Taika Waititi’s film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is destined to be a classic, for two cultural traditions satisfyingly meet. The tiriti is at play.
For many Pakeha New Zealand males, the bush has been the place where you can escape, a place of refuge from women, the state, the law, whatever’s bugging you and tearing you up. The tradition is long: from Man Alone, through Dennis Glover, Fairburn, Baxter, and of course, in more populist form, Barry Crump. In this patriarchal dream world, women are difficult, and there is a variation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Instead, there is the ‘good sort’ woman who cooks and doesn’t judge, and can also stick a pig, gut a deer and tan a hide, opposed by the controlling and emasculating city woman, government servant, fussy mother, nagging-suburban-wife type.
Waititi takes a Maori slant on this and the result is very satisfying. A Maori kid in trouble, but with all the street wisdom and bro’ culture of South Auckland, is taken into the sticks, South of Jackson’s Bay or somewhere up the East Coast – it doesn’t matter – by an emasculating, Hekia-Parata sort of Welfare Officer, to be fostered by a Maori woman who is a good sort par excellence. Her bloke is more alienated and tethered, and not so keen on this nuclear family arrangement. But things work out for this fat, city kid.
However, the good sort dies. Hekia wants the kid back and the two lads head for the bush for a series of adventures, plus a bit of spiritual learning. On the way, they meet a third female type (one favoured by novelist, Noel Hilliard): the tough-angel, Maori girl. Anyway, the state gets them in the end, but the two boys end up back south of Jackson’s Bay with the tough angel and her dad and will undoubtedly live happily ever after.
In a society where the emasculating system regularly takes the form of the politician, bureaucrat, public relations, human resources, or marketing woman, this becomes a shout from the old male and the two protagonists are spot on. Julian Dennison’s face is memorable and this is a return to roots for Sam Neill. The whole is couched as a kids’ story with a touch of Victoriana.
It is also, of course, infused with a Maori/Polynesian cultural tradition: that of trickster or comedian. The traveller would turn up at the marae with some tall tales, and there are the village clowns in any PI village taking the mickey out of the village leaders – and this film is full of topical jibes. If we once again switch cultures, we have the commedia dell’arte theatre strand, here played out in Polynesian terms.
Maori also have their going bush tradition, but of greater seriousness. If conquered an iwi would go into the bush to rebuild the numbers and eventually extract revenge. There were Te Kooti and Titokowaru, guerrilla fighters for whom the bush provided cover (partly responsible for the Pakeha desire to cut it all down). In more recent times, going back to the rural area is not to escape the culture but to return to it. It is then, a more complex and more serious matter. It is right that Waititi has chosen the Pakeha paradigm and colonised it.
Of course, it remains male nonsense. The fat kid never loses weight, despite five months of scavenging in the bush for tucker, the farm doesn’t seem to have any animals, heat detection cameras make hiding out pretty difficult nowadays, that car wreckers is absurdly extensive for somewhere south of Jackson’s Bay – but it doesn’t matter – the impulse, the cultural dialogue and the wit is great. The male spirit has asserted itself in a wholesome and charming sort of way – a rare thing of late – and obviously very popular.