He toi whakairo, he mana tangata. The Maori proverb, translated in English as ‘Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity,’ is an apt summary of Mahana.
Set in the rural East Coast in the 1960s, two Maori families, the Mahanas and the Poatas, are locked in rivalry. Directed by Lee Tamahori (famous for Once Were Warriors and Die Another Day), Mahana is an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.
The pacing is terrific, as screen writer John Collee turns 293 pages of Ihimaera’s prose into 103 minutes of silver screen.
Rites of life – historic weddings and contemporary funerals – are the pivots around which tension is focused and resolved. The ethereal beauty of the bee scene, with its haunting waita, is a rich window into Maori culture and the way people and place are interwoven.
While a period vehicle car chase and the annual Golden Shears provide authentic colour, the film is a reminder that life in 1960s New Zealand was far from rural bliss. Mahana depicts family feuds and an entrenched racism that were a stain on the idyllic rolling green hills of our history. Mahana thus shares themes with Ihimaera’s other work Whale Rider.
Both stories are set in the world of East Coast Maori and depict the courage required of teenagers caught in hierarchical patterns. Both Pai, in Whale Rider, and Simeon in Mahana, face the challenge of growing beyond a demanding and dominating grandfather.
In a Kiwi cast that includes Temuera Morrison (Grandfather Mahana) and Nancy Brunning (Romona Mahana), it is unknown Akuhata Keefe (Simeon Mahana) that steals the show. From Tolaga Bay Area School, the 15-year old was in Auckland on holiday, when he was encouraged to audition. His repeated courage is the engine that drives the plot.
Turning from artistic excellence to human dignity, as might be expected in 1960s rural New Zealand, religion is an ever present reality. Family meals around the Mahana family table begin with grace, while at the church the priest buries and marries members of the community.
Yet prayer and ritual seem unable to bring reconciliation in the family feud between Mahana and the Poata. Instead, it is human dignity that provides freedom. It comes from Simeon Mahana. His belief in fairness and willingness to speak his mind are the means by which three generations are freed from their history.
His courage is a reminder, from John 8:23, that the truth will set you free. It provides another way to begin the Maori proverb. Not ‘he toi whakairo’ but ‘te hauto itoito pono tiari.’ That is, ‘Where courage and honesty exist, there is human dignity.’
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is principal of Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. He is the author of Built for Change (Mediacom: forthcoming) and writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at emergentkiwi.org.nz. Printed first in Touchstone