Set in 1960s rural New Zealand, Mahana (adapted by John Collee from the novel ‘Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies‘ by Witi Ihimaera) tells the story of a Māori family who are ruled over by their iron-fisted patriarch, Tamihana Mahana. Tamihana’s word is law, and he expects a lot from his family, particularly from his young grandson Simeon, who has of late begun to question his grandfather and other aspects of his life.
The Mahana family are a proud Māori farming family, who work the land exceedingly hard. They live in several dwellings on pastoral land owned by patriarch Tamihana (Temuera Morrison), who controls his family with unwavering authority. The Mahanas are involved in a long-running feud with the Poata family, the origins of which are unclear at the start of the film, but they slowly come to light when Simeon (Akuhata Keefe) begins to rebel against his grandfather, and refuses to accept things as they are. He’s a smart, inquisitive boy, and ‘that’s the way it’s always been’, doesn’t satisfy him.
There are very few feature films about Māori that focus on their everyday lives and do not have a conflict as the narrative drive. Mahana is an extremely welcoming and refreshing portrait of the lives of this community and the issues that affect them. Yes, there is conflict – but the story here is more about family, history, and culture, than it is about hostility. This is a proudly Māori story, one which shows how the rich traditions of the culture are woven into their lives – it’s in the land, their interactions with each other, and it shapes how they view the world.
The Māori language dialogue in the film is not translated into English, and I commend the filmmakers for this. The actors were able to convey the sense of the words through their tone and body language, and I found that the film felt richer leaving their words untranslated. The Māori language is so beautiful, almost lyrical in nature – the words are the history and the culture. The film’s music adds further layers of atmosphere and depth.
When introducing the film director Lee Tamahori advised that the film isn’t a ‘rose-tinted view’ of the past, but rather it’s a snapshot of a simpler time. It’s not really apparent why he felt the need to say this, because the film shows how hard the family (including the children) had to work to run the farm and homestead. They had very little free time and were at the beck and call of their elders. Sure, they didn’t have modern conflicts to deal with, but it wasn’t an easy ride for them.
Akukhata Keefe’s cheeky demeanor serves him well, with his character providing both the funniest and most poignant moments of the film. While it’s not a perfect performance (there are a few dramatic moments he doesn’t quite hit right), it’s extremely admirable for a first film. Temuera Morrison may overplay the harshness of his character a little, but there is no question that he is an incredibly commanding presence on-screen.
Ginny Loane’s cinematography beautifully showcases the moodiness of the New Zealand countryside; although one flashback sequence in which the camera pans slowly around the farmhouse is at odds with the rest of the slick-looking film.
Mahana doesn’t get everything right, but it’s a powerful film nonetheless. It transports you to a different time and place, and gives you a real sense of culture and history. It’s wonderful to have Tamahori telling New Zealand stories again, and I hope there are more to come.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Lee Tamahori
Writer(s): John Collee (screenplay), Witi Ihimaera (novel)
Starring: Temuera Morrison, Akuhata Keefe, Nancy Brunning
Country: New Zealand
Language: English & Maori
Runtime: 102 minutes