is a new film from writer and director Te Arepa Kahi [pictured left]. Moments after the opening credits, before we’re sure what we’re seeing, we get a sense of unrest. People gathering at night. Being watched through green night vision goggles, by the police. It’s difficult to grasp what’s happening without context.

Then Kahi tells us: “In 1916, the New Zealand government raided the people of Tūhoe and their prophet Rua Kēnana.”

The screen tells us that, almost one hundred years later, the New Zealand government raided the same village, and arrested Kēnana’s descendant, the activist Tāme Iti [pictured right].

The text continues on the screen: “This film is not a recreation of the police raids against the people of Tūhoe. It is a response.”

The response is to allow viewers a window into a raid on the community of Tūhoe in New Zealand’s Ruatoki region and the people who live there, touched by generations of cultural abuse and resistance.

Speaking to FilmInk from Brisbane before Muru’s release, Kahi and Iti talk about the generational togetherness, and trauma, that spurred the film.

“It is absolutely generational,” says Kahi. “We’ve got four generations of Tuhoe in this film, and that’s such an important thing because that’s Tame’s authentic self. He’s been portrayed and headlined as this person by our own media and government for so long,” he says. “But so much of his time goes into his grandchildren, other people’s grandchildren, and his elders, as well as my generation. Relationships helped create this film. Not to just show the impact of our governments on this valley, but to have it speak and represent all of these generations is important,” he says.

Iti, who is deeply involved in the process of ‘co-partnership’ with the New Zealand government and the Maori people, believes that art and relationships are important in the process of bringing cultures together.

“My relationship with Arepa goes back to his dad and to his father-in-law,” says Tame. “For him, a person with the craft, he has the magic. It’s like weaving a basket. Weaving and weaving and putting in different layers,” he says, miming the weaving action with his hands. “Then, it’s what do you place in there?”

Tame is amazed by Kahi’s work in Muru. “He’s the wizard.”

Muru is not a peace offering. It’s more a reckoning: purposely weaved from threads that allow, or force, the viewer to empathise with the Maori people. Family, community, invasion, abuse, and response are pulled together to create a complex and tightly bound film. It’s a powerful, if uncomfortable, result.

Kahi is clear about the cultural goals of the film.

“The concept we are trying to introduce and strengthen back home is co-partnership. It’s a lot. That’s through Tuhoe. There’s still so much resistance back home because when people hear the word ‘co-partnership’, part of the dominant society feels like they’re losing something. Rather than that something else, that belongs here, will contribute and participate at a table of influence. So, we still got moves to make,” he says. “But through Muru, [we are] getting beyond the media headlines and breathing generational life into the valley in a way that is reflective from the Maori perspective,” he says.

Shot on location, Muru gets up close to the Tuhoe valley. The landscape is beautiful, shot with a raw sort of ordinariness that makes it look like anyone’s home – anyone who has lived in the country will recognise it. We go into people’s houses. Some who grew up in a small rural area will recognise the feeling of closeness. Watching Muru only adds to that recognition a more complex understanding of what was done to the people who live these lives, and their driving need to fight back to save their communities.

‘Response’ is a tactical word. Was it deliberate?

“This is a big demasking exercise,” says Kahi. “That word ‘response’ is tactical. And demasking is an important part of this film. To see beyond headlines, to come deep into the valley and to experience a sit down,” he says. “One of the most important scenes in the film is Papa Tāme hanging a painting on a wall for his friend, and hearing the language between them and what they’re excited to experience, what Tuhoe actually sounds and feels like…”

Later, Kahi says that the film was shared with members of the police in New Zealand and one member who saw Muru – a significant name – immediately called Tāme, excited about what it had made them feel. They had empathised with the characters. Tāme set up a conference with that member to help support cultural issues for later in the year.

So yeah. A movie can make a difference, if the right people make it.

Muru is part of APSA 2022, November 9 – 13, 2022

Main photo by Veronica McLaughlin courtesy of the New Zealand International Film Festival