Indivisible: Mäori-Päkehä Hybridity in Aotearoa New Zealand Cinema

Dr Davinia Thornley
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My paper deals with representations of Mäori (indigenous New Zealanders) and Päkehä (Caucasian New Zealanders) interdependence in two national feature films, "Ngäti" (1987, Barry Barclay) and "Mauri" (1988, Mereta Mita). I show how these films "tell stories" about constructed national ideas of culture, race, and history, becoming important instruments in the debates about relations between Mäori and Päkehä. In addition this study is linked into larger ongoing re-imaginings of the nation, imaginings played out in a variety of national cinemas struggling with increasing global pressures.

"Ngäti" was the first feature film ever produced by Mäori. Critical reviews tended to be much more positive for Barclay's vision than for Mita's. Using Janet Staiger's theory of Historical Materialist Reception (HMR), I examine responses to each film from around the time of their release dates in order to ascertain why the two films received such disparate reactions. I will also address the limits of this type of study — as Staiger herself acknowledges — by comparing these responses with those from recent ethnographic focus group work I undertook with Mäori about "Ngäti and Mauri".

This paper first introduces the cultural climate surrounding the production and release of both "Ngäti and Mauri", including the role of the New Zealand Film Commission in funding and distributing both films. Secondly, I examine archived responses to see why such diverse reactions surrounded the two films by highlighting the reasons reviewers and writers gave for their subsequent praise or concern. I then contrast these responses with the material collected from four focus groups I conducted on "Ngäti and Mauri", in which Mäori offered very different reactions. I use this case study to reflect on the inherent limits of both HMR studies and focus group work, as well as to emphasize the importance of theoretical pluralism in undertaking reception work.

Keywords: Aotearoa, Audiences, Barclay, Cinema, Ethnography, Historical Materialist Reception, Mäori, Mauri, Mita, National, New Zealand, Ngäti, Päkehä, Race, Reception, Staiger
Stream: First Nations and Indigenous Peoples
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Indivisible

Dr Davinia Thornley

Assistant Professor, Critical Studies, Film and Electronic Arts, California State University, Long Beach

Davinia Thornley is an Assistant Professor of Critical Studies in the Film and Electronic Arts Department at California State University, Long Beach. Originally from New Zealand, she has published articles ('Film Criticism, National Identities' (U.K.)) and a book chapter ('Film Studies: Women in Contemporary World Cinema') on nationality and New Zealand cinema. Her current project is an ethnographic study of how cinema literally crosses the borders of nation-states and creates a sense of community among dispersed New Zealand citizens.

Ref: H05P0083