Berlinale Dispatch #6: Pietra Brettkelly and Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti on Maori Boy Genius

FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
NINA FOWLER talks to the director/producer and star of Maori Boy Genius, one of two Kiwi feature films at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

Judging by the audience response at the premiere in Berlin, Maori Boy Genius is well placed to follow the success of Pietra Brettkelly’s last narrative feature, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins.

Her new doco tells the story of 16-year-old Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti—bilingual, bicultural and already showing political leadership—during a pivotal year for him and his family. He beats the odds to win a place at Yale University’s prestigious summer school. On his return, he takes his first major political steps.

Pietra and Ngaa Rauuira, now 18, spoke with me about the journey to Berlin and their plans for the future.

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NINA FOWLER: Pietra, you said at the premiere you heard about Ngaa through a friend of a friend and flew to Napier to meet him. What happened next?

PIETRA BRETTKELLY: Joanna Paul, one of the producers, and I flew down and we met Ngaa Rauuira and his dad… There was no point me embarking on this story if I met him, he was monosyllabic and didn’t like me. It’s a long journey; people get really sick of us being around with our camera. Unless they’re invested and I can see they have a screen presence or a possibility of one then there’s no point going on. But I could see that immediately. He was compelling, the dreams were his and he had something to say.

So then we got funding. It was initially funding through NZ On Air for a Maori Television TV documentary. That went to air last year. But I realised there was something bigger in the story and that it had legs beyond a TV documentary.

I carried on filming and editing for quite some time, flew to Denmark and edited the film with Molly Stensgaard. And she took it to this extraordinary place.

NF: I wanted to ask about Molly—one of her most recent projects was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. How did you get in touch with her?

PB: I was accepted into this programme called the Binger Doc Lab. It’s a film school in Amsterdam, quite a famous, select school that has traditionally taken drama filmmakers. Sima Urale’s been there, Florian Habicht, Greg King (all fellow New Zealand filmmakers)…

A few years ago they decided to do a documentary programme. They’re never going to do one again, we were so expensive—they flew us back and forth to Amsterdam for two years. There were nine of us from around the world selected. We workshopped one film each and so I workshopped Maori Boy Genius. Through that, you meet all these incredible people who work with your new film and Molly was one of them. She got the film straight away. I’ve never met anybody who’s so perceptive.

NF: I thought the film had a really fantastic narrative structure to it. More so than your typical non-fiction documentary. Did that just fall into place?

PB: I wanted the story to hinge on drama more than chronology and Molly ran with that as well… For her, the whole film is haka. She’d say that all the time and she doesn’t just mean in the physical, just doing the haka. She means in the rhythm of the film and in the intentions of the film—in that, in the haka, it showed the strength and the conviction of Ngaa Rauuira, but it also touched on the historical nature of protest, of empowerment… So for her, it encompassed so much of what he was about.

And certainly there are moments of the haka throughout the film and in the rhythm of the music. Anika Moa wrote the music and I said to her, the reference is the haka. She was conscious of that.

NF: There are obvious considerations about using participants who are so young and also making sure you’ve got the cultural context right. How did you make sure those two things were achieved?

PK: Everyone I filmed agreed to be filmed so that’s just a given. And then I had a cultural advisor who’s also a dear friend of mine and has worked on other films that I’ve made—Chaz Doherty. He’s been an amazing backbone for me for the film.

NF: You’re no stranger to projects that raise really interesting, provocative questions. Is it easier to work on a project closer to home or further away?

PB: No, it’s no easier and no harder. There are issues in any level of filmmaking and they’re all different issues.

NF: But as a New Zealander, did you find it—I guess, when you’re figuring out how to play it, did you find it harder to work on something so close to home?

PB: I was aware that there are a lot more people who are going to think that they have their say in it. Because everyone thinks that they know the situation and they know what the film is about… So you play with that more. The issues of personality and relationships and awareness and that sort of thing, definitely. But then it was easier because I know the situation and I have contacts, I know the region and I can call on people, so it works both ways really.

I think that’s the thing that keeps me going. There are such wonderful things and then such challenges with filmmaking. There’s a group of international filmmaker friends of ours and we email or Skype each other and go, how are you going on that learning curve? Because you make a film and it has huge heartache—there are always breakdowns and I cry a lot—and you think, the next one, I won’t do x, y, and z. And you don’t do x, y and z but you do a, b and c and that gets you into issues. I don’t think the learning curve ever stops, unfortunately.

NF: Ngaa, you’ve got your own journey and I’d like to ask you about the next steps for you. Do you think this film adds to the expectations on you?

NGAA RAUUIRA PUMANAWAWHITI: It certainly expands the range of consciousness around that, around expectations. Not so much particular to the film, but people often ask me about the weight of expectations. And so I remain consistent in the answer. I tell them it’s a double-edged sword. There’s a sense of… pride and strength and reinvigoration that I receive from it but at the same time the weight can be tremendous. And so it’s a gift and a curse in that sense. But I’ve always understood that this film contains stories I have to share with people. At times when the expectations may become a burden, it’s just a sacrifice I have to make.

NF: Are you able to summarise your mission, your vision for what you want to achieve, in a couple of sentences?

NRP: Redress, reform, revitalisation, survival and a search for a new exodus… a search for a new life, a new place to reside.

NF: For your iwi, for Maori?

NRP: For New Zealand. It’s a story that crosses cultural divides and in which all peoples can take from, but certainly I have to start with Maori. And from there I build a platform to reach out to wider New Zealand and then to other indigenous peoples and then indeed to the world.

NF: On an issue-by-issue basis? For example “the Marine and Coastal Area Bill, here’s my stance on that”?

NRP: Yes and no. Again, it’s a search for new exoduses. So when something comes in line to compromise that, I have to try my best to challenge it.

NF: What’s next for both of you?

NRP: I’m staying in New Zealand and certainly want to sustain an amount, a degree of education, but this year isn’t really about university education in that sense. This year is about education, of finding direction. I mean certainly the film gives direction but a lot of things are yet to be determined… So that’s what this year will be about. It’ll be about finding myself, really, looking inward and really establishing where to from now. I’ll be 18; I’ll be an adult. I’ll be growing to maturity and so I have to find my roots and find out… I mean, I know what my purpose in life is but how do I go about that? Where do I start from? Where am I heading? I know what I’m heading towards but I don’t know where that is.

NF: I think a lot of us are like that.

PK: It never stops. But this is a great year. He’ll be on his own in another city—still got the wider family support there of course—and starting to study…

NRP: It’s a spreading of the wings.

NF: And you, Pietra?

PB: I’ve got a couple of films that I’ve been working on. One is still in research mode. It’s to be shot in Afghanistan. I was there in 2006 and it’s an idea that’s been fermenting since then. And the other is in India and I’ve already been filming—I’m already starting on that one. So, yeah, just thinking about the next big one.

Nina Fowler’s dispatches for The Lumière Reader will continue beyond the Berlin International Film Festival, which ran from February 9-19.