by FilmInk Staff

This bestseller, now considered a classic of Antipodean literature, is an ambitious sprawling novel about three Maori women spanning the decades after WWII.

It is a story that touches the pain of colonisation and the warmth and love of family, friendship and community. Much of the plot centres on the character of Mata, forced into adoption as a child, who somehow survives in a world that always reminds her that she is an outlier. This is a very different fate from her once two great pals, cousins Missy and Makareta, who have grown to be community leaders in a way.

Beautiful and touching, the film has received a great deal of praise at home for its delicate touch in dealing with institutional racism and especially its performances.

Released earlier this year in NZ, Cousins was co-directed by two distinguished filmmakers Ainsley Gardiner (prod: The Breaker Upperers, Boy) who also produced the film; and Briar Grace-Smith (dir: Waru; writer: The Strength of Water) who co-wrote it and plays a major part.

On the eve of Cousins’ Australian release, we spoke to Gardiner and Grace-Smith about the making of the film.

Since there were few opportunities for Aotearoa filmmakers to seek finance elsewhere for projects, the New Zealand Film Commission has arguably developed ‘the character’ of the industry there over forty years. Cousins was first presented to NZFC a long time ago – with distinguished filmmakers like Merata Mita (Mauri) and Gaylene Preston (Ruby and Rata) attached at various times – but the project did not move forward. Why?

Ainsley Gardiner: “It was a multi-protagonist story. The NZFC of the day did not like that. There were issues around the fact that the few non-Maori characters were not treated sympathetically, or not sympathetically enough. At the time, it seemed to be so unwieldy and massive, people couldn’t get their head around the complexities. This is a story about three generations, and it took nearly three generations to do – we needed to get to a stage where the NZFC could [deal with it].”

As it happens, Grace-Smith was in a unique position to understand the issues in the development of Cousins in its earliest incarnation[s].

Briar Grace-Smith: “I was Patricia Grace’s daughter-in-law. I was privy to the conversations between Pat and Merata about the difficulties of adaptation. It’s an epic novel. There is lots and lots of story. When [it came to my own screenplay, the task] was not that hard. I was quite ruthless [in approach], since I was conscious of what had been explored [in those earlier versions.] It’s a universal story…it’s about the importance of family and connection.”

Ainsley Gardiner: “We talked a lot about what the film was about. We felt it was a feminist film about women stepping into power despite the expectations of our societies and our communities. Certainly, it’s a story about colonisation and everything that has been lost and has been taken from us; and the power and resilience of Maori women and Indigenous who despite all [difficulties] hold their communities together.”

Betrothal scene in Cousins, featuring Cohen Holloway, Miriama Smith, Cian Elyse White and Hariata Moriarty

You were talking about how the novel and now the film reflects the Maori tradition of oratory – where digressions to the Past constantly inform our understanding of the Present.

Briar Grace-Smith: “Yes. The novel is a very non-linear story. That’s an indigenous way of storytelling. That’s the reason why the book works so well.”

Ainsley Gardiner: “One of the things that interested us was how to capture a sense of time being really fluid. That’s true of Indigenous people the world over. That is, we don’t think of the Past as something long ago. Our ancestors and past operates alongside our present and so the way the things that are impacted on our family in the past, whether its children taken by the state, land losses, our men going away to war… all of these things that are historical have a devastating effect in the present; it speaks to all of the ongoing impacts of colonisation…”

Briar Grace-Smith and Ainsley Gardiner on the Cousins set

Can you explain your creative process and how that reflects the deeper aims of the film?

Ainsley Gardiner: “We approached it with this idea of a flat hierarchy as representative of how our indigenous communities work. You hear a lot in the Western Hollywood way of making films that that dilutes the vision because you are ‘making films by committee’. For us, it was the strength of the project. It not only captured the best of our abilities but captured the underlying sense of how our people and communities work that is then translated onto the screen.”

Briar Grace-Smith: “Initially, we were not going to direct.”

Ainsley Gardiner: “We had a commitment to collaborative storytelling”

Briar Grace-Smith: “We had really loved working with each other [in the past]. During the writing, we decided we wanted to co-direct. In that process, we worked out our director’s vision… so a lot of the hard work was done. We worked on the basis that the scenes and characters we were attached to, [one would be] the lead director and the other would stand in support of them. We got to a place where we were interchangeable. That’s a good place.”

Traditionally, co-directing teams face a lack of sympathy from crews used to a single voice…

Ainsley Gardiner: “The crew did not push back. We were not prepared to move unless the both of us understood what the other was trying to achieve.”

Over the last thirty years, Aotearoa’s First Nations People have had a growing influence in theatre, film and tv, which, says Gardiner, “spoilt them for choice” when it came to cast a film made of predominantly Maori women of all ages. The three main characters appear as children, adults, and older women…

Cousins features: Te Ao Marama Baker, Te Raukura Gray and Tanea Keke as Mata; Keyahne Patrick Williams, Hariata Moriarty and Rachel House as Missy; Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels, Tioerore Ngatai-Melbourne and Grace-Smith as Makareta.

Briar Grace-Smith in character in Cousins

Still, Grace-Smith never intended to take on the role of Makareta. She auditioned, amongst other top rank players after the original casting dropped out due to illness.

Ainsley Gardiner: [Laughing] “Briar always reminds me how I made her audition.”

Briar Grace-Smith: “I had not done any acting for years and we had two weeks to shoot.”

Ainsley Gardiner: “The auditions were about dealing with the altered dynamic. We were such a team at that time. For Briar, to step out of that and for me to direct her… It took me time to get my head around that… [Talking about the children] One of the great things about making films in NZ is that there is so much natural talent in our communities…when you put the camera on them there’s magic.”

Cousins is in cinemas June 10, 2021


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