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Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival (4) - Barrie Pattison (and Bruce Spence) report on Mahana (New Zealand (Lee Tamahori, NZ, 2016, 102 minutes)

Feuding shearer families in New Zealand’s Poverty Bay sounds like standard film festival movie going and if it is, it goes some way to redeeming that idea. In fact Mahana is Lee Tamahori’s best movie - to date - his most memorable effort since Once Were Warriors launched him and its star Temuera Morrison as internationally recognised talents.

Morrison now ruefully comments that another actor is wearing his uniform in the new Star Wars movie.

Mahana is much better and more approachable examination of the dynamics of family than the garlanded Juste la fin du monde. We’re soon into the vintage car race between the Mahana and the Poata families, headed to the funeral of the white sheep farmer boss (and his shearing contract), abruptly halted by a one lane bridge.

There’s tension between Morrison and grand son Akuhata Keefe, who was fourteen when he was cast in the part. Teaching him to chop wood (“Youre not a man yet") Morrison has him slopping out the barn at the house rather than going out with the families shearing distant farms.

The kid is at “that damn Pakeha school” where he’s memorised George Bernard Shaw’s “A family is a tyranny dominated by it’s weakest member” as well as a suitable John Wayne quote and, on the class excursion to the courts where no Maori is spoken giving the defendants no chance to defend themselves, he speaks out against the severity of the justice system, instead of thanking the judge. 

White settlement gets a mixed report card in this film but it’s not the subject. This one is about holding families together in the face of the change that new culture, the impending shift to cities will bring.  Morrison is the man who kept his own from fringe life and digging roads.

The climax comes when the boy defies him and his father defends the kid against the old man’s brutality. His family are banished but grandma gives them her run down house and land (communing with digital bees there). After an impressive storm rips the sheet iron off the roof and his dad is injured,  young Keefe takes charge, getting shearing work and entering the Golden Shears competition against his own and the rival family - another set piece. It would be interesting to know if Tamahouri taught his actors to shear or found shearers to act.

These characters were watching The 3:10 To Yuma and Flaming Star the same time that I was, which gives it a personal relevance to set against unfamiliar material - the flying wedge formation making their haka like entrance to the Tungee funeral at the community hall which contrasts with the white man’s church.

It’s not without self consciousness and the occasional irritation (why don’t they clear the cobwebs before they hang curtains at the rundown house) but his is a great looking film and it is saying something strong and relevant. The event will have to go some to produce one better.

Kiwi born actor Bruce Spence has sent in the following comment: Brought back memories of growing up in rural NZ at exactly that time. Left in 1966. Loved the performances of Nancy Brunning as the grandmother and Akuhata Keefe as the boy. His underplaying made a lot of those over the top lines acceptable. Like it a lot. Plot was rather simplistic and clumsy at times though.

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