Film Review: Mahana

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    Akuhata Keefe as Simeon Mahana

Mahana (Temuera Morrison) rules his whanau with an iron fist but one of the grandchildren Simeon (an affecting performance by Akuhata Keefe) is not content to settle for the status quo and his probing questions begin to threaten the stability of clan Mahana.

From the team that brought us the turning point in modern New Zealand cinema ‘Once Were Warriors’ comes a new film about being Maori in Pakeha land. ‘Mahana’ plays out over the last days of the 1950s on the North Islands East Cape. This was a time of flourishing rural communities dedicated to the task of harvesting wool and sheep meat. It was a time of tough men and hard working women and when the divide between Maori and Pakeha (sadly only lightly explored) was more pronounced.

Writer Whiti Ihimaera (‘Whale Rider’) draws on his own childhood to create a sense of time and place and if you have ever read any of his autobiographical work you will recognize the characters and social landscape straightaway. Having mapped it out he leaves it to fellow East Coaster Lee Tamahori to bring it to life.

Tamahori is a practiced and talented director (check out the opening car chase scene – it is stunner) and a fine visual artist. The vistas are beautiful, the visual set pieces are inspired and the period detail evocative (and through the course of the film he takes the time to explore his own childhood love of American cinema adding some nice flavour and insight) but this film about intergenerational angst and social conformity feels a little underplayed at times.

Yes, it’s a bit thin places and some of the characterisation settles for one-dimensional when it required a touch more care. It is all a little formulaic with something of the Disney about it though that company might have shied from something as confronting as the historical rape upon which clan Mahana is built.  This is not the social statement of ‘Once Were Warriors’ (for fans, Tem does employ something of his trademark ‘explosive temper’ to shocking effect) but it is a diverting exploration of family powers structures and social conservatism. Engaging and often quite moving (I shed a tear at the right places) ‘Mahana’ is a worthwhile edition to the cannon of those local films dedicated to examining our nations cultural history. Essential it is not but may trigger some interest among new generations to whom 1950s New Zealand is a alien planet.

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