Writer [Te Whānau a Kai]
With his 1973 book Tangi, Witi Ihimaera became the first Māori to publish both a novel and a book of short stories. Later his book The Whale Rider inspired a feature film which won international acclaim, and became one of the highest grossing 'foreign' titles released internationally in 2003. Ihimaera's work has also seen a number of television adaptations, including landmark big city tale Big Brother, Little Sister.
I belong to a proud tradition of Māori story-teller on one side and a great tradition of New Zealand writers going all the way back to Katherine Mansfield. It's a fabulous whakapapa. Witi Ihimaera in the NZ Herald, 2004
Inspired by Witi Ihimaera's Bulibasha, Mahana saw director Lee Tamahori making his first film on local soil since a very different family tale: 1994's Once Were Warriors. Temuera Morrison stars as a 60s era farming patriarch who makes it clear his family should have absolutely nothing to do with rival family the Poatas. Then romance enters the picture, and son Simeon sets out to find out how the feud first started. The powerhouse Māori cast includes Nancy Brunning (who is included in the interview clips) and Jim Moriarty. Mahana debuted at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, before NZ release.
This feature film follows Māori medicine woman Paraiti (played by singer Whirimako Black) on a rare visit to Auckland from her Urewera home. She meets a Māori servant (Rachel House) and is drawn into helping a wealthy Pākehā woman (Outrageous Fortune’s Antonia Prebble) with a scandalous, life-threatening secret. The tale of culture clash and deception in settler Aotearoa was directed by Mexican Dana Rotberg (Otlia Rauda), who adapted the story from Witi Ihimaera novella Medicine Woman. Producer John Barnett was also involved in the adaptation of Ihimaera’s Whale Rider.
In September 1893 New Zealand became the first country to grant all women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This fly on the wall docudrama reimagines this major achievement, following Kate Sheppard (played by Sara Wiseman) throughout the final push of her campaign. The 70-minute TV movie follows the template set by director Peter Burger and writer Gavin Strawhan in their 2011 docudrama on the Treaty of Waitangi, with key characters directly addressing their 21st century audience. At the 2012 NZ TV awards, Wiseman won for Best Performance by an Actress.
Charlotte Yates produced Ihimaera Live for the 2011 Auckland Arts Festival. The concert featured lyrics especially written by author Witi Ihimaera, set to music by 12 New Zealand composers and 55 musicians. This short documentary for Māori Television includes clips of the performances at Manukau's Events Centre, and interviews with Ihimaera and musicians Warren Maxwell, Horomona Horo and Waimihi Hotere as they search for the rhythm of word and sound. Yates and director Lala Rolls also collaborated on Tuwhare, which documented a musical tribute to Hone Tuwhare.
This docudrama follows an imaginary news reporter who travels back in time to cover the days leading up to the Treaty of Waitangi’s signing on 6 February 1840. Dropping the usual solemnity surrounding Aotearoa’s founding document, it uses humour and asides to camera to evoke the chaos and motives behind the treaty. Written by Gavin Strawhan, with input from novelist Witi Ihimaera, What Really Happened screened on TVNZ for Waitangi Day 2011. Its nominations at the Aotearoa TV Awards included Best Drama, director (Peter Burger) and actor Jarod Rawiri (who played Hōne Heke).
After success with short films (This is Her, Redemption) director Katie Wolfe made the transition to longer length story-telling with this 2010 drama. With This is Her writer Kate McDermott she adapted the Witi Ihimaera novel about a 40-something man confronting his double life, and the impact that his coming out as gay has on his wife, kids, and whānau. A key change was turning the book’s Pākehā protagonist to a successful Māori businessman (Calvin Tuteao). It screened on TV One on 23 January 2010 and at festivals internationally (where it was entitled Kawa).
This item from arts show Frontseat asks whether it is right for actors to portray other races than their own. Samoan Kiwi David Fane — who won both fans and criticism, after voicing Jeff da Māori on bro'Town — argues that playing another ethnicity is only an issue when the actor does a bad job. Actor Rachel House (Whale Rider) raises wider issues of indigenous people telling their own stories; and Cliff Curtis, known for a wide range of ethnicities on screen, says he needs to be just as careful playing Māori of other iwi, as when he is playing other races.
This animated TV comedy series is a modern day fairytale following the adventures of five kids growing up in one of Auckland's grungier suburbs. With a fearless, un-PC wit and Simpsons-esque celebrity cameos, it managed to be primetime and family-friendly. The popular show was made by Firehorse Films, and developed from the brazen and poly-saturated comedy of theatre group Naked Samoans. Screening on TV3 for five series it won Best Comedy at the NZ Screen Awards three years running and a Qantas Award for Ant Sang's production design. "Morningside for life!"
Historian Michael King's opus was a bridge between Māori and Pākehā; he turned Aotearoa's history into an unprecedented publishing bestseller. History Man traces King's own past, to understand the man and his passion for his work. This doco was commissioned only weeks before King and his wife were tragically killed in a car accident. Nevertheless it is a detailed portrait of a much loved and missed New Zealander. It is another collaboration from this producer/director team, whose subjects include Michael Houstoun, Ian Mune and Barry Crump.
Jonathan Brough’s documentary on the making of Whale Rider travels from the East Coast town of Whangara, where the mythical whale rider Paikea landed, to Hollywood. This excerpt concentrates on the movie’s vital special effects component: nine whales, brought to the screen through a combination of life-sized models and digital effects. The models were made by Auckland company Glasshammer; the largest measured 65 feet in length. The human element was also important, with actor Keisha Castle-Hughes describing the challenges of filming the whale-riding scenes.
Set in the East Coast town of Whāngārā, Whale Rider tells the tale of a young Māori girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who challenges tradition and embraces the past in order to find the strength to lead her people forward. Directed and written by Niki Caro, the film is based on Witi Ihimaera's novel The Whale Rider. Coupling a specific sense of place and culture with a universal coming-of-age story, Whale Rider became one of the most successful and acclaimed New Zealand films released internationally. It also won audience choice awards at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals.
This documentary about Māori writer Witi Ihimaera features him in conversation with filmmaker Merata Mita. Ihimaera traverses his life and writing career, emphasising the importance of family (particularly his mother and grandmother) and his overriding Māori identity. Aileen O'Sullivan's film features a star-studded assemblage of local literature — Keri Hulme, Albert Wendt, publisher Geoff Walker — and a dramatised excerpt from his novel Bulibasha ( featuring Rena Owen, Michael Hurst and Rawiri Paratene), shot roughly two decades before 2016 movie adaptation Mahana.
This documentary accompanies author Witi Ihimaera on a journey with his "townie" daughters to his marae in Waituhi on the East Coast, ahead of the publication of third novel The Matriarch. Ihimaera describes his writing as a type of "tangi to a people and to a life" he experienced growing up around Waituhi in the 1950s — a way of life symbolised by the tears of the toroa (albatross) said to be held deep in greenstone. The documentary also features readings from Ihimaera's works. It is directed by Peter Coates, from Inspiration, his series on New Zealand artists.
A culture clash story by Witi Ihimaera inspired this comic drama, written and directed by Larry Parr. Set in the 1940s — perfectly evoked in the mist-shrouded Taranaki hamlet of Whangamomona — the short film focuses on the conflict between a local tohunga, Mr Hohepa, and feisty Pākehā Mrs Jones (Annie Whittle), as viewed by the young boy who helps deliver her mail and groceries (Julian Arahanga, in his screen debut). The locals think Hohepa has placed a makutu (or curse) on Mrs Jones; but could more basic human emotions — beyond the boy’s experience — be at work?
Witi Ihimaera was the first Māori writer to publish a book of short stories (Pounamu Pounamu) and a novel (Tangi). In this wide-ranging Kaleidoscope profile Ihimaera (here in his late 30s) talks about being “the boy from the sticks made good”, and conforming to expectations: “do I want to be the literary voice of the Māori people? No”. He discusses editing influential anthology Into the World of Light and the camera accompanies him on a Wellington circuit, as he roller-skates, and visits Newtown’s Black Power HQ. George Henare reads excerpts from Ihimaera’s work.
This 1981 NFU film is a tour of the contemporary world of Aotearoa’s tangata whenua. It won headlines over claims that its portrayal of Māori had been sanitised for overseas viewers. Debate and a recut ensued. Writer Witi Ihimaera felt that mentions of contentious issues (Bastion Point, the land march) in his original script were ignored or elided in the final film, and withdrew from the project. He later told journalists that the controversy showed that educated members of minority groups were no longer prepared to let the majority interpret the minority view.
Almost two decades before Once Were Warriors, another drama about urban Māori under pressure stirred controversy. Hema (Dale Williams) and Janey (Julie Wehipeihana) are two kids adrift in the city, trying to escape a broken home. Screen historian Trisha Dunleavy found this "the most powerful and controversial" edition of the Winners & Losers series; it was TV's first drama about "the alienation of Māori in a contemporary urban setting". Based on a Witi Ihimaera story, it also marked the first solo directing credit for Ian Mune. He later directed the sequel to Once Were Warriors.
Tangata Whenua was a groundbreaking six-part documentary series that screened (remarkably in primetime) in 1974. Each episode chronicled a different iwi and included interviews by historian Michael King with kaumātua. These remain a priceless historical record. The Feltex Award-winning script was by King and director Barry Barclay. The NZBC said the series had "possibly done more towards helping the European understand the Māori people, their traditions and way of life, than anything else previously shown on television". Paul Diamond writes about Tangata Whenua here.