Kōrero: Feature film

Whārangi 8. Looking to the future

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Both international productions and local film-making continued during the COVID-19 pandemic of the early 2020s, although this affected many productions. Weta Workshops and Weta Digital continued to attract international productions, with legislation on the employment status of film industry workers continuing to cause some tension in the industry. 

During this period several feature films were produced in Aotearoa New Zealand. There was increased activity by Māori film-makers, who created place-based stories while often also connecting with indigenous communities overseas, as well as a push for more diverse representation of other New Zealanders.

Collectives and international connections

Writer/producer/directors such as Ainsley Gardiner (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Awa) and Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) have been involved in a number of successful productions, including Canadian-New Zealand co-production Night raiders (2022). They both participated in an anthology of Māori stories, Waru (2017), developed by a group of women film-makers. This was followed by Vai (2019), featuring Pacific women’s storytelling. Kāinga (2022), with its pan-Asian stories, completed the trilogy, depicting those communities living in Aotearoa through five decades. These films have screened overseas as well as in local cinemas and online, attracting awards and critical praise.

Film and literature

Since Sleeping dogs (1976), New Zealand feature film-makers have continued to draw on literary works for their storytelling, developing narratives and characters inspired by novels, stories and poems. Director James Ashcroft (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāpuhi) used two of New Zealand writer Owen Marshall’s darker short stories as the inspiration for his feature film debut, Coming home in the dark (2021), and The rule of Jenny Pen (upcoming). The critical reception and publicity generated by these film projects shone a spotlight on Marshall's stories, introducing them to a new generation of readers.

The annual Māoriland Film Festival at Ōtaki celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2024, showing 168 works including street sculpture. Started in a caravan and founded by Tainui Stephens (Te Rarawa) and Libby Hakaraia (Ngāti Kapumanawawhiti, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa), it has become an international indigenous film-making hub and creative networking space. The name is an ironic nod to the early-twentieth-century New Zealand Moving Picture Company (Maoriland Films), established in Ōtaki in 1920. Māoriland is the largest indigenous film festival in the southern hemisphere and aims to be the ‘native’ Sundance Film Festival. 

Sundance, founded in 1981 in the United States, employed New Zealand film-maker Merata Mita (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāi Te Rangi) as its artistic director for the Native Filmmakers Lab between 2000 and 2009 (she died in 2010). In 2016, the Sundance Institute created the annual Merata Mita Fellowships to help indigenous film-makers access resources and networks. New Zealanders Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith were the 2019 recipients. In 2021 they released Cousins, their co-directed film based on Patricia Grace’s 1992 novel. In 2024, Māoriland founder Libby Hakaraia was a co-recipient of the Merata Mita Fellowship.

Te reo Māori on the world stage

Matewā Media, led by Chelsea Winstanley, ‘reversioned’ international hit movies Moana (2017), Lion king and Frozen (2022), Coco (2023) and Encanto (2024) by providing te reo Māori translations for these animated films, and employing Māori voice actors and singers to perform new te reo Māori soundtracks.

Tauiwi (non-Māori) communities previously under-represented on-screen utilised digital technologies to make local stories. 

  • In 2020, director/writer Roseanne Liang released Shadow in the cloud, a US/New Zealand co-production action horror film set during the Second World War. This followed a successful local feature film release in 2011, My wedding and other secrets, the story of a young Chinese woman concealing her cross-cultural romance. That film in turn drew on Banana in a nutshell, Liang’s semi-autobiographical video diary from 2005 about life as a Chinese New Zealander.
  • Rūrangi (2020). A queer- and trans-positive drama featuring trans actors, the project was originally a five-part web series. This won Best Short Form Series at the International Emmys and Emmy World Television Festival in 2022. 
  • Millie lies low (2021). Michelle Savill wrote and directed this film depicting the anxiety of a young woman struggling with self-doubt at the beginning of her career. The titular character uses social media to trick her friends and family into believing she is achieving success. Filmed in Wellington during COVID-19 lockdowns, the film reflects the difficulties of that time without referring directly to the pandemic.
  • Muru (2022). This action-drama was a creative response by Ngāi Tuhoe to the 2007 police raids on their community at Rūātoki. It was co-produced by Tame Iti, who plays himself in the film.
  • Punch (2022). Starring English actor Tim Roth, Punch is a sport-based drama about the difficulties of growing up queer in small-town New Zealand. It was the feature-film directorial debut of writer/director/designer and activist Welby Ings. 
  • Red, white & brass (2023). This Tongan-New Zealand film is based on the true story of a young rugby fan who formed a brass band to get into a rugby World Cup match. A comedy directed by Damon Fepulea’i, it premiered in Wellington and screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival, as well as other festivals at which it picked up awards.
  • Uproar (2023) tells the story of fictional teenager Josh Waaka as he comes to terms with his mixed Māori and European heritage during the protests which accompanied the tour of New Zealand by the South African Springbok rugby team in 1981. 
  • The convert (2024). Lee Tamahori’s historical drama depicts the clash between Māori and European, racism and inter-tribal warfare in 1830s Aotearoa, and plays out through the story of a preacher in the fictional community of Epworth who is played by Guy Pearce. The film plays liberally with time-frames for narrative effect. The convert premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2023.

Although there was an upsurge in comedy and other light-hearted feature film-making in the early 2020s, Sam Neill’s recent claim that Aotearoa comedy still carries a ‘stream of sadness’ rings true for many films, including those of Taika Waititi.1

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Sam Neill. Did I Ever Tell You This? A Memoir. Melbourne, 2023: 319. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Helen Martin, 'Feature film - Looking to the future', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/feature-film/page-8 (accessed 15 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Helen Martin, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014, reviewed & revised 21 May 2024 me te āwhina o Emma-Jean Kelly