Directed by Sandy Wakefield
From a strobing sky, bolts of lightning and missiles of ice shoot from the eyes and mouth of an enraged, maniacal monster, sending 1950s era families scrambling to tornado shelters. Just barely audible above an industrial, percussive soundtrack that could be mistaken for a collapsing supermarket shelf, the dulcet tones of musician and composer Hirini Melbourne proclaim: “Tāwhirimātea performs his haka.”
In Tāwhirimātea, a new short film from Sandy Wakefield [Ngāpuhi, Ngai Tahu] the titular atua rages and tantrums his way through a montage of educational films, B- grade American sci-fi, pro-nuclear propaganda and mid 20th century television advertisements for household appliances. All this footage was sourced from the Prelinger Archives, a creative commons collection based in San Francisco and available for free online.
“I’m talking about how western science has defined our universe, and how we [Māori/Pacific peoples] are perceived on screen. I was trying to find a way to re-appropriate someone else's imagery to reflect us.
The film is a high-octane, sardonic mix of dadaist editing, unique uses of archival footage as source material, and an immersive, if sometimes jarring soundtrack, where Wakefield’s technical prowess and sophistication as a sound designer really shines, having spent decades in various sound departments for feature films and television.
Although the film is visually entertaining, a formidable and confronting voice is present just under the film’s surface; shouting from the darkness, disgusted at the colonised complacency the artist feels has become ubiquitous in our society and modes of expression. As the eponymous atua wreaks havoc and spits fire, one can almost feel Wakefield the filmmaker spitting fire herself, announcing her arrival into the world of indigenous cinema with a literal bang. “Tāwhirimātea dominates,” she says, about her films narrative. “He’s had enough of our world being commodified, sanitised and put on sale for us to buy back. He’s disgusted. It’s the processes our people must endure and squeeze ourselves into in order to receive settlement money, constantly having to define ourselves and prove ourselves, it's exhausting. Systematic racism is accepted and expected in New Zealand...just look at the resistance to teach New Zealand history in our education system!"
Tāwhirimātea makes up half of a diptych comprised of two short films directed by Wakefield, a post-graduate student in the Māori faculty of the University of Waikato. Both films have been selected for screening at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
Where Tāwhirimātea is a visual and sonic assault, Nakunaku, shot on location in Rakiura [Stewart Island, to where Wakefield has ancestral ties] is restrained, meditative and haunting. Wakefield's site-specific cinematography lingers on locations that hold significance for her whānau and tupuna. The audience is given a voyeuristic pass - though it is slightly disorientating - to grapple with concepts of place on an island of ghosts, repressed memories and forgotten histories.
Nakunaku’s soundtrack is comprised of interviews Wakefield conducted with local kuia, Māori women who have lived predominantly on the island, who reflect candidly on the loss of their language and culture. The voices are soft and hypnotic, and their stories implications are harrowing, yet told with a poignance and grace. Screenings in both Auckland and Christchurch have been met with some very emotional responses from audience members.
“I don’t take pleasure in upsetting people,” she says. “But the stories are upsetting, and I believe they need to be told, this history needs to be recognised.”
Wakefield’s two debut works put a stake in the ground for what looks to be a nascent career as a technically brilliant filmmaker, one with a singular and defiant voice. “You watch these films, you watch who I am.”
Written by Thom Burton.