New Zealand Maori Movie About Family Separation and Land Rights
Hard on the heels of recent reports revealing the shocking existence of 1,000-plus unmarked graves of First Nations children at church-run schools in Canada (see: Canada: 751 unmarked graves found at residential school – BBC News), the new movie Cousins – written, directed and starring Maori females – deals with the trauma of family separation of New Zealand’s indigenous children.
The 98-minute feature is an adaptation of the 1992 novel of the same name by Maori author Patricia Grace (who I met in the 1990s at a literary symposium of Pacific Islander authors in Honolulu) and co-directed by Maoris Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith (who also wrote the screenplay). Cousins tells the story of three Maori cousins, Mata, Missy and Makareta, who are portrayed by different actors at different points in their lives as children, teens/young adults and middle aged.
As a child, Mata is separated from her family, including cousins Missy (played as an older adult by Rachel House of 2016’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016’s Moana, 2017’s Thor: Ragnorak, 2020’s Soul) and Makareta, who remain on their ancestral land with their families. Mata is placed in an orphanage called the Mercy Home for Desolate Children and then adopted by Mrs. Parkinson (Sylvia Rands), a pakeha (Caucasian) guardian who deceives Mata and ruthlessly exploits her labor under a control system somewhat similar to the conservatorship Britney Spears is currently resisting, although unlike the pop star, Mata’s bondage seems state sanctioned and has an ethnic component.
In South Seas Cinema, Polynesian “vahines” are often depicted as sarong-clad promiscuous, licentious nymphs, but as a young woman (portrayed by Ana Scotney, of TV series such as Shortland Street) the traumatized Mata appears to be sexually dysfunctional. Later in life, she wanders the city streets of, presumably, Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, homeless and apparently afflicted by mental illness caused by the childhood trauma of her early separation from her extended family and ancestral home. The older Mata is harrowingly, poignantly played by Tanea Heke, who acted in a 1998 episode of the NZ-shot TV series Xena: Warrior Princess and in films such as 2021’s The Justice of Bunny King.
Also central to Cousins is the struggle of the Maoris to retain ownership of their age-old lands in the face of settler colonialism dating back to the British invasion of Aotearoa/New Zealand by 1840. One of the cousins, Makareta, becomes a crusading attorney in the William Kunstler mode who fights for indigenous land rights. While she studies at university a poster of Che Guevara can be seen on the wall of her room and there are clips of mass marches of Maoris demanding the return of their land. As a young adult (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Makareta also undergoes a ceremony to get a moku, a traditional Maori chin tattoo, in order to assert her indigenous identity. The older Makareta (writer/actress Briar Grace Smith) is determined to find her long, lost missing cousin.
Again, in contrast to the South Seas Cinema celluloid stereotype of sexually available females, Makareta resists an arranged marriage aimed at uniting lineages in order to solidify land ownership. This contradiction raises the point that perhaps not all ancient customs are worthy of being perpetuated, from one generation another. The 2002 NZ film Whale Rider also showed a clash between feminism and some indigenous practices.
Cousins cinematically goes back and forth in time, interweaving the story of the three females throughout and at different points in their lives. However, because of its overriding theme Cousins is filmically accessible and makes sense, although viewers should pay close attention as the multi-layered story unfolds. The first letter of the names of all of the cousins is “M”, which seems to be a reference to their Maori heritage. Made by and starring Maori women, Cousins definitely has a Maori and female perspective. As the co-author of three movie history books on South Seas Cinema, I can definitively state that Cousins is absolutely one of the most complex, sophisticated movies in this film genre that’s often dominated by Hollywood tropes and South Seas celluloid stereotypes, such as Mutiny on the Bounty.
The New Zealand Film Commission helped produce Cousins, and is an excellent example of state subsidy of the arts, especially under the current Labor Party government. According to press notes: “The film is directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, who both received the Sundance Institute’s Merata Mita [Cousins is co-dedicated to this groundbreaking Maori woman director] Fellowship in 2019, and who each directed a segment for the critically acclaimed feature film Waru, which world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. Ainsley Gardiner… is well known for producing [Maori Oscar winner] Taika Waititi’s early work including the acclaimed comedies Eagle VS Shark, and Boy… Cousins is Briar Grace-Smith’s second feature film as a director; she also wrote the film, and stars as adult Makareta.”
Cousins is a unique, beautiful movie made by Maoris that presents an indigenous POV about family separation and land rights. It is a must-see movie for viewers interested in the subject of Native rights and on a more general level, for moviegoers who enjoy family-oriented productions. It may be fate that this great Polynesian film opens the same month that the Hawaiian nationalist leader Haunani-Kay Trask, who so resolutely fought for the land rights of Kanaka Maolis, died.