A discussion on Maori instrumental traditions, taonga puoro torch bearer Richard Nunns, and music and culture in documentary Voices of the Land: Nga Reo o te Whenua.
Paul Wolffram’s marvellous Voices of the Land: Nga Reo o te Whenua looks at taonga puoro pioneer, Richard Nunns. It’s hard to describe this film—it’s not quite a biography, nor is it an educational film—and yet it’s an incredibly rich portrait of Nunns, a wise, eye (and ear) opening film in the way it challenges us to re-examine what we ought to consider music. The interplay between landscape, sound, and Nunns’s pithy one-liners makes for a unique and arresting experience.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: I know your background is in ethnomusicology. How did you end up in film?
PAUL WOLFFRAM: When I was in Papua New Guinea doing my PhD, I was going there to study music and dance, and before I left, given my experience with other Pacific communities, I thought it’d be great to film some of their dance. When I got to Papua New Guinea, the local community took a real interest. It’s an isolated community with not much contact with the outside world. They were really interested in the camera and what it could do. They’re an oral culture and they have an oral literature, and their ability to conceive how stories would work and tell them in pictures was something they were really intrigued with. That’s how Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales (2011) came about. I was filming dance and music all of the time and at one point I asked them, “should we make a film together?” They were keen on it and we decided to talk film. I slowly realised what I thought was a historical narrative they were actually telling in the present tense. It was through that process, I thought, “how can I make this palatable to an outside audience?” Eventually I incorporated myself into the storytelling as the narrative device through which we come to understand the story. When I was still doing my PhD, I did a feature documentary called Sign of the Times (2006), which is about the official recognition of New Zealand Sign Language, and working with disability communities and telling their stories. I’ve been working in this sort of area, cultural narrative filmmaking, but not a traditional documentary take. I’m trying to make each documentary a radical departure from the last.
BG: You’re subverting traditional ethnographic style of an outsider going in and leaving.
PW: In fact, I’m going to Papua New Guinea in December this year for another six weeks to finish a documentary I’ve been working on, about the sorcerers in the region. Again, what’s important is my relationship with the people and how I’ve come to understand sorcery as something other than this bizarre thing that ‘black people’ do in the forest, so the audience can enter into their worldview and understand it.
BG: It’s as Richard Nunns said in Voices from the Land: you don’t want to be somebody who walks in and walks out once you’ve get what you wanted.
PW: That’s right. I met Richard way back when I was an undergraduate. Richard was an inspiration for me as an ethnomusicologist, a model of the way to engage with other cultures and to keep engaged. Richard has continued to have involvement. My idea is that I would always try to return at least every five years, if I can get the money to go more often, I would. He has presented me with as good a model to have continual engagement, and that’s how you get deep. Richard shows in the film the depth of his understanding has not only changed the understanding of the culture, but how he perceives the landscape and sound around him.
BG: I was interested in how much of Nunns’s ideas came out in the way you decided to film the film and put it together?
PW: I was interested in making a film about the revival, and Richard as this strange Pakeha deep in the Maori world. He was not so interested in a biography film about himself. He has long been wanting to do this idea, Nga Reo o te Whenua, Voices of the Land. He’s been interested in trying to explore this. My problem as a filmmaker was to make this into a narrative that audiences can take up. Rather than abstract images, you have to allow them to enter into the world. That’s what I hope Voices of the Land achieves. What are these instruments, how have they disappeared, and going through a bit of the revival and the process by which that happened and how this Pakeha got to be in that world. And also in an engagement with sound, and the sound of the land being more than noise, more than bird noise or river noise. People can begin to conceive of these things as musical things. Many Maori have no problem with thinking about it in these ways because of their different relationships with landscapes and the land they live on. This film is aimed at Pakeha audiences predominantly, not to educate—that’s not a very good word—but to get them to begin to understand ways in which landscape and the voices of the land can be heard. These are quite abstract concepts to talk about now, but I hope the film will allow the audience to access this in an accessible way and they will come out of the film with this new understanding of landscapes.
BG: The thing I loved most about the film is the rhythm. It doesn’t follow a traditional narrative.
PW: Partly I’m indebted to Annie Collins, the editor, whose ability to help me find the story in these many streams of part biography, part revival, part historical narrative, and part the artwork I was hoping this film to be as well.
BG: You use the landscape in a very everyday way, but obviously New Zealand’s landscape is pretty remarkable.
PW: We’re gifted in that way. Of course, the collaboration with Alun Bollinger was another amazing thing. Not only because he has an eye that’s been on New Zealand landscape for thirty years, but also Al brought to the crew a maturity, and most of my crew were fairly young and reasonably inexperienced. He brought an attitude that was able to create a focus, and an atmosphere that we could relax but also do it in a professional way. I was really lucky to have him. He was the oldest person in the crew, after a ten day shoot, we’d all be pretty exhausted that night at the hotel, we’d be outside having a chat, and he’d be fixing the downpipe and getting a screwdriver and hammering into the night when everybody else was collapsed on the floor. He’s an amazing man, amazing energy.
BG: So you knew Nunns from quite a young age. When did you decide you wanted to film him?
PW: It had been in my mind for quite a long time, but Richard and his manager Jamie Bull have been very careful about who tells the story and how. While Richard’s had a relationship through our mentor, he was somewhat predisposed to trust me a little bit; it’s pretty risky to allow access to someone to your story and give them free rein. He hasn’t seen the final film. The last time he saw it was in February when we had a pretty much finished rough cut. The first thing he expressed to me afterwards was relief. He felt the story was dealt with well and it was what he hoped with the Voices of the Land side of the narrative, that we made that accessible to an audience. The idea of the film has been in my mind for a good ten years, but it was only since finishing Stori Tumbuna and having it in the festival here, that I approached Catherine Fitzgerald to help me produce this bigger work. That was also a really lucrative relationship—to have such an experienced producer behind the film.
BG: I suppose your background of knowing both film and music would have helped.
PW: Yeah, it has been an attraction in all of my films: understanding, music, culture, and visual images.
BG: Was he an easy subject to work with?
PW: No, he’s a pain in the arse [laughs]. He’s got great humour and plays the role a little bit too often of being the dodgy old man, walking along, and then he’ll give you a kick in the shins. He probably quite enjoys working with me, the verbal play, back and forth, though not much of that really gets into the film. But his playfulness with language, he enjoys this stuff and he would give me quite a bit of ribbing through interviews. It made for a nice atmosphere and gave a playful feeling to the film.
A lot of traditional Maori instruments can become quite austere at times and a bit serious, and he’s a great one for just lightening the mood, and remembering what we’re doing here is music and exploration, which should be done with an open mind. It’s a joyful thing, it’s not all about… Maori instruments, and this was one thing I was determined not to do in the film. Taonga puoro is now ubiquitous in our culture—every time there’s a New Zealand movie that comes out, it has some taonga puoro in it. There’s a sort of unspoken acceptance of it when you’ve got a spooky moment in your film [makes a rrrrrr sound] ever since Once Were Warriors. They opened the Rugby World Cup; you’ve got people playing putorino, and all sorts of stuff in quieter moments in TV shows; you’ve got a solo koauau playing, for that spooky atmosphere. And it often adds that austerity associated with it. I wanted to expand beyond that. I saw When A City Falls, and that opens with shots over Christchurch with mountains in the background. And then you’ve got this rrrrrr feeling of unease that comes in. It’s as clichéd in our culture as strings underlining a moment of tension in a horror film. As Richard has shown us, it can be taken to all sorts of environments: jazz musicians, hip-hop artists, as well as traditional settings. He’s made a home for them in the modern culture.
My relationship with Richard is one that’s gone on for a long time and he likes to play around and I enjoy him. It’s bloody painful trying to get him to a location. We arrive in a location and we have to be beside this river, I’ve got to watch the clock as I’m directing and producing the damn thing, and Horomona [Horo] and he would be walking down the path, and it’s only 20 metres, but they would stop every two metres and play with the plants and start talking with us. Richard would start talking to Horomona and asking what is this plant, what’s the scientific name. Horomona knows a lot of this stuff and would repeat it, but there was this constant dialogue going on. I tried to capture this feel, the way he walks into landscapes, but trying to keep to a production schedule with those two! There’s a moment in the film where it’s really like that, where they’re playing with rocks and banging on trees—it expresses some of the difficulty to get anywhere on time.
BG: How important is he in the New Zealand context and the cultural landscape?
PW: I value him greatly for what he’s done in New Zealand music; he’s got APRA awards and lifetime achievement awards. I think Te Ku Te Whe, the album he did with [Hirini] Melbourne, has gone platinum several times over, which is pretty amazing for spooky flute music from bones and stones. It really reached an audience that was pretty wide, especially considering just how obscure the music was at the start. There is this joke: get three ethnomusicologists in a room and you have a conference going on. He has reached into a wider public. He’s well-known around the country by a surprising number of people, because of his mantra of saying yes to everybody. That extends to films and music collaborations, and other weird stuff. Somebody said to me once, “he played at my wedding.” I asked, “how did that come about?” He said, “I saw him once playing and I wandered up and asked him, ‘can I get an album to play at our wedding?’ ‘When’s your wedding?’ He put it in his diary and said, ‘I’ll be there, just pay for my flights and give me a meal.’” He loves people and he thrives on people, and that’s partly why he enjoyed the filmmaking process. If he had control, it would have gone on for another three years. He wanted us to go on all sorts of places, like White Island. Three years of Richard Nunns taking up my life was enough. I enjoy him and he’s great fun.
BG: How did your view of New Zealand landscape change with the film?
PW: I saw some pretty remarkable places in making the film and scouting it and sorting stuff out. My mind has long been open to sound. At one point in the film Richard talks about Allan Thomas, who was our mentor, the chief musicologist at the [Victoria] School of Music, and the way Allan encouraged us to think outside of the box. What’s going on in front of you is only a small part of what you’re seeing. How is the audience reacting? Richard recounts what Allan used to say really well in that respect. My own understanding of how to listen to landscapes and understand the environment was pretty vast compared to most of the audience who’ll be there.
The ability to explore some of these South Island landscapes is just incredible. We had this screening at Park Road Post and the guy there, he used to be the head of NZ On Air, so obviously he’s worked around music and images for a long time. He emailed me and said he saw two documentaries on music that week he saw our film. The other one was on Chopin. He understands Chopin work, he knows his work well, the film was interesting, but what he said was Chopin was a master of arranging certain patterns and pictures we’re all familiar with, and he’s never thought of the way that landscape and the sounds in the natural environment could be interpreted as music before. To me, surely you must have? But I’ve been working in this realm for a long time. Most people don’t think about this, to them, there’s no difference between the noise in the city and the noise that’s in the bush. Richard’s onto something with this—the association between taonga puoro and the natural environment sounds. That’s where our sound design helps our audience enter into the world, that sort of squeaky edge tone. He describes it as something integral to what the instrument is trying to achieve, and when you’re in the bush environment listening closely to what’s going on there, there’s all sorts of amazing things that enter your mind almost literally, thinking about sound as beyond prearranged predetermined patterns of notes. Hopefully this film would open up the eyes and ears to what is going around us and appreciate it in a different way.
BG: Has that been something that has been completed ignored—that Western ideas of music since colonisation have taken over and we haven’t thought of landscape, etc.?
PW: Richard points that out in the film very well. He says, it’s hard for Westerners to even conceive of what Maori were trying to do with these instruments. When Europeans arrived here, we’d already had such strong musical traditions of set patterns and notes and pictures, that were determined to such an extent that if it was half a tone out from what it should be, everybody thought of it as wrong. So for the Western mind to begin to understand how music can exist out of those confines is still a challenge today. While we like to think ourselves as having much broader [understanding], even the most radical arrhythmic stuff coming out of pop music is still very tonal and we don’t think outside of those boxes very well. We need to be shown and directed by our ears by this stuff. I think it’s important because if we don’t value the acoustic environments, they will disappear. That’s Richard’s thing. The world is full up with cars going by. Most of the world has lost the opportunity to think in these ways.
It’d be interesting to see how this goes internationally. Some of it won’t be accessible to audiences abroad—the Maori-Pakeha relationship won’t ever be accessible to them, but some aspects will. It’d be fascinating to see with an audience in Tokyo, New York, or London, where they spend their entire life in a city. Those can be understood musically as well. We forget how lucky we are in New Zealand. We can walk 20 minutes out of Wellington and be in a pretty amazing natural space. The people who live in New York, they have no conception of how a natural space sounds like, and how to listen to it. I’m hoping these parts of the film will be eye-opening and ear-opening for international audiences. You’ve got to make a film for your own people. When you try to cater for international audiences, it comes across as fake and disingenuous. When you make a film that feels true to you and your home audience, that will travel, even if they can access certain sides, they can still access the truth in it. They can feel there’s something true in there. How many films have you given up on when you feel like it’s not real? You’re being fed a line, that can be a fiction or documentary, but you can only get so far in a documentary film. Sometimes I really enjoy Herzog’s films; sometimes I feel like he’s ramping up the drama to have more impact and to make it more dramatic. When you feel like you’re being lied to you lose all trust in the filmmaker.
BG: The film felt very wise to me and wonder if it’s because Nunns had these great one-liners.
PW: I wish I could have got a few more of them.
BG: Or if it’s simply because he’s opened up a new way of seeing things.
PW: He has got a way of addressing things. He’s so practised in introducing people to these ideas and the instruments. He’s done it internationally, nationally, in so many environments, from youngsters to old people. I was with him in China on a trip, where again Chinese audiences were drawn into what he was saying, and the way he puts himself across. Of course, he spent thirty years as a teacher, in secondary school, so he’s got this way of communicating that’s great. I attribute some of hopefully this wiseness, to be having enough understanding myself. I knew how to guide it. Again, Annie Collins, such an experienced editor, not necessarily locked into creating a three-act structure, or creating drama or turning points where they don’t need to be, she made sure of the feel and the pace of it, and hopefully nobody feels bored by it. The film has its own distinct pace, which is set by Richard a little bit. He’s quite slow. Early on in the editing process, I remember trying to speed him up by cutting out the ums and the ahs, and putting stuff around to get more pace. But I realised you lie by doing that, and if you keep his pace, but find ways in which to make the images fit that pace, so that nobody feels like it’s moving slowly, you achieve more. Part of that is the over-cranked work that we do, the slow-motion stuff, which actually works really well. It’s nice with the instruments. Annie is a remarkable editor. She’s at her peak now. She did Shopping and now she has just finished a TV series with Robert Sarkies, and of course she did Out of the Blue. I’d keep an eye out for everything she does for the next few years. She’s always been competent, but now she’s got the age and maturity to be able to ignore what should be done. She has got such a skill level.
BG: It’s little moments, like the froth on the wave as it moves in slow motion.
PW: That’s another person I haven’t mentioned here who did a massive amount of work, Tim Prebble the sound designer. He was very quick to pick up on what I was trying to do and pick it up and run with it, and push things and to allow them to become abstract, but not go so deep so quickly that the audience can’t stay with it and it becomes too abstract. It’s one of the successes of the film is just how the sound design works. This is a film that was begging for sound design from the outset. I spent half my money on it.
BG: Another filmmaker [David Zellner] I talked to so said it was a very underrated art form.
PW: Yeah, it is. Mike Hedges, who was the mixer, that was interesting. As mixers they wanted to do everything in surround sound from the get go, but I wanted to make it more situated in the beginning. Allow the audience to creep into the sound design, so it feels very natural and you begin to hear it in different ways. Trying to lead the audience’s ears into this experience, so they hopefully begin to get their heads around some of the concepts.
BG: What’s your plan with the film?
PW: I’m thrilled to give it a national release through the New Zealand International Film Festival. This is my home audience, and this is what I wanted to reach for. A while back we were thinking about trying to premiere in Berlin and those sort of places, who I’m sure would be interested in this film, but I couldn’t give up the opportunity here, as it’s for New Zealand. Then we’ll try to do international festivals, both large documentary ones and some of the general documentary festivals, and see where we can get with it. Then there’ll definitely also be the second and third tier of ethnographic film festivals, which this will appeal to as well. Stori Tumbuna did a few international general audience festivals, and then did three years of ethnographic festivals. The audiences are quite large, and it’s a great way for me to travel and see other films. Maori TV might be interested in the film, and Air New Zealand with the landscapes. It’s hard to predict. It needs to do well in the festival here. I’m hoping—although it’s a bit of a longshot in this very crowded film environment—to try to get a limited cinema release, but we’ll see and it’d depend on how it goes.
BG: It’s a big screen film.
PW: Yeah, and I think it comes across well on the big screen. I’m hoping the finishing will allow people to enter into a cinematic experience.
Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other