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Making Utu

Television (Excerpts) – 1982



Making Utu is a documentary by Gaylene Preston about the making of the 1983 feature film Utu (directed by Geoff Murphy). Preston doesn't impose any narrative on the footage but simply observes the goings-on of the production and captures Murphy's motivation for filming the story. 

An opening title, "100 years ago is today — the past is the present — the future is now", makes clear Utu's consciousness-raising ambitions, and hints at the undercurrent of unease that has existed between Māori and Pākehā. This unease was particularly felt during the time of Utu's 1982 production, in the wake of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests and Bastion Point occupation.

Making Utu explores the kaupapa behind the production. It includes interviews with Joe Malcolm, cultural advisor on the production, and Murphy, Merata Mita and actor Martyn Sanderson share their understanding of the story's exploration of New Zealand's racial past.

When Utu was made, few films in New Zealand's relatively brief screen history (with notable exceptions, such as Rudall Hayward's films based around racial themes like Rewi's Last Stand, and ambitious TV epic The Governor, made six years earlier) had openly explored the effects of colonisation, negative or otherwise. 

Utu's way into the New Zealand land wars was to look at the motivations and actions of individuals on the frontier of history, where "the good guys aren't necessarily the boys in blue and bad guys aren't always in harakeke skirts".

As Mita (casting director for Utu) remarks in Making Utu: "In New Zealand today we [still] have Māori fighting Māori, Māori fighting Pākehā, Pākehā fighting Pākehā — it's very hard to draw the line."Sanderson remarks that "[Utu] will inevitably be seen as symbolic of the whole land wars ... of the relationship between Pākehā and Māori at that time". Even so, the filmmakers are up for the challenge and the doco shows director Murphy's willingness to front up to history. 

There's almost an activist zeal behind the project, which is understandable, given that much of New Zealand's history was not taught in schools (the canon was still kings and queens from England). Many of the New Zealand Wars stories had been preserved in the Māori oral tradition but, aside from academic scholarship, were not widely known amongst a mainstream Pākehā audience. Historian James Belich's influential The New Zealand Wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (1986) had yet to be published, and it was fifteen years before the major TV series based on the book screened. 

Mita said in a newspaper interview at the time: "we still regard our [New Zealand's] history with a sense of shame. Otherwise things wouldn't have been kept hidden for so long."

So Utu was a frontrunner for getting these stories - our stories - out there. In the doco there's a strong sense of the mission Utu bears and Murphy is a stickler for respecting cultural sensitivities. Preparing to shoot a tangi he notes, "no point in showing it if you show it wrong". 

After the breakthrough success of Goodbye Pork Pie, expectations were high. Murphy and his Swannie-clad crew not only had to be faithful to culture, they also had to deliver a block-busting good yarn. The ambitious melding of big themes with the genre demands of a big-screen action film made Utu something of an aspiring 'Once Upon a Time in the South', and resulted in unprecedented  production demands.

In Making Utu scenes from the finished film are included and Preston deconstructs how they were made.

Seen at work is young assistant director Lee Tamahori staying calm under pressure, and the art department making cardboard hats with spray-painted badges for the British militia. It shows special effects being applied, ta moko artists etching Te Wheke's (Anzac Wallace's) tattoos, and the filming of the infamous "What's the time Mr Wolf" scene where Te Wheke beheads the vicar (Martyn Sanderson) in a church. 

Large scale action scenes set amongst steep central North Island bush and on the volcanic plateau are rehearsed, with actors, extras, explosions and horses wrangled into order. Actor Kelly Johnson cajoles a horse to move, with a little less assurance than he managed with Goodbye Pork Pie's yellow mini. A nice time-lapse shows the resourcefulness of the production crew as a house is burnt down, trucked away and reconstructed as a pub in another location. Corralling it all is Murphy, candid and wry, inevitably with a ciggie hanging out of his mouth, grinning at the chance to pull it off.

Without commentary, the mood and energy of the making of Utu is captured effectively by simply being there. Preston recalled a couple of years after it [Making Utu] screened on TV in early 1983, that it "went down surprisingly well with the general population, who, as it turns out, don't mind if there isn't an actual linear story".

It's compulsive stuff and is a valuable study of the challenges of shooting of a endemic epic in the 1980s, on the same rugged terrain where in the 1870s New Zealanders were shooting each other. 

[Additional writing by Paul Ward]

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