by Dov Kornits

“She’s kind of like the queen,” answers filmmaker Paula Whetu Jones when we ask how well-known the late Māori leader Dame Whina Cooper is in New Zealand.

Whina is such an icon in New Zealand, that according to Whetu Jones, they had their pick of crew members and heads of department, despite the explosion in offshore production during Covid.

“Everyone wanted to be part of this. It’s something that they can share with their families and their people.

“When she died in 1994, I think over a million people tuned in to watch her funeral. She was an 80-year-old Māori woman who did a land march… her reach and ability to touch people remains today.”

This was confirmed when earlier this year, Whina was released across the land of the great white cloud in virtually every multiplex and arthouse cinema, just like the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.

“This film has been around for nine years,” Whety Jones continues. “Matthew Metcalfe, who is the producer, really wanted to make the film about Whina. Him and the other producer, Tainui Stephens, had been talking to the family and just trying to figure out how to get it right. But they didn’t have a director. They asked James Napier Robertson [The Dark Horse], to come on board, and then they thought, ‘hang on, we need a Māori women’s voice in this’.”

Wise move!

Whetu Jones’ major credit before Whina was Waru, 2017’s acclaimed portmanteau where she shared director credit with 7 other Māori women.

Initially joining Whina as a writer, it wasn’t long before Napier Robertson asked her to co-direct.

“It’s like any partnership, right?” she asks when we query how they worked together. “Any collaboration, before anything, it’s about respect and actually wanting and liking the person that you’re working with. It makes it a lot easier if we can be honest with each other. But James and I wrote it, so there were no surprises. We were just in constant communication right from when we came on board. Respect, no egos, that’s how it worked.”

With that in mind, one of the first things that the filmmaker did was ask for the permission of Whina’s family to tell the story. “They were across everything, from the script to the art department to the costuming…”

Whina’s granddaughter Irene Cooper executive produced the film, “she had quite a bit of input into making sure that we were authentic in our portrayal of her grandmother.” Whina’s last surviving children, who were in their eighties were also a part of the film.

“It’s definitely a blessing,” the filmmaker answers when we ask whether such close proximity to the subject helps or hinders creativity. “We couldn’t have made it without them. To get the authenticity of who Whina was, as not only the icon that New Zealand knew, but also a mother, a wife, the woman that Whina was… Because we touch on her personal life as well, of course, which nobody really knew about other than those closest to her.”

Someone who was attached to Whina from the beginning, was actress Rena Owen, who plays the titular character in her later years.

There was nobody in New Zealand that could’ve played that role other than her,” says Whetu Jones. “We cast around her. Miriama McDowell [who plays a younger Whina], when she did her audition, she made me cry, which is saying something. I’m sure Whina, wherever she is, is just totally stoked with the performances and how they played her. I know her family is.”

Whina is part of a First Nations movement in New Zealand, which excites Whetu Jones.

“A lot of the time, Māori aren’t at the helm of their stories and people have written what they think they know about how we are… I’m super excited that the government just announced that Māori history will be taught in schools. That kind of blows my mind… in 2022, the government has finally decided that our history, from a Māori perspective – land wars, civil war – matters… People don’t really know about colonization and what happened to Māori. The stories of our achievements, successes, our leaders, who were and are amazing… How we fit into the world as well as into our own country. It’s an exciting time – our successes and our amazing people are finally going to be celebrated on the world stage, and we get to write those stories and make those films.”

Whina is in cinemas November 3, 2022