Waru is a very important NZ film, both in terms of content and technique. A group of Maori women writers, directors and actors have explored the horror of child abuse within a whanau. It is eight ‘short stories’ linked by the one event – the death of a child. Necessarily the culture is both judged and celebrated. Booze, the good time, patriarchy, poverty, continuing colonisation, have to be judged. The resilience of women and the sinews of the culture are celebrated.
And the children go on being children.
And these people, switching frameworks, are working class people. Reading a book of Pacifica short stories, Black on White, I was struck by the same thought. Pakeha writes and filmmakers tend to write about the middle class experience; Maori and PI are writing about the working class.
Waru is technically, very important. Each ‘story’ is shot as a single take. It therefore subverts the usual montage which remains central to most film story-telling: the cutting between characters, the composing of a scene from separate shots which are then joined by an editor. As a film theoretician put it, montage is a dictatorial system. You see a shot of someone looking, and then you are shown what they are looking at. The filmmaker has control of the suspense, of the imagination.
A Hungarian filmmaker, Jansco, subverted this dictatorship in the 1960s by introducing the ten minute choreographed shot without breaks, so that a complete ninety minute film was made up of nine shots. Janso’s subject was Hungarian history and the choreography involved armies on horseback, battles, etc. But by joining things up in this theatrical way, history could enter the film as a coherent force. Some other filmmakers were inspired by this technique (Italian filmmaker, Bertolluci 1900; the Greek filmmaker Angelopoulos The Travelling Players), but the hegemony of Hollywood won out and the impulse disappeared.
But it is resurrected in Waru in an intimate manner. The effect of the long take is to join things up, for real time to exist, for the effect of poverty on a mother and her family to be coherent, for the impact of a child’s death on the staff of a kohanga to be coherent, for the young girl’s confrontation of the abusive uncle to be coherent. We are not told what to see next, we are simply seeing. It is a technique suited to a culture which is resisting fragmentation, resisting being broken into pieces to be restored by some outside authority.
It leads to an aesthetic which is pleasing because it has to reject the normal ideas of the aesthetic in film. You can’t light for the long take, for the camera is pointing in every direction. Nevertheless, there are moments of great beauty and some astonishing ingenuity – from car interior to house interior without break.
Waru is then, the polar opposite of Lord of the Rings, politically, economically, culturally, and aesthetically.
I know which I prefer.