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Powerful Maori movie a map of sorts for First Nations filmmakers wanting to tell warrior stories

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/4/2015 (825 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At the newly launched Bandwidth Theatre on the corner of Sherbrook and Ellice, a new film from New Zealand has the potential to show aboriginal Canadian filmmakers the way.

Since it opened late in 2014, the Bandwidth has been playing an assortment of movies, from low-budget horror to high-minded documentaries. But as it's connected to the Adam Beach Film Institute, it also has an agenda, under the stewardship of founding partners Beach, producer Jim Compton and filmmaker Jeremy Torrie, to inspire young filmmakers, especially young First Nations filmmakers.

Lawrence Makaore in The Dead Lands (above), a perfect fit for Adam Beach and Jeremy Torrie's Bandwidth Theatre.

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Lawrence Makaore in The Dead Lands (above), a perfect fit for Adam Beach and Jeremy Torrie's Bandwidth Theatre.

Top, Lawrence Makaore in The Dead Lands, a perfect fit for Adam Beach (above, L-R) and Jeremy Torrie's Bandwidth Theatre.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Top, Lawrence Makaore in The Dead Lands, a perfect fit for Adam Beach (above, L-R) and Jeremy Torrie's Bandwidth Theatre.

In that capacity, The Dead Lands is not just an exciting movie, it's a fine example of how an indigenous culture can tell its stories on film, Torrie says.

"The Maori are 20 years ahead of us as far as cinematic storytelling," Torrie says. "We absolutely should be seeing these kind of films here. We've got all these great locations. The problem is they've had the opportunity to make films; we've not had that opportunity."

It was actually 21 years ago when Maori-centred movie announced itself with Lee Tamahori's brilliant 1994 drama Once Were Warriors, the story of a modern-day Maori family afflicted by violence, alcoholism and sexual abuse. In the film, Maori warrior tradition is turned on itself, until the family's valiant matriarch (Rena Owen) employs traditional means to heal.

The movie made such an impact on Torrie, he has just finished writing the first draft of a remake set in Winnipeg starring Beach.

"We're just using that template and giving it a new face," Torrie says.

But he has a task ahead of him in getting it made. Aboriginal filmmakers in Canada don't have the financial advantage enjoyed by Maori filmmakers in New Zealand, Torrie says.

"If we get Telefilm funding, we're lucky to get 20 per cent of the budget, and there's still a huge amount of money missing," he says. "So we're perpetually stuck in development hell."

"Adam and Jim and I are trying to show that there's a market for these kinds of film -- aboriginal audiences -- and that maybe mainstream audiences will discover these stories."

"In New Zealand, they have a much greater budget with their equivalent of Telefilm Canada, the New Zealand Film Commission," Torrie says. "They also have a language fund in Maori, that organization has been around for 15 years or more and they've become another important equity source for Maori film, whereas we can't do that yet. There's a lot of institutional barriers."

-- -- --

 

Business at the Bandwidth has been up and down since opening, Torrie says, as the theatre is often scrambling to find compelling films to screen.

One of the its unexpected successes was What We Do in Darkness, a comedy mockumentary about a clan of vampires living in modern-day Wellington, N.Z. Curiously, the film's writer-director-stars, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, are both of Maori heritage, but the film doesn't touch on that at all.

Torrie says he can see a day when First Nations filmmakers might make a movie that doesn't necessarily have to do with aboriginal culture. But they're not there yet.

"We're not anywhere close to telling stories like What We Do... because we've got a lot of other more important stories for us to tell first," he says.

 

-- -- --

 

In New Zealand, the remnants of Maori tradition are primarily visible to the world in rugby matches, where the national team, the All Blacks, perform the haka, a dance designed to terrorize opponents, going back to warrior tradition.

The Dead Lands, a film by Toa Fraser, offers a closer look at that tradition in a story of combat and redemption set in pre-colonial New Zealand.

It is touted as the first film to feature Mau r£kau, a fierce and fearsome Maori martial art.

But for all the film's savagery, blood-letting and cannibalism, there is also room for nuance and even notes of poignance.

 

Hongi (James Rolleston) is a chieftain's son, belonging to a tribe that sues for peace with a hostile neighbouring tribe over a past conflict.

Hongi becomes aware the other tribe's delegation has a non-peaceful agenda when he spies one member deliberately befouling the remains of a dead warrior. When they do indeed prove treacherous, Hongi emerges as one of the only male survivors in the tribe.

When his enemies depart for the cursed "Dead Lands," Hongi follows in the hopes of recruiting a legendary warrior known either as "Monster" or "Warrior" to his cause.

Warrior (Lawrence Makaore) proves unexpectedly amenable, and not just because the invitation will allow him to indulge his blood lust. For all his outcast status, Warrior feels a certain kinship with Hongi, the last male of his tribe. He offers the lad a bit of instruction before they take off to find the warriors who all but wiped out Hongi's tribe.

Director Toa Fraser departs considerably from the more civilized content of his past films, the reincarnation fantasy Dean Spanley and the dance film Giselle. The Dead Lands is very much saturated in a rough natural setting that nevertheless looks a world away from the more lush environs of Peter Jackson's Tolkien epics.

The "Monster" monicker, it must be said, is especially appropriate to the character. As in old monster movies, the film is just so much more exciting when Makaore is onscreen. He is terrifying to behold, but also magnificent in his presence.

As his back story is slowly revealed, one is even moved to sympathy for this devil, no small feat given that one scene shows him chopping up the corpse of an enemy in preparation for cooking.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Randall King.

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History

Updated on Friday, April 17, 2015 at 7:36 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

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