Māori broadcasting veteran Tainui Stephens describes Waihoroi Shortland as a man who has used his expertise in te reo Māori to "make a profound mark in Māori broadcasting" — "He dispenses forthright opinion, wisdom and gut-bustingly funny humour in equal measure."
Shortland’s wide-ranging career has encompassed time at the Māori Land Court, reporting for pioneering Māori language show Te Karere, and acting roles in acclaimed movies Rain of the Children and Boy. His biggest screen role to date is as Shylock/Hairoka, the moneylender seeking utu for a defaulted loan in The Māori Merchant of Venice. It was the first feature film made entirely in te reo.
Known to many by the nickname Wassie, Te Waihoroi Shortland grew up in the Northland town of Matawaia. His first language was Māori, which has been a bedrock for his future career; Shortland didn’t speak English until he began primary school. He went on to Māori boarding school St Stephen’s, then studied physical education at Otago University.
The first phase of Shortland’s career involved government jobs: three years as a clerk and interpreter at the Māori Land Court (forerunner to the Waitangi Tribunal), then five years on the J-Team at the Department of Māori Affairs. Made up of Māori Affairs and Social Welfare staff, and police, the J-Team worked with street kids and juvenile offenders. Soon after moving to Auckland to take the Māori Affairs job, he took a small acting role in colonial TV epic The Governor.
Shortland gained a Diploma of Social Work from Victoria University in 1983. When the Māori Affairs department was restructured the following year, he joined pioneering te reo news show Te Karere as a reporter, initially on secondment. Shortland "quickly made his mark as a natural television storyteller", according to fellow Koha reporter Tainui Stephens. "He soon became a full time broadcaster, unique then as he is now, in his eloquent use of language. His reo Māori is earthy, expansive and flavoured with his Ngāti Hine roots. His English can reflect his beliefs in concise or rhetorical fashion." Stephens describes Shortland as a thinker, speaker, teacher and guide.
In 1990 Shortland joined Te Karere founder Derek Fox and others to form Māori news agency and publisher Māori Media. But Shortland soon began moving from print and radio journalism into screen drama. By 1993 he was appearing regularly on screen. Aside from acting in The Billy T James Show and TV3 drama Homeward Bound (as the local headmaster), Shortland was also writing. He scripted two 45 minute dramas for Don Selwyn’s He Taonga Films, as part of a series of dramas grouped together under the title Nga Puna. Kahu and Maia starred Cliff Curtis and Vanessa Rare (Ruby and Rata) as a carver and a mother who may be mystically connected; In Touch FM featured Vicky Haughton (Whale Rider) as a big city achiever who reluctantly takes on the management of a popular Māori radio station.
Shortland was also a cultural advisor and writer of Māori dialogue for moody period hit The Piano — though much of that dialogue did not make it into the film's final cut. He later took on a similar task for the cross-cultural scrum that was TV’s Greenstone, and was a key part of the writing team on 2001 movie Crooked Earth, in which Temuera Morrison and Lawrence Makoare play chalk and cheese modern-day brothers, feuding over who will become chief. In his autobiography, Morrison describes Shortland as "being the real powerhouse behind the script".
Shortland’s acting CV includes Taika Waititi hit Boy (as the strange man who lives under the bridge), Rain of the Children (playing the older incarnation of Niki, schizophrenic son to Puhi), and half-hour te reo drama Te Ohai a Nihe (1998). But probably his most remarkable screen role to date is 2002 feature The Māori Merchant of Venice, a longtime dream project for late screen taonga Don Selwyn. Selwyn had first directed Shortland in the role back in 1990, for a te reo translation of Shakespeare's play at Auckland’s Koanga Festival.
Shortland won a NZ Film best acting award for his role, and praise from the Sunday Star-Times ("a commanding performance"), the NZ Herald ("a knockout"), and the Listener ("Shortland steals the film").
“Playing Shylock from a Māori perspective is the easiest role,” said Shortland, “because you know something about what it is to hang onto your identity and to deal with prejudice, some of it overt, some of it not so overt, in the New Zealand sense anyway.” Shortland argued that there was an "openness and an honesty" about the character of Shylock. "He makes the proposition quite openly, he pursues his line quite directly and of course he’s acting not only for himself, but I see him as acting on behalf of his people.”
Assistant director Tony Forster has recalled that Don Selwyn rehearsed the Merchant of Venice cast so thoroughly that they were filming for at least two weeks "without a single line fluff during any rehearsal or take".
Post Māori Merchant of Venice, Shortland was the first presenter on Māori Television current affairs programme Te Tēpu. He also worked on bilingual current affairs show Te Hēteri.
In August 2011 the Māori Party announced that Shortland would be the party’s candidate in the Te Tai Tokerau electorate, for the 2011 general election. He was beaten by Hone Harawira, who had recently left the Māori Party and created the Mana Party.
Shortland is chairman of iwi leadership body Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Hine. In May 2015 he joined the board of Māori Television. In October 2016 he was elected to be chair during the establishment phase of Te Mātāwai, the body established to lead the revitalisation of te reo, on behalf of Māori.
‘Waihoroi Shortland - Shylock (Hairoka)’ The Māori Merchant of Venice Press Kit
Peter Calder, 'Hugely triumphant cultural collision' (Review of The Māori Merchant of Venice) - The NZ Herald, 16 February 2002
Tony Forster, ‘Don Selwyn 1935 - 2007’ - Onfilm, June 2007, page 19
Michael Lamb, 'The Māori Merchant of Venice' (Review) - The NZ Herald, 17 February 2002
Philip Matthews, 'A Wretch for all cultures' (Review of The Māori Merchant of Venice) - The Listener, 9 February 2002
Temuera Morrison and Paul Little, From Haka to Hollywood (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2009)
Tainui Stephens, 'Māoriland Keynote Address - Te Waihoroi Shortland' Māoriland Film Festival website (Broken link). Loaded 18 February 2016. Accessed 18 October 2016
‘Maori Party Close to Announcing Candidate for Te Tai Tokerau’ (Māori Party Press Release). Loaded 22 May 2011. Accessed 18 October 2016
'Te Mātāwai announces inaugural leadership' (Press release) Te Puni Kõkiri website. Loaded 6 October 2016. Accessed 18 October 2016
'Waihoroi Shortland' (broken link) Māori Television website. Accessed 18 October 2016