Caroline Morley reviews Waru, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Saturday (tickets available here).
“You all sit there pretending to be unaware. How many of us have to cower in pain?” asks the teenage protagonist in Paula Jones’s entry into Waru’s portmanteau of tragedy and grief. Conceived by producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, Waru is composed of eight chapters – all written and directed by Maori women – which together create an impressionistic portrait of events surrounding the tangi (funeral) of a young boy, the eponymous Waru (whose name means eight in Maori). The circumstances of little Waru’s death are left unspoken – but what we see suggests abuse and neglect in this marginalised and economically deprived community.
While the details of Waru’s life and death are only obliquely referenced, the anguish of the women whose lives he impacted is painfully palpable. In each of the film’s eight vignettes our protagonists are Waru’s family and friends, classmates and teachers. These Maori women from all walks of life buckle under the weight of the tragedy and struggle to confront the violent reality that they inhabit. Together these diverse portraits of Maori womanhood construct an authentic, poignant film which doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of grief in a society that is often stereotyped and ignored.
The common thread linking Waru’s female protagonists is a sense of frustration and helplessness – trapped by the restrictive rules of the community that they inhabit, they present a facade of strength while suffering deeply beneath the surface. Ainsely Gardiner’s entry is a heartbreaking account of a single mother, Mihi, who is too poor to feed her children or fill up her car. When her carefree kids ask what her superpower is, Mihi confidently replies “invincibility” – but is she trying to convince her kids, or herself? Casey Kaa’s story similarly centers on a woman – Waru’s kindergarten teacher, Anahera – who outwardly seems calm and confident, but nevertheless breaks down with guilt and frustration when she finally finds a moment alone.
The pivotal story in this anthology captures the tangi itself. Written and directed by Renae Maihi, and spoken entirely in Maori, it depicts two of Waru’s elderly great-grandmothers duelling for the body of their deceased great-grandson. Anger and accusations soften to tearful reconciliation as they agree to set aside their differences and help Waru to find peace. The unusual placement of this emotional climax at the centre of the film, rather than the end, creates a sense of cathartic release. But this reprieve is only temporary. In Chelsea Cohen’s tale of undisguised racism and misogyny at a TV news studio, a Maori anchorwoman, Kiritapu, refused to be quelled and boldly asserts herself on live TV to the chagrin of her repulsive co-anchor. And in Paula Jones penultimate chapter, the teenage Mere finds the strength to similarly speak out against her abuser. By placing these chapters one after the other, the link between the systematic abuse of the Maori people and the abuse of a single child is painfully clear.
Given the restrictive conditions set by Warkia and McNaughton, Waru could easily have fallen into gimmickry, interesting only for its artifice. Each segment takes place at the same time, 10am, each is shot in a single 10-minute take, and the directors were allowed only a single day of shooting for each chapter. Yet arbitrary as these restrictions may seem, they lend the film a sense of cohesion, melding the diverse viewpoints into a carefully crafted whole. That the resultant film is so remarkably homogeneous, despite its multiple directors, is also a testament to the formidable technique and skills of its cinematographer (Drew Sturge), production designer (Riria Lee), and editor (Craig Parkes), all of whom worked across all eight vignettes. The stagecraft and choreography required to make Waru work as it does is jaw-dropping in its audacity.
Despite Warkia and McNaughton’s contrived construction, the film’s beauty lies in its honesty. The raw emotion that each director draws from an ensemble cast – including first-time actors – is compelling, with moments of surprising levity to balance the darkness. And delivering each scene in one, completely unedited, 10-minute take leaves nowhere for these characters to hide. There is no time to interrupt and there is no moment from which we can look away. It’s an immersive and hypnotic piece of filmmaking, dazzling in its vulnerability, urgency and boldness.