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Taika Waititi Has Never Been “Your Māori”

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Controversy is stirring after the wildly successful Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi publicly described his home country of New Zealand as “racist as f**k”.

Perhaps that sort of reaction could be expected, but it should never have been the assumption that this brilliant filmmaker would do anything other than represent the indigenous experience.

Taika only came to mainstream audiences recently when he was tapped for a Thor sequelbut had built his career as an indie filmmaker in Australia and New Zealand that centred stories of indigenous people while including many of them in his productions. Two of his feature films, Boy and The Hunt for The Wilderpeople, are indigenous bildungsromans.

Have a look at this clip from Boy where blends Māori traditions with a modern love for American pop culture.

If anyone was worried that a big studio film like Thor would have halted his commitment to indigenous representation to appease commercial interests they need not have been. In a 2016 interview, he made it clear that he would be bringing in a crew from the local aboriginal population where the film was being made in Australia.

Arguably the most successful of his pre-Thor films would be my personal favorite What We Do In The Shadows. Besides the roots of both Taika and his co-star Jemaine Clement, this mockumentary about Wellington vampires seemingly does not have anything to do with Māori representation. However, an interview with Screen Anarchy reveals an interesting dimension to labeling the film:

..[O]ne of the questions we always ask ourselves back home is what is a Maori film or a Maori filmmaker? I’m very much against the idea that it has to be Maori content to be classified as a Maori film because if you limit yourself to that – then we don’t have ownership over things like the span of life, that means we can’t say this is a Maori film and this is a really good film and it means that Maori don’t have the right, we can’t say oh, this is a Maori filmmaker?

Both Jemaine and I are Maori and so by law of race, you should be able to say I’m a Maori filmmaker and this is a Maori film. There’s always been a lot of discussion about that in New Zealand, because otherwise, we’re just going to be stuck in this rut of putting wind flutes in all of our soundtracks and having people go up to the top of the mountain to talk to ancestors.

Unless you’re making fun of that, it’s just not funny. I’m into making funny films.

If it weren’t for his new-found commercial success outside of New Zealand, this could potentially be the sort of controversy that would end his career. But if Taika has made it this far while sticking to his principles, there’s no reason for us to suspect anything can slow him down.

Also, seriously go watch What We Do In The Shadows.

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