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Keri Kaa, & an interview with Ngahuia Wade

Keri Kaa, at Rangitukia 2010

Keri Kaa’s Te Whaea Whakaata Taonga, presented at the recent Women In Film & Television (WIFT) awards, acknowledged “an exceptional woman whose meritorious contribution to the arts, culture, and heritage over the last 50 years has had an immeasurable behind the scenes impact on film and television”; Keri's worked tirelessly with funders and policy makers to forge the pathway for Maori filmmakers to tell their stories.

And that’s just one aspect of her extraordinary life and work. When I met Keri, more than thirty years ago, she was a Wellington Teachers College lecturer and a writer, associated with the artists and writers in the Herstory diary, Haeata, and Waiata Koa collectives. As a pakeha, I knew her as the translator—with Syd Melbourne—of Patricia Grace & Robyn Kahukiwa’s classic children’s picture book The Kuia & the Spider/ Te Kuia me te Pungawerewere, and I loved the poems and a review she contributed to Spiral 5. Keri also mistress-minded very special book launches, starting with one for The Kuia/Te Kuia and including one for Keri Hulme’s the bone people. The recent panui about Tungia Baker’s unveiling* reminded me of the beautiful ways that Keri and Tungia worked together at all kinds of events, often as kaikaranga. But I had no idea until last year that Keri’s strongly supported Maori filmmakers, as well as everything else, though I wasn’t surprised. How has she achieved so so much? Amazing.

I always listen very closely to Keri. And I’d do pretty much anything for her, because I love how she makes things happen, in a way that enhances everyone's experience, with her special tough-and-tender generosity and a lot of laughter. It was a wonderful moment when she agreed to play Jasmine-the-therapist in Development, and there were more wonderful moments when she advised us that Urikore Jullien Dwyer (Jules) was the best person to play Iris, and when I met Jules and realised that Keri was spot on yet again.

Keri, now based in Rangitukia and teaching at the local wananga, had mentioned that Maramena Roderick and Ngahuia Wade had included her in their maori-language series e tu kahikatea, so when we wanted to celebrate her WIFT award on our FB page, we asked them if they had a photograph and they kindly offered us two images. This is the second one.

E tu kahikatea is about Maoridom’s strongest contributors, made for Maori TV. In each episode an individual tells their story in their own voice. There have been twenty-five episodes made to date, and Keri is the youngest contributor chosen, for the impact she’s had in the arts. E tu kahikatea won the Best Maori Language Programme Award in this year’s Qantas Film and Television Awards.

For a long time, I’ve been interested that no Maori woman has written and directed a feature film since Merata Mita’s Mauri in 1988. Maori women have such a strong presence in New Zealand’s literature. Why hasn’t that translated into more short and feature films? One theory is that Maori women are practical and realise that they are more likely to make a living through producing, writing, and directing television, where they do very well. But to date I didn’t know whether the theory was true some of the time, all of the time, or not at all. So I was thrilled when Maramena and Ngahuia agreed that Ngahuia—who filmed Keri—would respond to some questions about Keri’s e tu kahikatea episode, and about their work as highly successful producers writers and directors for television.

Q: What’s the kaupapa, the philosophy, behind e tu kahikatea? How do you choose the participants? How do you approach each episode in the programme?

Ngahuia: Kahikatea grow in groves or communities: you very rarely see a kahikatea standing alone. The other stunning characteristic is that they move with the light i.e. the kahikatea will move aside to allow the babies to come through. An apt comparison for our own kahikatea in our series who have paved the way for many and are still an inspiration for us here now and those to come.

We wanted to tell their stories their way. Many documentaries on people only show other people talking about them. We wanted them to share the highs and lows, which is very, very different to what most people assume about them. This is not This is your life, but more This is my life and what is important to me.

Our series has no narrator, so the first voice you hear is theirs, they hold court. You are being told the story of a life by the person who lived it. No narration is very difficult and involves extensive crafting in the field as the story unfolds.

Only best friends, partners, children and allies appear to talk about them, those who really knew them. It is always an intimate moment shared.

Pre-production is what is really important. We spend hours and sometimes days with our kahikatea (lucky me) before we start filming. They actually become part of the creative. They go away and think about what their opening scene will be and in some cases where the location will be. Each episode is very different, like each kahikatea.

The right crew is also important. Our cameraman, Pat Murray, has found his mojo on this series. What started as a job is now a labour of love for him. If Pat hasn’t cried on the shoot, something’s wrong! Our sound by John McNicholas is always divine. Our kahikatea always fall in love with our crew.

Pat Murray (DOP), John McNicholas (Sound), Sandra Pidgeon and Te Huirangi Waikerepuru,
Ngahuia Wade (Director), Pauline Hill (Field Producer), at Ngamotu 2010
When we are with our kahikatea, cell phones are banned as is a mediocre attitude: ‘it’s all about the kahikatea’, as it should be. We strive for such an intimate story, first and foremost they must trust us and feel safe in the knowledge that whatever they choose to reveal will be treated with the utmost respect and integrity.

Our kahikatea are Maori and 70plus, predominantly native reo speakers. One in every 6 will be in english. Every single one of them is a first at something, and all their achievements have brought about national change.

Q: What is unique/special about Keri, and what was it like to film her? Were there any surprises? Anything that was different-than-usual about filming Keri?

Ngahuia: Aaaah, the doyenne of the art world, what a marvel. When we filmed with Keri she was recovering from a health issue but her love of life, and laughter, shone through. We filmed her in and around her home, but in the final product, you’d never know that she was in recovery nor that we filmed most of it in and around her home. She brought Rangitukia alive spiritually for me. A formidable place that breeds formidable people.

Q: What would you like to say about your backgrounds? Did you both start out as journalists and then move into producing and directing? How did you and Maramena come to work together? Why did you choose to make television programmes?

Ngahuia: Maramena and I went to high school together. She went on to become a world class journalist, then a Director and now a Producer. She has an unprecedented amount of TV awards for her work, as a journalist, Director and Producer—you go girl! If I recall correctly, she’s been in the awards every year for the past 20 years, and in some years in more than one category. Her attention to detail is phenomenal in all aspects of the craft. Our crew often joke, ‘if you put Mena on the camera she’d probably do that to perfection as well.’ However her most important achievement is being a grandmother. She is a hands-on Nanny to her two mokopuna.

I worked in and around broadcasting and studied law. After a 3-year stint in Japan I came home hungry for my reo. I grew up in and around te reo maori, but because english is so prevalent, the nuances get lost unless you study. I came home and a friend twisted my arm to consider the political reporter's job for the Maori News service, Ruia Mai. We provided news to all the 21 iwi radio stations. Thus for 3 years I worked in the heat of the battle in te reo maori. Then I decided to try my hand at writing proposals to make te reo maori programmes with the meagre experience I had, and I started getting projects.

I came to see Mena one night for a glass of bubbles, our favourite, and she says, after just finishing a wonderful drama documentary on the pilot John Pohe, ‘mate I wish we could do something on our women, where are all our Maori women?' I said, ‘well it's funny you should say that mate. I have a story.’ Thus our collaboration started: ka haku au: a poet’s lament the exquisite story of composer Kohine Ponika, whose songs a nation sang, but no-one knew a little old lady with very little worldly experience had written them at her kitchen table. In her songs—she wrote over 50—Kohine captured the essence of what the nation was feeling, for five decades. Lucky for me, she’s my grandmother.

Q: How long have you been working on e tu kahikatea?Has it changed since you started? What’s its future? Have you worked on other projects together?

Ngahuia: E tu kahikatea came about when my partner and I started talking about how Maori were always portrayed so badly in the media, where were our heroes? My partner, being Pakeha, says ‘I’d love to see stories on my old mates, Koro Wetere and Sir Peter Tapsell? I wonder what they’re doing now?’ Hence began our series, tales of inspiration, which I thank the universe for every day. Maramena came on board as Producer and our little old series took a giant leap forward, or should I say an award-winning leap forward, we won in 2010. Basically I’ve spent four years training with one of the best. Another thing I am grateful for, thanks mate!

Q: Why do you think that no Maori woman has made a feature film since Mauri? Does it matter that Maori women aren’t making feature films?

Ngahuia: As Merata Mita says ‘there is no film with no script!’ I loved when she said that to me. I realised never talk about what your story is about until you have it right in your head and it’s on paper. Sometimes stories get lost in conversation and everyone wants to add their bits. Stick to your story, get it down on paper, shape it, give it form and let it start talking to you. (Maybe that’s a combination of Merata and Maramena!)

Yes it does matter that Maori women are not making movies, but bring on the script-writers, bring on the creatives. The reality is harsh. There are many people script-writing but we have yet to see something that just rocks the world. The hard thing for me too is that writing is not ‘paying’. It’s unpaid work until it’s finished – that puts off most creatives on the 9-5, how can you create in an environment that dictates what you should be doing?

Q: I understand that you two are developing a short film script, that you worked on it with Merata Mita, and are now working on it with Keri. What would you like to say about it?

Ngahuia: Yes we are–how did you find that out? Merata had some workshops at her home in the Coromandel, how fortunate for us. Of the five of us that attended, one has made her short film with Merata and one has produced a short film. Aunty Keri has agreed to help us out with it.

Q: Is it important to you to make fictional short films and feature films and if so, why? Are you also interested in making television drama? What does filmmaking offer you that’s different from television?

Ngahuia: I am not a film-maker. I am a television director. I’ll get back to you on the film-maker title when it happens. I’d have to have at least four short films and two feature films to give myself that title.

Ka haku au had drama re-enactments which were all scripted in te reo maori. Julian Arahanga directed some of the drama scenes and what a beautiful eye he has. He taught us about beauty in drama. But I must say my favourite shot to date filmed in ka haku au was directed by Maramena, (see what I mean: she is Producer and also gets in and directs). She and our DOP were filming with my Aunty who played Kohine when she was older. It was a scene where she was leaving her beloved Ruatoki valley. They stood on the edge of the marae looking out over the valley, the sun was setting behind the range. It was a backshot of the sunset, a hand rises, it's shaking (wiri), it stretches out and moves across and over the ranges, silhouetted! It was sublime–a true metaphor for a Maori woman.

I am of the belief a story should be written in te reo first otherwise you lose idiom, humour and Maori drama. It’s the rule we apply to our projects. It must be reo first. I dare not rave about subtitling. I’d get angsty.

Q: I’d be really interested to hear more about your views on subtitling.

Ngahuia: Ok Marian, here we go. When we started e tu kahikatea, after our first series we realised that many non-reo speakers were tuning in. Also we decided that our kahikateas’ stories required a far more relaxed yet poignant style of sub-title. Our kahikatea are very articulate in both languages, some are multi-lingual. Thus in series three which goes to air in March 2011 all subtitles have been done by our team. One of the lessons for me is you must really understand context because when you translate you must also know English idiom. It’s what I find very difficult with reo programmes which are translated from english, you speak english to me in maori.

Then there’s placement of subtitle which is very important. It must come up at a particular time otherwise you can give away the punchline. Also doing your own subtitles allows you to let the pictures breathe (rather than someone in a control room doing it) and most importantly it allows you as the Director/Producer to ensure the correct story is told in a simple but intelligent script. You almost are re-writing the story.

Happy writing wahine ma!


Kohine Ponika: ka haku au 
e tu kahikatea page at Maori TV

*Tungia Baker’s unveiling took place in Otaki on 10 October. Her daughters are looking for information about Tungia. Details are here