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Dana Rotberg and White Lies|Tuakiri Huna

Dana Rotberg

Cushla Parekowhai and I went to previews for Dana Rotberg's new feature White Lies/Tuakiri Huna – Cush in Auckland and me down here in Wellington. And the film excited us. White Lies/Tuakiri Huna, described as 'a story about the nature of identity: those who deny it and those who strive to protect it', comes from Medicine Woman, a novella by Witi Ihimaera, who also wrote Whale Rider. (Witi is Cushla's cousin. Witi's father, Tom Smiler, and Cush's grandmother, Pani Turangi, were raised in the same household in Manutuke.)

Dana wrote, in the book that accompanies the film, that after she read Medicine Woman –
...Paraiti, the medicine woman, was a stubborn presence who refused to leave. I felt that was a clear sign that the story...was speaking to me from places other than where the original work had come from. Places that belonged to my intimate family history and my most unresolved conflicts as a person in the world. It was a call from the core of my origins to look for answers that mattered to me, being myself a half-caste, a woman, a mother and a descendant of people who have been eternal immigrants or brutally colonised by others. A call coming from every drop of the Mexican, Jewish, Catholic, Polish, indigenous, Italian, Spanish and Russian blood that runs through my veins. The blood of my tipuna. My very own whakapapa.
White Lies/Tuakiri Huna stars Whirimako Black, Rachel House and Antonia Prebble and opens in New Zealand cinemas this week.

Whirimako Black as Paraiti, with Oti the dog
White Lies/Tuakiri Huna is thought-provoking and for us was a fresh look at the post-colonial. For once a traditional Maori community is represented as successful, at ease in their land, a group not dislocated and dispossessed but positive, organised and determined. The film is 80% in te reo Maori, with subtitles. White Lies/Tuakiri Huna might also be New Zealand's first Bechdel Test narrative feature. And it intrigued us that Dana Rotberg is a feminist filmmaker from Mexico.

Diasporas are significant in New Zealand women's filmmaking: think Jane Campion, Alison Maclean, Niki Caro (whose Whale Rider also came from a Witi Ihimaera story), Pietra Brettkelly, Christine Jeffs and Sally Tran (and previous Killer Films interns) as those scattered short- or long-term outside New Zealand. And Sima Urale, Shuchi Kothari, Sapna Sanant, Zia Mandviwalla, Roseanne Liang, Nathalie Boltt and Clare Burgess among those who’ve diaspora'd in, or whose parents did. But a distinguished feminist director from Mexico, whose Angel de Fuego (1992) opened Directors Week at Cannes and whose Otilia Rauda won the NHK Filmmaker's Award at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, an award to 'honor and support emerging independent filmmakers whose originality, talent, and vision can contribute significantly to the future of world cinema'? We had so many questions! And had more once we watched the clips at the end of the post, from the New Zealand Herald. And there's a wonderful dog, Oti, played by Finn – we'd love to know more about Finn but we forgot to ask the question!

There's also that very special White Lies/Tuakiri Huna book.

More coming on this in a later post. In the meantime, here are our questions and Dana's answers, which we love. Big thank yous to her, to Tamar Munch at South Pacific Pictures, for presenting our questions to Dana and transcribing Dana's responses at high speed, and to Marc Bos for his ever-generous assistance.


Q: Can we start with a little bit about your history, to provide a larger context for White Lies/Tuakiri Huna? How did you start to make films? Did you come from a family of artists and writers?

I come from a non-artist background. My father is a doctor, my mother was a housewife and then she, later on in life, went to university to study history. But I have to say that my love for filmmaking comes from an absolute family experience. When we were kids, my father was a doctor and he started with nothing and he had to work very, very hard. In Mexico, people don’t come home at six o’clock, they come home at 8 pm the earliest, have dinner and go to sleep. So I would see my dad at lunchtime because he would always come to have lunch with us and then probably I wouldn’t see him until lunch the next day because he would leave for work before we went to school and came back once we were already asleep. But Wednesdays at six o’clock he would be at home every week and we would go and have coffee or chocolate and go to the cinema. And that was a celebration.

Every Wednesday night was the most beautiful moment in my week. I had three sisters and a brother and we would all go together so it was really a lovely family time. So that’s how I started out watching films. The first memory I have is at around six years old and we went to see The Ring of the Nibelungs [Der Ring des Nibelungen], Fritz Lang’s film. I was too young to go into the cinema – I was quite a little girl and it was rated 16 or something like that. I remember that one of my parents hid me inside their coat and took me into the cinema. It was a family occasion so we all had to go together to the film! At the time there were not that many films for children and that is something I have to thank my father for…he always took me to see those sorts of films. I remember sitting there, watching this amazingly beautiful black and white film with Siegfried and all this mythology that is miles away from my original culture and I just couldn’t believe my eyes! I still remember that film and that moment very clearly. So although my family is not artistic or filmmakers, my love from for filmmaking comes from those Wednesdays with my family, watching films.


Q. We understand that for three years in the 1990s, when you were working in Mexico, almost half of the quality Mexican productions had women in directorial roles. How did this happen – what were the conditions that made it possible and what strategies did you use, collectively and individually?

One of the main things that allowed that to happen was film schools. We have two amazingly good film schools in Mexico. One of them is probably among the five best in the world (which is of course my school!) and the fact that there were places that you could train yourself as a filmmaker – and they were open to everybody as long as you passed the admission exams – changed the ratio of filmmakers because there were a lot of women in the school. Scriptwriters, DOPs, directors, producers, sound engineers – we were all at school together. So although in previous generations we had our mentors (i.e. female directors since the 30s) the increase in the amount of women involved in the industry was because of those filmmaking schools. And they are not theoretical schools…it’s not dissertation about film language, it’s actually making films. These schools are extremely pragmatic and that changed the face of filmmaking in Mexico drastically and beautifully. That’s the cradle of all the great filmmakers that we have seen in the last 15-20 years who come from Mexico.

In terms of ‘strategy’, I think that the strategy was how to survive it. Because you could come out of school feeling very talented and intelligent and then you had to face the industry. And the industry was absolutely closed to newcomers, both men and women but in particular for women we were considered good only for being the runners. It was closed because there was a very corrupted and powerful union and they never opened for new people and it was absolutely male-oriented.

I have always been really, really lucky. I made a documentary film [Elvira Luz Cruz, Pena Máxima]. It was a very ‘out of the box’ documentary about a woman who was accused of murdering her own children. Originally it had been an exercise for school but it really started growing and growing because the story was extremely powerful. It had a very profound political power and I was lucky that a lot of people who were older than me at the time, believed in that story and believed in me supported the project. At the time it wasn’t video it was 16mm film and it was really expensive to get negative 16 so I got calls from older, active filmmakers saying ‘I have some material if you want it for your film’. So really I got extremely supported and I was able to make (with a friend from school called Ana Diaz) a medium-length documentary film. What was originally supposed to be a tiny exercise for school ended up being a major documentary film in Mexico at the time. I didn’t see it as a strategy…I never think in terms of strategy (unfortunately – I should but I don’t!). It was a story that I really needed to tell and it happened to be a very important story at the time in my country and after I finished that film, one of the most fascinating Mexican directors (Felipe Cazals) called me to be his 1st AD.

Now being a 1st AD in Mexico is totally different to being a 1st AD in New Zealand. A 1st AD in Mexico works strongly in the creative side of filmmaking. It’s not nearly as much about the structure of shooting, of locations, the schedule and so on. It’s not the logistical side of the process, it’s the creative side of it: lenses, rehearsals, drama construction, colour palette etc. It’s really being like a listener to the director. I couldn’t have had a better mentor. I really learned a lot. I was paid a miserable amount because I was not in the union…I was always sneaked into the production like an outsider. But I was 19 years old and I was working mornings at the cinematheque and I honestly, I would have paid to work with this director. He is absolutely my mentor. He is a very, very strong clear-minded, radical visual poet. I worked for him for five or six years and we made a lot of films together. And through that process I got extremely well trained. He was very demanding in terms of the precision of how we would prepare films…I would know the script by heart. It was a very intense way of working and it’s the same way I work now. I inherited his ways and I’m very proud of that.

And then again I was very, very lucky and a Leon Constantiner, a producer from Mexico, asked me if I wanted to make my first film – out of the unions – a truly independent film in Mexico. I said ‘well, if you have a good story then yes and if not, no’. So that’s how I started my first film, Intimidad.

So for me it’s not so much about strategy but about stubbornness and passion I guess, and I never doubted that I was going to be a filmmaker. I didn’t know when but I knew I was going to make films because that’s what I wanted and that’s what I loved.

Q. Is there state funding in Mexico and were there individuals and/or policies there that helped?

There is state funding in Mexico. It was something that was gained through a lot of pressure and work that the generation of filmmakers like Felipe Cazals, the mentors of my generation and those in between, we all fought very hard for it, because state financing for filmmaking hadn’t existed up until that point. That state funding created a very important concept in Mexico at the time, which is about the ‘authorship’ of a film. The fact that the money comes from the state makes the exercise of filmmaking an exercise of creating culture and identity. It’s not a product that you place in the market – you’re not producing socks and jackets or milk powder – and therefore it is treated it differently. The fact that it’s subsidized by the taxes of the people creates the space for it not to be seen as a merchandise but to be a cultural event, a cultural research, a cultural exercise, and that allows an amazing diversity of films. They are films which are never going to be ‘in the box’ of what the market is expecting or what will make money because that’s not the unique aim. I guess that’s the beauty of having those cultural exercises funded by the taxes because then that exercise then belongs to everybody, not only the film maker, as culture and identity belongs to everybody, it is a dynamic experience and it goes beyond a product to be inserted in the market.

I think the film schools plus the creation of the Mexican National Institute of Cinema combined made for a much stronger industry overall. My film school started around mid 70s and the Film Institute was created at the early beginning of the 80s. Over those years a very powerful and interesting space was created, academically and financially, to produce an industry based around the film d’auteur. And with it, a search for our identity as film makers.

We have a saying in Mexico ‘So close to the US and so far away from god’. One of the very few blessings of being so close to the US is that we really hold onto our identity strongly. Because American film industry is like a tsunami that take over everything, because they’re powerful and extremely rich. That has created a strong resistance from us – not only the filmmakers but the whole culture and politics. A resistance that allowed us to conceive filmmaking as a creative space from where we research and elaborate the modern identity of what Mexico is.

Q. Did you collectively set out to develop a new audience for films by and about women and were you successful?

My brain doesn’t work in terms of strategy. I am drawn to stories that I believe are important to tell, that are powerful and that make sense to me. I don’t think ‘this is going to be a film that will bring women to the cinema’. I simply don’t think that way. But I guess the fact that I am a woman and I have a way of seeing the world just creates the stories that I tell.

Q. And what have been the lasting effects of those women directors' success over those years?

There are more young people and more women doing films, quite successful and beautiful films. I believe at the end of the day that the challenge and the beauty of it is to go beyond the labeling… so it’s not about ‘female films’. It’s either ‘good films’ or ‘bad films’, it doesn’t matter who makes them. The point is to make a truthful story and to move the audience in any possible way. So I guess the beauty of the process – from 30 years ago to now – is that we have gone beyond the labeling, at least in Mexico. We have amazingly good cinema made by women and made by men with women’s stories or men’s stories or a combination of the two. It’s beyond gender and that is what I think really makes a powerful voice.

Q. One writer, David Maciel, has asserted that
The single most dramatic aspect of present day Mexican cinema is the rise of a distinctly Mexican feminism, with women exerting major influences in all aspects of Mexican filmmaking.
What are the characteristics of a 'distinctly Mexican feminism' and how did and does it manifest in films by and about women? Can you suggest how characteristics of this feminism and the strategies that Mexican women use to influence Mexican filmmaking might be useful in New Zealand, to increase the numbers of features by and about women?

Again I don’t think we label our films in this way necessarily but I would say one thing: historically, and as well reflected in our classical Mexican cinema, we have extremely strong female characters – a strength and ‘warriorness’ that we have as women is ingrained in our psyche by our cultural and historical female role models. As much as it’s a very macho country and culture, we have very powerful women.

I would also say that New Zealand does have a lot of women filmmakers. I have four female friends in Mexico who are filmmakers – and that’s a country of 80 million people. I have four female friends here in New Zealand who are filmmakers and we are 4 million people so I think we are doing OK here!

Q: During that golden age of Mexican women's filmmaking, you were, according to Elissa Ratkin, in her book Women Filmmakers In Mexico: The Country Of Which We Dream, 'a strong advocate for women in the cinema, having argued that a larger female presence would invigorate the industry and bring in new perspectives'. How did you come to be an advocate and looking back, what were your advocacy successes? How did you balance advocacy with filmmaking?

To be honest, I feel that’s a very fragmented understanding. I don’t fragment my life into categories. I am the person that I am and I do what I do. If that becomes advocacy, it’s because I believe and act with a coherent intention and integrity. I express my opinions clearly, I change things when I don’t believe they are right, and I speak my mind. I also tell the stories I want to tell. In doing so, I exercise my power as a woman which is my power as a civilian and my power as a human being. I have to say that I don’t make films to be the popular girl. That’s not my aim. I know that with the films that I’ve done I’ve probably taken some people out of their comfort zone but that’s something that doesn’t bother me. On the contrary. I believe that polemic issues move our brains and our heart to better places.

I think the same advocacy and power that I use to make films is the same degree of passion that I have being a mother, a lover, a friend… That is how I understand activism…! And that is a political way of choosing to live my life.

Q. Is your activism the reason why there were eight years between Angel de Fuego and Otilia Rauda?

No. The reason for so many years in between is because I don’t make a film unless there is a story that really grabs my heart. I don’t count flying hours like pilots. I don’t have any urge to do many films, it’s not in my system. If there is a story that I absolutely love I go for it and if not, so be it.

Q: What advice would you now give to women filmmakers who want to make films about women's lives?

Go and do them!


Q: Can you write a little bit about why you left Mexico for Europe and your work as a producer in Europe?

I left Mexico many times, because I was curious. I had always lived in Mexico until I was 29 years old… When I finished Angel de Fuego, presented in Cannes, after the festival I went and spent a couple of weeks with a dear friend of mine who was living in Paris at the time and I just got overwhelmed by the beauty of that city. I said ‘why not?!’. (It was in the same way that I said ‘why not’, when I moved to Sarajevo, to La Paz in the Mexican a desert, or to coming to New Zealand. Wherever I feel like I want to be, I just pack and go. It’s my adventurous, non-strategic and always unsettled way of living…)

Anyway, at that time I ended up living in Paris which was quite beautiful and then eventually ended up in Sarajevo during the war. There, I was asked to make a documentary film. But war is such an experience that I never had the space to really consider that I had the right point of view to tell the story from within. It was not my family who was being slaughtered, it was not my streets that were being shelled. I was there because I loved a man (who’s Rina’s father) and then I loved the city and I loved the people and I stayed. But I couldn’t speak about it as a director, because I didn’t want to speak about it from the perspective of the foreigner or the tourist. But I definitely wanted to support what these people were doing which was documenting the experience of that horrible, horrible war and their amazing choice of survival. I come from a Jewish family and we have in our skin the memory of racial extermination which is also what happened in Bosnia. I remember being at the Jewish school I attended in Mexico when I was a kid, where I watched so many documentaries about WW II… seeing how those horrors were documented on screen allows the coming generations to see what really happened. I don’t want to say that all documentaries are necessarily objective, because I don’t believe that they are, but images are images. And during the war in Sarajevo, I thought life had placed me in a parallel circumstance to where my grandparents and great grandparents had been, and felt I had the duty to support in any possible way registration of the memory of that war. So that’s why I supported the production of The Perfect Circle in Sarajevo at the time.

Q. What did you and do you enjoy about producing?

I loved producing that film because it was a powerful statement of resistance, a brave assertion of Life in the middle of a war… and because I believed in the vision of the director, I loved the script and I just enjoy seeing the creative process of others happen. I love seeing others creating beautiful things and feeling that I can participate in it. I strongly believed in the necessity of The Perfect Circle during the war.

When I produce myself or produce my own work with others, I feel very comfortable because if I know what I have and what I don’t have from a producer’s perspective, I can develop filmmaking strategies as a director to convey the story in the best possible way, with the resources we have. For me that’s an ideal place.

Q. Do you prefer to write and direct and if so why?

I have to say the thing that I love the most is writing. Also directing of course but directing us always so bloody stressful! If we could take out the stress of that side of things, writing and directing are both paradise. The beauty of writing is that everything is possible on the page.


Q. What's a nice Mexican girl like you doing in a place like this?

For five years I lived in a war zone. I had a daughter and went back to Mexico and I could see that in just a few more years, my country would be in a very similar situation as a state of war. I didn’t have the endurance to survive another violent experience. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in a state of violence and I really wanted a peaceful place for me and for Rina. I could see that Mexico was falling apart and I had the opportunity to make the choice.

Q: We've heard the story that you saw Whale Rider and bought a ticket for New Zealand the next day. But you live in Auckland, which is not Whangara and not the East Coast even. We understand why you might have come here for a visit. But why stay?

I didn’t come because I believed Whale Rider was a promoting Aotearoa New Zealand as good touristic destination… It was the depth of the film, the reflection of a fascinating old and wise culture and at the same time a land that it still holds the possibility of change and future.


Q: White Lies/Tuakiri Huna is the first film you've directed since Otilia Rauda. You've said
I'm a mother and this is a very demanding profession and either you put all your heart and all your time and all your passion into a film or you don't make a film. That is the way it has happened anyway in my life. So I honoured my motherhood which is something I'm really happy I did. I made a choice.
At what point did it become easier for you to be both a mother and a writer/director?

I had the big advantage - a luxury actually - that [producer] John Barnett never pressed me with a time. He never said to me ‘I need your script in two months’. He allowed me all the time that I needed and, indeed I did take a lot of time. And that was crucial for me because filmmaking came back home little-by-little, it started taking a space in my daughter’s and my life in a gradual and manageable way.. For me, the challenge was to be able to devote myself to the film and never to abandon my daughter for it… I’m a solo mother, I don’t have any family here and filmmaking is an all-consuming thing. Knowing that, I knew I could never allow a film to overtake my family life. My priority is and always will be my daughter and I love being a mum…! So the gradual process was an important one for me.

The first thing that I did before even accepting the film was that I spoke with my daughter was to ask her ‘Are you ready? Are we ready to embark on this?’ because she knows from when she was a little girl how it works – her father is a filmmaker, I am a filmmaker. So we spoke about it and we were both happy, excited and agreeing that there would be challenging times, that I would probably be crazy and unbearable every now and then… and that there’d be at least three weeks where I’d have to be away from home shooting in Te Urewera… So for me the most difficult thing was being away from my daughter.

Coming back in terms of my skills, at the beginning I was feeling rusted – like I needed oil. But I have to say my oil is my passion. I really feel an uncontrolled passion for things when I do them from that place. I had the advantage that I could see the film in my head because I had worked so much on the script and what I saw in my head is what I wrote on my page. So a lot of the pre-production as the director happened when I was writing, which is the blessing of being the writer and the director, because have the time and the space to exercise your way of telling things from the start…. And if it doesn’t work, it is only a piece of paper and you start trying again…

Q: Has motherhood changed you as a writer and director and if so in what ways?

Radically! First I have to say that my daughter saved my life. I was absolutely addicted to filmmaking. Everything in my life began and ended with filmmaking: lovers, boyfriends, parents, family – everything was filmmaking. When I had my daughter everything absolutely changed. And then I said ‘f*ck the films!’. What really mattered to me was to be a companion and a witness to the amazingly unique miracle of what is a human growing up .

So everything has changed – my understanding of life, my priorities. Knowing that you know nothing and that you’re in control of nothing at the end of the day. It absolutely changed my whole understanding of life.

And of course, my experience as a woman through being a mother – which is a very primal, ancient experience – bonded me in an unexpected and very powerful way, to the rest of the women in this world… Motherhood makes you one with all the women in this planet, somehow – through history and space and time… regardless of religion, origin, colour.


Q: What drew you to Medicine Woman?

I felt drawn to the story because I felt that it had a very rich drama element that could be developed into a beautiful story. My way of thinking, when I feel attracted to a story, that sense is automatically cinematographical because that is the way my brain is wired. So I could see there is an intense, beautiful story about identity and motherhood which are two things that matter to me as a person. And I was surprised at how close I felt to Mexico, how familiar I was within that story – to the same realities that we have in Mexico. So that would be the surface level explanation of how I was attracted to the story. It doesn’t happen in a rational way – it happens very much at the level of the gut. I was just taken by the story. I actually think that in my case it happens the other way around – the story grabs me – and then I go and try to research why the story is so profoundly important for me.

Q: You've said in conversation with Witi that one of the things that grabbed you from his story was the conflict of identity, probably because it was one of your own personal conflicts that remains unresolved, how we adapt when two universes clash. …Either you remain absolutely in touch of where you come from or you adapt and try to survive or you wash away the story of the ones who didn't get the victory...that game of how the three of them represent a story of survival and identity was fascinating for me. Did making the film help you resolve your own conflict(s)?

Not at all – it opened more new conflicts! Something that has always been very clear with me is that I know nothing… I have no answers for anything and I am not looking for answers… I just have lots of questions. And to be honest… this film just made those questions deeper and more abundant!


Q: What were the challenges in the adaptation?

[Dana referred us to her long piece about the adaptation in the White Lies/ Tuakiri Huna book. It's fascinating. Read it if you can! From it, we've selected this section – The Story: About Colonialism and Identity]

Faced with the imposition of a foreign cosmology – as the colonial phenomenon is, no matter in which part of the world or when in history it happens – there are two separate questions that hold the key to survival;
Who are we?
Where do we belong?
The research of this theme was the main motivation that guided me through the process of writing the script. That is what the film White Lies – Tuakiri Huna is all about.

Tradition or assimilation? Tolerance or denial? Life or death? Utu or a covenant of peace?

To place such questions and find the answers, I changed the inner motivation of the characters and the dramatic dynamics between them. the intention behind this narrative structure is to provide each one of the characters in the film with the role of expressing and embodying their search. Paraiti, Rebecca Vickers, Maraea and the unborn baby are shaped in the film to give voice and meaning to the very core of the discovery and creation of their true identities. The dramatic element that ignites and fuels the narrative of this film is the experience of motherhood, the primal and universal symbol of identity, continuity and life.

In the film, Paraiti, Rebecca Vickers and Maraea – our three main characters – are bonded by a pregnancy that each one of them faces from different and opposing perspectives. An unborn child, the very symbol of hope and the future, becomes a main character in the story, imposing on each one of these women inescapable confrontations. The challenges and choices that Paraiti, Rebecca Vickers and Maraea face will finally guide each to find out who they are and where they belong, even when such a discovery leads to a tragic destiny.

The journey of these women is not only a symbol of how the fabric of contemporary New Zealand was woven, but also a fable of hope in a world still not aware of the very simple truth that the choice of creation over destruction, tolerance instead of oppression, is the only possible way.

Q: Could you write a little bit about the differences between colonization processes in Mexico and New Zealand and how these differences may have affected your approach to the script and to the film’s style?

It’s a paradox because colonization – no matter where and when – is the same. It may be 500 years ago in Latin America by the Spanish Crown or it may be 200 years ago here in New Zealand or it could be in the West Bank today. Taking over somebody else’s land, culture, language is an act of brutal violence and the consequences are devastating. It’s the same for men and women: if a man takes over the power of his wife. Any exercise of power and authority through an act of violence is the same regardless. So in general I think it’s the same thing. When you dispossess people of their land and their way of life, when you suppress the right of someone to exercise their identity and understanding of the world all what you create is death.

No matter the historical differences of when and where colonization may take place, at the end of the day, suppressing, taking away, killing and assuming that because you’re the powerful you have the right to own and govern over others, is the same horrible experience no matter where in the world you find it.

In terms of how that understanding affected my approach to this story – it’s fundamental because I know what colonization is from within. The only difference is that I’ve seen how 500 years later, the indigenous cultures of my country have almost been decimated. To see how Maori honour their tikanga and how they relate to the land, their language, their social structure, their understanding of the universe… All that is profoundly alive and it’s still a sacred experience of life. It’s a privilege to be able to witness that.


Q: White Lies/Tuakiri Huna is a Bechdel Test film. What's important to you when you make films about women and how does White Lies/Tuakiri Huna fit within your other work?

I am a female and I come from a family where there were four girls – my mother and her three daughters. What I love about this film - and it’s something that was always in my head when I was writing the adaptation - is what happens in the moment when the male closes the door and goes into the world, to work, to provide, to produce. In that moment, another universe opens and awakens and it disappears and goes dormant again when the male comes back. That is a feeling that I always wanted to convey in this film…what happens in this villa in the absence of the man in what becomes a solely female universe.

The woman is the one who carries the baby, who crosses the desert to survive, who provides the food from within her body… She is in charge of identity, reproduction, protection, survival and that is the universe that opens up lonce the door is closed and the male presence is absent.

This is not a narrative structure that I’ve used in other films so this film is unique in that way.

Q. Is this a New Zealand film or a Mexican one?

It’s both.

Q: Does your consistent emphasis on stories about women make your films’ geographical and cultural contexts less important?

The gender label is much less important than the human experience.

Q. How do you sustain simple themes without becoming simplistic?

I put a lot of work into the script. I really work very hard and I try to go as deep as I can in the process of scriptwriting. I talk to my characters…I ask them…and sometimes they send me to hell… they tell me ‘you’re wrong’, ‘you’re lying’ or ‘you’re changing me in order to convey your thesis’.

To be honest I feel flattered by the observation you have made, I wasn’t really aware of it but probably that’s because I work with the script and with the characters so the intensity of my focus is in that place. I guess it’s about drilling down to the essence of the character and that gives it the appearance of simplicity.

l-r Rachel House as Maraea, Antonia Prebble as Rebecca Vickers and Whirimako Black as Paraiti

Q: In White Lies/Tuakiri Huna, you have three women involved in a difficult triangular relationship and arguably portray Paraiti as 'good' and Maraea as 'bad’ or less engaging. Did you consider more complex characterizations for them or was that simplicity necessary for the story? Was what Maraea did an act of defiance from a person not content with the station assigned to her by a classist society?

SPOILER ALERT The specific origin of Maraea is that she has to survive. She is the one who got trapped with her fingers in the door. She’s a half-caste herself. She has suffered all the abuse and the humiliations of being dispossessed and of not belonging to one side or the other. All she wants is to prevent her daughter to go through the same. For me that’s not the right strategy but that’s an act of profound love as a mother. She got it wrong but she loves her daughter. And that is the beauty of that character and it’s exactly what doesn’t make her a villain. SPOILER ALERT ENDS

I think one of the challenges of this film is that none of the characters is good or bad, they are both good and bad like we all are. We all have dark places and we can be horrible and we have beautiful places and that is the composition of the universe so if that’s complex then so be it!

I think that in the case of Maraea, she is a survivor at a time when there are no strategies yet developed to survive so she has to do it on the go and that’s the best she can do. I know that in the history of this country it happened. It happened brutally and horribly and people are, by generations, still suffering the scars of being rejected by one side and humiliated by the other.

One of the miracles of filmmaking is that each one of us gets the material and we bring it inside and there’s a sort of alchemy that happens when that material combines with our own historical and emotional elements and the result is what appears on the screen.

Rachel House as Maraea

The alchemy that Rachel House brings through her own whakapapa, her own understanding of who she is, her own contradictions and knowledge, everything she is plus the exquisite spectrum that she has as an actress, she created a Maraea that is way beyond what I gave her. Through her own self and her skills as an actress she created an extremely complex and moving and brutally cold and vulnerable woman. That’s the blessing of cinema. You have to hand the character over to the actress and she has to make it happen. You can direct and tell but the soul of it belongs to the actress and I was the luckiest person in the world with these women in this film.

Q: Is White Lies/Tuakiri Huna ultimately a kind of fairy story or folktale, a morality tale or an allegory, not only about identity conflict and about restitution but also about abortion?

The story is not about abortion at all, it’s about motherhood and identity and structures of power and survival devices. I don’t think that abortion is an issue here. It’s not a theme at all.

I do work in terms of fables. That’s the way I work all my films and that’s why I don’t mind going to historical stories as long as the archetypes work and the fable tells the story, I think that’s what matters to me.

Q: Otilia Rauda was also set at the beginning of the 20th century. Why is that period significant for you?

It’s not about the period or the setting, it’s really very much about the story and how I’m drawn to it.

Antonia Prebble as Rebecca Vickers
Q: For us the birthing scenes in the basement have a very painterly quality. As a feminist filmmaker who are the artists that inspire you and why? These scenes also contain images that seem very Catholic to us and we wonder if the Catholic Church is one of your influences and how Catholicism affects your point of view.

Specifically for the basement I had something in my mind. It’s something that you have when you work with the creative team…in this case it was art designer Tracey Collins and the DP Alun Bollinger. Both of them brought to the equation their own understanding of the visual richness of the scene. In the script it’s described as a tight, warm, bloody womb. For me the colour and the lighting was always referring me to the Spanish painter Goya, and of course, to the Catholic iconography. That imagery is in my system because I grew up seeing it in Mexico. Yes there’s the Virgin Mary and the sacrifice and the pieta – there is a strong Catholic iconography in my visual system and it’s been in all my films and it’s part of my cultural make-up.

Q: You worked very closely with Tangiora Tawhara, with Meriann and Richard White of Oputao marae at Ruatahuna, and Meriann's sister, filmmaker Kararaina Rangihau, was your primary cultural advisor. What effect did this have on what appears on screen?

There is information about these people in the acknowledgements section of the book specifically. These people had an integral part in the scriptwriting and the production process. Kararaina was there all the way from beginning to end. Every word was approved by them, the translation word-by-word was done in the marae.

Even when we had to make a change, they were part of the consultation process. For example, we were supposed to shoot a scene that was not in the final cut of the film but was at Paraiti’s camp site by a river. During the night before there was a viciously brutal storm and when we went to the location at 7am the next day we found it was destroyed. The river had flooded and there was no way we could shoot there. And we didn’t have the luxury to rebuild the set or even to come back tomorrow. I needed to react immediately. So I thought we’re going to shoot interior wharenui but it was a scene that was supposed to be exterior wharenui.

If we hadn’t been in the cultural setting we were in, I would have just made the decision and instructed my crew accordingly. But before even opening my mouth I went to Richard White and asked him ‘am I allowed to shoot this scene inside the wharenui?’. Firstly, I needed to know that it was correct in terms of the tikanga; secondly, was to ask whether it was historically possible and that we weren’t breaking any tapu; and thirdly ‘are you comfortable that we do this in your wharenui?’. So that’s just one example. But I would never have shot anything if I had not have had the approval, the blessing and the participation of the people who were hosting us – culturally, logistically and in terms of location. I worked with these people for a number of years before the final script was brought to production. Once the script was finalized and accepted and, in many places, changed by the three cultural advisors (Kararaina, Tangiora and Whitiaua) and the community, only then did I go ahead.

Q: What made you want to get a moko? What is the story represented by the design? Why was this an important mark for you to make at this time in your life?

That’s a personal thing. There is an acknowledgement in the book to the person who did it but that’s as much as I am prepared to say.

Q: SPOILER ALERT The turning point in Paraiti’s feelings toward Rebecca appears to have been caused by her failure to retrieve the whenua (placenta) of the stillborn child belonging to the young mother who died at the maternity hospital from the rubbish bins. According to Maori belief all human tissue needs to be dealt with in a particular and respectful way. Was this a foreign concept for you to get your head around or have you experienced similar cultural practices in your own homeland?

Absolutely this was a new concept to me. In the Jewish tradition there is the brit milah which is a totally different procedure as the burial of the whenua but I think it sits in the same place: through an expression of our physical entity we create a covenant with god. In the Jewish tradition this runs through the male penis as a source of life and the Maori tradition it goes directly to the female source of life via the whenua. But of course the way in which the brit milah has been taken on, at least in the modern Mexican Jewish community is something quite different to the value of the whenua in the Maori treadition. So it took me a lot of time and it was after much reading and listening watching the materials in the archives to really grasp the essence of this tradition in the Maori culture. I don’t even think I was really capable of really holding the whole dimension of the value of this practice. I had just enough of a grasp to create this part of the story. It was not in the original novella and it was added to the film just to hold the femininity of the story. If I could have named this film I would have called it Whenua, that was the natural title for this film. SPOILER ALERT ENDS

Q: As well as having trusted advisors, how do you handle writing and working in a language which is not your mother tongue?

I’ve been bilingual since I was six years old. I went to a Jewish school in Mexico and my first three hours of school were Hebrew classes of Tanach so my brain has been wired from a young age in two languages. And I’ve lived most of my adult life in countries where Spanish is not the native language and I had to learn the language of where I was living… I have lived longer in non Spanish speaking countries by now… That helps of course.

Discovering the poetic layers not only the words but of the grammar in Maori, through the translation of the script, revealed to me a totally new dimension of how te reo Maori language functions. It was absolutely beautiful to hear that language spoken and the the music of it was perfectly imprinted in my brain during the process of this film… And while I was following it, there were three people always on set who were guarding the integrity of the reo.

Q: You're probably familiar with Barry Barclay's ideas about the way that a crew affects the filmmaking because of the 'eyes' that they bring. We guess that Alun Bollinger's skills and experiences in the bush as well as on camera affected the beauty and freshness of the images of the ngahere; we've never seen the forest so lush and full of life.

Without AlBol, this would have been a totally different film. He brought amazing beauty and amazing grace to it. He really supported the film and supported me. He gave incredibly valuable feedback even way back in the writing process and thanks to his vision I changed a lot in the script.

His input meant that even before we approached the set I had a partner, a filmmaking partner. And that doesn’t mean that sometimes we didn’t clash. We did clash because sometimes we both had different perspectives of seeing through the camera. BUT the story we wanted to see was there and he was supportive of how I wanted to make the film. And there were days where I was absolutely exhausted, where my brains just couldn’t function and he was there and he was able to sort out things that I couldn’t sort out. I will always thank him for that.

Q: The White Lies/Tuakiri Huna crew is mostly men and mostly pakeha. How did you manage these influences on an intimate film about indigenous women's lives? Did you have to compromise/modify your vision, or feel it be modified/compromised?

I don’t fragment and I don’t label. I just work with people on the story. And if you work from a place of honesty and integrity the best of all of us emerges beyond our gender and beyond the colour of our skin.

Q: Apparently White Lies/Tuakiri Huna had its wings clipped by the censors”. What did the censors make you drop and was that hard?

None of the film was cut by censors.


Q: The soundscape and the music are beautiful and John Psathas has written at length about what a rich experience it was to work on it with you, that what is very powerful about White Lies/Tuakiri Huna is “that it doesn’t flinch from what it’s about”. And that you take on very difficult things and don’t shy away from them. He was really attracted to the film’s raw power, because from his point of view if he is going to write music for something he’s looking for “…an outlet as a composer that allows a kind of intensity, and a kind of depth, and a reality and truth about things” as someone “who’s drawn to… the places where there’s suffering and pain, because then I want to think about how you can make something better.”

What was your experience of working with John Psathas? He became involved at the end of the first edit. Do you always leave working with a composer until quite late? Why? And do you too work at the places where there’s suffering and pain so that you and the audience can think about how to make things better? Or are there other reasons?

I don’t work in a specific way. Usually I don’t put too much music in my films. Out of all of my films, this is probably the one in which music has the most story-telling emotional presence. In most of my other films, the music just comes from the situation, from a radio or just part of the real life of the story that I’m telling. So this is the first time that it really plays a part in the narrative and it has a profound emotional voice.

So because the nature of the music in this film is so different to that of other films that I’ve made, I treated it in a different way. Usually I have the music from within the script, I know what song will play at what moment and why. This was not the case with White Lies. And it was the best ever combination. Really the perfect equation – AlBol and John Psathas hold the film, one from each side like two angels holding up each side of the banner. They are like the two cherubs on each side of me!


Q: Did you intend that White Lies/Tuakiri Huna would become one of the films described by Barry Barclay Mana Tuturu, a Maori work that increases 'in vigour and relevance' for its primary audience as the decades pass?

Outside of any theoretical attitudes or approach, the most immediate wish I have is that the story reaches the heart of people. That’s the first thing. Once a story lands in the heart of the viewer, the viewer allows the story to be told. I do really hope that this film can open if not a debate, a conversation about colonialism, racism, suppression – issues that are very much alive in this country. They are under the carpet and it’s not politically correct to talk about them, but they’re present. I believe that if you don’t know your history you will never heal your wounds and this is a very wounded country. There is a lot of sorrow. So also my wish for this film is to heal. If some of the sorrows of the people can be healed through this story by acknowledging the historical background that holds New Zealand today, I would be the happiest human being in the world. And it only starts by touching the heart of the people who watch the film.

Q: Who do you see as your other potential audiences? White Lies/Tuakiri Huna engages with universal issues affecting women across culture and generation. But it’s set among the experience of a people relatively unknown outside of this country and in the last century. Does this limit the audience?

Everything is unknown until it’s known. This is a film which tells a story but that story has universal resonance so it should speak to whoever is interested in identity, motherhood and colonization.


Q: What's next for you?

For me ‘what’s next’ is being a happy mum to my beautiful daughter. I’m really happy for me to be back in my life. I missed it and it’s good to be back. Like all the films I do, I really put my life into this one and they all become a really profound and important part of my life. They are not just films, they are children for me and right now I’m not ready for another one – at all! After the pains of labour, I don’t want to know about another baby just at the moment. Even if there was a story on the horizon one day in the future, at this moment I love my life on my own, in my house, with my kid, with my dog.

White Lies|Tuakiri Huna site
Latest links to White Lies|Tuakiri Huna reviews, articles etc
Maori TV at the premiere

Wellywood Woman on Dana Rotberg
New Zealand Update and a Warm Welcome to Mexican Filmmaker Dana Rotberg
Start From Your Own Heart: The Wisdom of Dana Rotberg in 16 Elegant Tweets
New Zealand Update 2: State Funding (in passing)

Isabel Arredondo's interview with Dana Rotberg (sometime between 1995 and 1998) is in her In Our Own Image: An Oral History of Mexican Women Filmmakers (1988-1994), available for download here.

Cushla Parekowhai and Wellywood Woman
Duet for Merata Mita 1942-2010
They Might Have Completely Forgotten Us

Coming soon I hope, but having code problems: New Zealand Herald's clips of interviews with Dana, John Barnett (producer) and Whirimako Black.