★★★★½ - STUFF
- An extraordinary and gripping account of an exceptional life and times -
I have no idea how well known the name Dame Whina Cooper is, to the children and teenagers going through our education system today.
But when I was a waste of space at Te Awamutu College in the 1980s, we heard more about Gavrilo Princip and Florence Nightingale's deeds in Europe, than we ever did about anything that happened in New Zealand. Even though Whina's hikoi for the recognition of Maori land had passed a few kilometres from where we were sitting, only a dozen years before.
Whina – Hōhepine Te Wake (Te Rarawa) – was born in 1895, in the Hokianga. In her 98 years, she likely advanced the knowledge of all New Zealanders, of themselves and their history, more than any politician ever did.
This film has been in development for a decade. The shoot was planned to take a month, but instead became an obstacle-course of lockdowns that stretched over nearly half-a-year. Yet, the film that has emerged is an extraordinary and gripping account of an exceptional life and times.
Whina's childhood was defined by poverty. She was identified early as a fighter who cared about education and justice more than might have been expected of a child. Whina refused an arranged marriage, demanded an education and turned to politics almost by accident, as she took up the cause of a local group whose way of life was being threatened by imported farming methods.
She became a community advocate, was picked by Sir Apirana Ngata to speak at a national hui and, in her 40, founded the Maori Women's Welfare League.
And yet, it was the “land march” of 1975 – when Whina was 80 – that finally put her into the national consciousness.
The two-month long hikoi was a foundation stone in the process of restoring Te Tiriti to the national conversation - and led directly to The Treaty of Waitangi Act being passed.
Whina – the film – manages to compress a lot of social history into a fairly brief running time.
Directors James Napier Robertson (The Dark Horse) and Paula Whetu Jones (Waru) coax great performances from all their cast, but the absolute stars here will always be Miriama McDowell and Rena Owen, playing Whina as a grown and elderly woman respectively. Despite not really resembling each other, the two actors combine to present Whina seamlessly, across decades. It is an incredible feat of performance and direction.
Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Cousins) plays Whina as a young woman – and continues to seem like a potential international star, if she chooses to stay an actor.
Behind the camera, the veteran cinematographer Leon Narbey (Whale Rider, The Orator) turns in a wonderful selection of frames and shots, all seemingly glowing from within. Although the editing at times feels hurried, when a few more moments here and there might have allowed the film to breathe a little deeper.
Historical biopics often suck the life out of the truth and turn people into monuments. Whina does the opposite. It takes the legend and makes her as human and relatable as someone you could meet tomorrow.
This is a moving, heartbreaking and beautifully put-together film. Don't see Whina because you “think you should”. See it because it's a damned good story, very well told.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
WHINA is now playing at Light House Cinema!