There is an exercise that Moana Jackson (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou), a constitutional lawyer and Māori academic, employs when speaking on abuse of tamariki. Last year, media lecturer Dr Sue Abel used this exercise in my class of over 100 students. She asked who had heard of Nia Glassie, Cris and Cru Kahui or Delcelia Witika. Everyone raised their hands. She then read the names of Pākehā children who were victims of a similar fate. Not one hand was raised. I still cannot recall the names or faces of those Pākehā kids who died at the violent hands of their caregivers. It is a compelling demonstration of media bias, but it also reveals the chasm between Māori and control of our narratives. We need more films like Waru.
Waru fights, like the hammerhead shark, to claw back autonomy and centre the voices of mana wāhine. In the wake of a young boy's death, eight Māori female characters confront pain and endure personal trials within their whānau and wider community. Each of the eight interlocking stories is directed by different female Māori directors. The film weaves together pillars of te ao Māori, tikanga, te reo, and karakia, submerging them beneath the sea of intergenerational, colonial trauma. The women are forced to choose; sink, or swim?
For Māori viewers, Waru is a raw and overwhelming watch. These stories aren't fabricated, they are delicate observations of the women in our whānau. These stories are our realities. We internalise their guilt, pain and triumphs. We learned, through trial and error, not to muck around in Aunty Charm's kauta. We sat in the back of Whaea Bash's busted-ass van, eating her stink dried apricots. We were, or we knew, of the Meres in our whānau. I didn't stop crying from beginning to end. It wasn't a traditional sob. It was a mourning, as though I were present at the tangi. That grief is etched on the heart of my wairua, and it responds only to the pain one can know from experience.
The women of Waru, Charm, Anahera, Mihi, Em, Ranui, Kiritapu, Mere, Bash and Titty, are fallible. Watching them respond to mistakes, of their own making or others, forces a choice on the audience. Do we become complicit in the process of blame and judgement? It's a hypothetical situation, but one that's subtly transgressive. It forces us to challenge, and sometimes unlearn, our own prejudices we hold onto about abuse, particularly the 'epidemic' of Māori child abuse, sensationalised by mainstream media. In 2011, as part of her master's thesis, Raema Merchant analysed eight years of newspaper reports. Her research suggests mainstream media over-report the Māori abuse of children by 42 percent. The complexity of this racism is reflected in Waru: The side-eye glare from spying neighbours. Reckless public consumption of media ignorance. Verbal jabs distinguishing the 'good' Māori from the 'bad'. Murmurs of a colonial lie, the 'warrior gene' theory. Unforgivable misunderstandings of Māori culture touted as truth. There's a nuanced checklist throughout Waru that prompts the audience to ask each other, are we, or have we been guilty of this behaviour?
In the context of a post-Turei New Zealand, where the Hoskings are rewarded for their ignorance and Māori women are silenced, the arrival of Waru is salient. It succeeds, both because of a peripheral awareness of the public's Māori blind spot, and its refusal to dilute the narrative to cater to that gaze. This is only achieved through its all Māori, female leads, consistent with its all Māori, female control of production. The approach to production employs a kaupapa Māori framework. The collaborative effort of the female Māori directors has ensured their communal mauri has translated in a manner consistent with tikanga. Their mauri is imbued within the characters who, despite the immense pain, summon this mauri to persevere. It's a spiritual presence that speaks to the precedent of Māori women who issue a wero to society, demanding better for all.
Waru is not a drill. It will not be reduced to the antiquated, performative, feminist trope of a solo, female voice with aspirations of 'starting a dialogue'. It is a community of women, Māori wāhine toa, of different ages, affectations and abilities, screaming in unison. The time for a kaputī and gingernuts has passed. With the strength of these eight women Waru leaves no room for interpretation. Tamariki are taonga, and they need us to act now.
'Waru' in in cinemas now.