A tour of Ōtaki as the town prepares for its annual indigenous film festival.
If you leave the stretch of outlet stores along State Highway 1 in Ōtaki and drive towards the coast, you’ll find a quaint town center with a marae, museum and library.
There I meet Māoriland Film Festival coordinator Madeleine de Young. She introduces herself as Maddy. The festival was founded by her aunt, documentary filmmaker Libby Hakaraia and draws on help from others in the whanau too.
“It’s definitely a family affair, it’s really tightly run, but that’s also part of what’s made it so strong … for us it’s great because we can’t really offend each other,” says Maddy, who has been helping out since the festival began in 2014.
Maddy is originally from Ōtaki and now splits her time between there and Auckland. She clearly loves the town and is proud of what makes it special.
She tells me the Māori language school in Ōtaki has makes it so that nearly 100 percent of the Māori kids in Ōtaki speak te reo fluently. But when young people turn 18 they tend to leave the town of 4000 north of Wellington to find opportunities elsewhere.
Part of the value of the festival is that it draws back the creative talent that leaves Ōtaki, Maddie says. “It allows young people to have big city experiences at home.”
We walk across the road to an empty storefront. The festival organisers are currently acquiring the space to turn it into the permanent Māoriland hub. The vision is for the space to include a cafe, a 40-seat theatre, a workshop space and an office space with hot seats for creative people. “It will allow us to do more and keep things rolling during the year,” Maddy says.
The Māoriland festival uses a handful of local venues around the town center of Ōtaki for film screenings and events. There’s the Civic Theatre, an old-timely cinema with gallery seating downstairs and a balcony upstairs. Similar sit empty in many small New Zealand towns.
Maddy tells me that her grandfather tells stories of coming to the theatre when he was a boy and causing mischief in the balcony, while the adults were downstairs smoking.
The space isn’t a cinema anymore, but Maddy is glad that the Māoriland screenings bring some of that magic back there for kids and families to enjoy.
We walk just around the corner to the Rangiātea Church, a beautiful white church in a tidy old cemetery. Maddy says the first church on the site was founded by the legendary Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha “after he found God and decided to play nice,” she says.
The rafters are covered in red and white Māori designs. Pues are lined with hand stitched cushions covered in kiwiana. A kereru and a tui jump out among the religious iconography. The church will host actor Julian Dennison and his mum Maybelle for the Māoriland keynote address.
And there’s also the Raukawa Marae, just one block east of the future Māoriland hub, though we could visit because they had an event on.
Maddy was an intern at the ImagineNATIVE indigenous film festival in Toronto, Canada. This year’s Māoriland is adopting a tradition from the Toronto festival in a night they’re calling Bingo Shorts. Bingo is incredibly popular among First Nations in Canada, so they’ve brought the game to Ōtaki. They’ll be playing a night of Bingo, with funny short films being shown between rounds.
Maddy assures me that the 7500 people who attended the festival last year didn’t feel that big. Most people come from the surrounding regions, Palmerston North and Wellington. She reflects that they could draw even more people, if only the train from Wellington to Ōtaki ran more regularly.
We walked another three minutes in the sunshine to Ngā Purapura, a health and recreation centre. Māoriland uses the basketball courts for bigger screenings by covering the skylights and putting carpet down for kids to sprawl out on. It can fit up to 1000 people.
Maddy knows everyone that we meet as we walk in. One man is even involved in the rangatahi (youth) films school screenings, and asks Maddy how Māoriland is coming along. It’s a reminder of what a small town we’re in.
Māoriland has made every effort to integrate with the community and gain their support. “To have a festival in a community like this, it has to be community supported,” Maddy says.
This year the local school, Te Kura ā Iwi O Whakatupuranga Rua Mano, is hosting a carnival as part of the festival’s rangatahi gala, before a free public screening of Hunt for the Wilder People.
The festival has workshops for kids, the Rangatahi Film Challenge, and starting this year the Rangatahi Film Festival, where the films have been selected by student-filmmakers ages 12-16.
Māoriland also brings international filmmakers and film festival organisers into Ōtaki for the five-day event. Maddy says the visitors to Ōtaki love it there, and because of the small-town setting, they have a tendency to meet more people and form more meaningful connections than they might in a city.
The Māoriland Native Slam is a collaborative challenge for filmmakers in teams of three. “All of the teams sound like a bad joke, like: a Mohawk, a Māori, and a Samoan…” Maddy says. The teams work together to create a short film in three days to screen at Māoriland, and at other indigenous film festivals around the world.
Māoriland is an opportunity for local and undiscovered filmmakers to get exposure to international festival organisers. Maddy tells me about one 14-year-old in particular who she knows can go on to do amazing things. She is already thinking about who the young filmmaker needs to meet while the festival is on.
As the tour draws to a close, Maddy is off to a another meeting with festival funders. She tells me “it has been 50 to 60 hour work weeks since November”, but she’s already looking forward to next year’s festival. They’ve already booked some films for next year that couldn’t fit in this year.
Here are some highlights from the 2017 festival programme:
From indigenous Swedish director Amanda Kernell, Sami Blood (Same Blood) follows a 14 year-old Sámi girl in the 1930s who is removed from her family and sent to a state boarding school. The school is charged with raising indigenous children to be “acceptable” to Swedish society, and children are studied to find traits that distinguish them from “regular” Swedes.
Sami Blood will have its New Zealand premiere on the opening night of the festival.
Documentary film by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril about Inuit activists in Canada. The film explores celebrity-endorsed anti–seal hunting campaigns, and the importance of the seal hunt to the lives of Inuit people.
Michelle St John from Canada directed this documentary about First Nations people with comedian Anishinaabe and activist Ryan McMahon.
The film dives into Canadian settlement, and its effect on First Nations, starting with the street names in towns and cities across Ontario.
This documentary by native Hawaiian Tadashi Nakamura centers on two former illegal graffiti writers turned community artists: Estria Miyashiro (aka Estria) and John Hina (aka Prime). What does graffiti have to do with ancestral wisdom?
Artist Estria Miyashiro will be in attendance at the Māoriland Film Festival.
A Viceland docu-series by director Michelle Latimer of Canada, investigating the ongoing environmental rights struggles of Native American and indigenous citizens. Includes two episodes on the Standing Rock protests.
This film from Vanuatu, stars an indigenous cast from the Yakel tribe who had never watched a movie before. It tells the simple story of a sister’s loyalty and a forbidden love affair. Based on a true story that took place in 1985.
Tanna is directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, and nominated for Best Foreign Feature Film at the Academy Awards.
*This year’s Māoriland Film Festival runs from 15-19 March.