Mahana (The Patriarch) is a story of the Mahana family in the 1960s, led by the Grandfather (Temuera Morrison) with tradition, respect and history flowed down throughout the family. One boy, Simeon (Akuhata Keefe), quickly stands out and questions the rules and limitations his Grandfather sets causing cracks in the relationship of this family.
We attended the Press Conference for Mahana (The Patriarch) at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival. Sitting at the table in the Grand Hyatt Hotel were John Collee (Screenplay Writer), Robin Scholes (Producer), Nancy Brunning (Actress), Akuhata Keefe (Actor), Temuera Morrison (Actor), Lee Tamahori (Director). Written below are some of the best and most interesting questions and answers.
Mahana (The Patriarch) was shown at Berlin Film Festival 2016 on 13th February 2016. .
You can read our ★★★☆☆ review of the film here
In the final scene, at the funeral, can you explain the haka, the act of insult?
Lee Tamahori - The ritual at the end of the movie takes place on a Marae, which is a communal meeting place, a ground on which all members of a tribe or sub-tribe or Hapū are free to gather and meet about anything, but it’s also where death is remembered. Tangi, which is a Maori funeral, occurs there, the body lies in state for people to come and pay their respects to. A Marae is a place where most people can air their views, say what they like, you’re encouraged to stand up and speak your mind and an act of insult is no deterrent. If you wish to insult someone, you are free to do that as well and there are theoretically no physical repercussions. No-one will come and attack you, they’ll attack you later on off the Marae, but on that ground which is sacred ground there will be no acts of violence. For our story the two characters, the two older characters were mortal enemies for reasons you all know if you’ve seen the film and one detests the other for a stronger reason than any other. In a concerted party, almost a bellicose war-like tradition to come and insult the body and to say “we can’t be rid of you soon enough”. The opposing family all braces up to have it out with them but it’s an unusual thing, it doesn’t happen often, but it has happened. I don’t know enough about the history of it, but we went into it, the writer of the original material, Witi Ihimaera, we found it was the best way to approach it, but you still must stick to protocol, be dignified and deal with it. That’s what it’s all about.
Can you talk about how important the novel is in New Zealand, its status? Did it have any effect? How is it considered?
Lee Tamahori - The novel is not as pervasive and as powerful as, maybe, Once Were Warriors, which took off as a kind of anti-cultural phenomenon. The novel on which this is based is one of many of Witi’s novels and it’s on a very familiar theme of his, about the young rebelling against the old and the old traditions. The book is called Bulibasha, which is a Turkish word and we rejected that as a title because we didn’t want a Turkish word headlining a New Zealand film and if you say it, the way it’s pronounced it ends up sounding, in English, quite violent, we didn’t want that. So we retitled it, renamed it, it is not one of his more seminal works, he’s written over 25 titles or more, I lose count. It spoke a lot to me, there’s a lot of elements in it that have a certain touch of memory for me specifically because the character of Simeon is effectively a kind of version of Witi himself in many ways. Witi came from a small rural environment where his family were shearers and he had an intellect and he struggled to move away from a rural environment, go to university, educate himself etc. etc. Simeon in our story represents him and I guess the novel, I can’t talk to its popularity in New Zealand, but it’s not one of the more popular titles. It was published in the 90’s, it was published in 1994, Robin picked up the rights ten years ago and we’ve been talking about it, John, Robin and I have been talking about it for maybe five or six years trying to get it together, with Witi actually. I know him, we’ve all known him for some time, he’s very supportive, very encouraging. Very unusual for a novelist, many novelists sign away their work and have very little contact with it. Witi has been very much a friend of the production and he very much likes the film as well. He’s not opposed to change of his stories, especially when they’re turned into film or television, he almost embraces the changes because he likes to see his work as an ongoing piece that is fluid and keeps changing, not as rigid and fixed.
John Collee – Witi is an extraordinary guy, he’s a sort of Maori icon I think it’s safe to say. He’s greatly respected as a spokesperson for the Maori culture, on top of which he is an academic and a very prolific novelist. He wrote what was a big sprawling autobiographical novel which was very helpful and guided us into condensing it into its component parts, giving it more of a linear structure. He’s a keeper of Maori stories.
There are many references to American Western movies, what was the reason for this?
John Collee – Witi was a child of the 60’s and he grew up going to local cinemas which were just a sheet strung up in a barn, where he would watch these Western movies of the period and he was enormously influenced by them. When we first discussed adapting the book, Lee said this is a Western and he wanted to give it the scale and expansiveness and the tone of the old John Ford Westerns, which he captured brilliantly, so it was intentional.
Lee Tamahori – The publicists don’t want me to refer to it as a Western, but I will refer to it as a Western. I’m a great fan of the American Western; it’s my favourite genre and always has been. I’ve always wanted to make one, but the chances are diminishing very fast for anyone to make an American Western because nobody will finance such things, so I hoodwinked Robin into allowing me to make a western. In truth, the reason I like an American Western is that it has the purest form of moral play ever put on a cinema. It has very few complexities, there’s good, there’s bad, there’s evil, there’s the railroad, there’s the girl, there’s the loner, you know how it all goes. The best of them play around with this moral fable and I thought that the story we were telling is not in essence a western, but it shares some of the facets of the western, landscape, rugged individuals, rugged loners, like the patriarch himself. We haven’t made in New Zealand a large format landscape western and I am very fond of the anamorphic format and I wanted to put the landscape as a character once again. I love landscapes and especially the New Zealand landscape. The whole scene of a Western in the cinema was an overblown sequence just so that the girl can kiss the boy and it the guy riding the horse into the cinema was something that happened in my childhood on the east coast. I was 8 or 9 I went to the cinemas and I saw that happen. There were a lot of references to westerns, especially at the end when they talk about Don Siegel’s Flaming Star, if any of you know what they’re talking about there and many other obscure reference. I tried to jam as many in there as I could.
Akuhata, how is life now for young guys in New Zealand? Is your relationship with your family similar to your character in the movie?
I think these days, young men like us get it much easier, but back in those days you’re expected to take on the jobs of the house, you’re expected to be a man at such a young age and look after the family. My grandparents say people are soft on us and they were hard back in the days.
Temuera, can you talk about how your character is the typical head of the family character, something typical for this time?
John Collee – Temuera bought this whole other dimension to this character that wasn’t initially in the script, but once Temuera was cast in it and took on the character, he changed that character from being an aggressive patriarch to somebody who was really holding the family together. There’s a speech he gives where he says that the family wouldn’t exist, it wouldn’t stay together, it wouldn’t be the family it is without that kind of dogged forcefulness. The Maoris in those days were up against an incredibly aggressive European invasion which was still playing it’s self out. It’s only these tough heads of family who managed to resist that and still resist it and I think you bought that combination to the movie actually Temuera, the combination of forcefulness, but also the reason behind it.
Temuera Morrison – I think I was blessed also with such a wonderful book that provided a lot of material for me. I spent a lot of time with Witi, the writer of the book; he talked about his own grandfather and things like that. Once Lee came to see me and he said “Yep, you’re my man, get ready”, there was just so much material from the writer and I owe a lot to Lee for really helping me sculpture and mould the character. Sometimes I can be a bit of a clown and sometimes Lee had to yell at me “No no, too much Temuera Morrison, get rid of Temuera Morrison”, so I was blessed to have such a wonderful director to work with, John and to get together again. I knew it was a wonderful opportunity to relish this character. I did visit the east coast of New Zealand a number of times to look at some of the gentlemen from that part, which was very helpful. I spoke to people that knew their grandfathers and tried to talk to people that had a real hard grandfather to mould my character on.
Lee Tamahori – Temuera’s character represents a vanishing breed of hard men who said very little and were men of action and were very patriarchal. My grandfather was like that, they believed in action, they fought in war and they came quietly back and got on with the job of bringing up and raising families and doing the hard work. They were not men to give great shows of emotion and we wanted to capture the essence of this character and many others that we knew. For Temuera, we had to be very careful not to give the ghost of Jake Heke from Once Were Warriors, because people would be looking for that to see if it was the same character. We had to create a distance to that, this character was not the guy from twenty years ago, but I think he succeeded beyond my expectations. Because it’s a very nuanced character, it comes across as very authoritarian in the first place and you didn’t understand his motivation, no matter how dark a secret he’s trying to suppress. One of my favourite scenes is the bed-side scene when he is dying and he is talking to his grandson, because you really feel the mantle of responsibility passing from one generation to the other, which is all he ever wanted anyway, because he sees himself in the youngster.
Could you tell us about some of the tradition and rituals in the movie, like the singing to the bees and of course the haka?
Lee Tamahori – The scene with the bees, Witis book has elements of magic realism in it and we didn’t want to deal with magic realism in what was a straight narrative, so we stripped out many of the elements of it, but I always loved in the novel there was a very striking sequence where Grandmother Ramona gives up her land to her children and in so doing he has to say goodbye to the bees, so she does it in oratory and in song and it’s quite mystical and I was never really sure if we would be able to pull it off. Magic realism is a little tricky in films of solid dramatic construction, so the idea that she does that and the bees surround her and then disappear was, I thought, very effective and Nancy did a beautiful job of it, but I’m never to this day sure whether an audience buys to it or not. It’s a soft little touch.
Nancy Brunning – My mother and my aunties were all from that generation, I remember my grandmother, she was an incredibly strong and formidable person, but I think the responsibility to try and keep the family together was really crucial and that’s what I tapped to in Ramona. It was at a time when Maoris were moving to the cities and families were falling apart, mills were shutting down, so there was less work for people so I guess where we see the Mahana family is where they are trying really hard to stay together. The grandfather is trying hard to secure work, but Ramona is trying hard to make sure the family works well together, so they can support the grandfather. So I drew on a lot of my own personal knowledge from watching my aunties and understanding the value of love at a time when people are starting to stop practising that value or making that choice to work with love. I think Ramona is working from that place of love to keep the family tight and it permeates throughout the entire community of the Mahana family. Through business, education, health, it’s all from a place of love. That’s why she allows Simeon to be Simeon, she adores him, she knows he can see something they can’t that’s why she supports the grandfather, because he’s providing for the family.
John Collee – I think that in the next generation what she recognises is that men with more feminine qualities are going to be required. Is there something going on there? Why she chooses Simeon as the new leader, because she sort of identifies him, as does the grandfather, but he’s a different kind of man from the hard men of the previous generation.
Nancy Brunning – If I think about my family and Witi’s writing and his memoir, because his memoir was release around the time we were shooting, it was that understanding that Maori had to evolve and Maori had to move with change, we had to adapt. Whether you call that a feminine quality, I don’t know.
John Collee – I think it’s cultural I think we all have to adapt and we’re moving from a patriarchal model of society to something that’s much more sexual equality. All things that are bad in the world today, from ISIS to Donald Trump onwards seems to me like being characterised by a complete disequilibrium between male power and female power and the things that are good are –
Nancy Brunning – And that’s why I think the Mahana family worked, because she is the balance, she provides that balance. He’s forceful and strong and he wants to control where she’s the opposite, she is gentle, she’s loving, she listens, she goes quietly, she teaches gently, she’s not like him and I guess in our culture that’s essential. There’s always a role for women and when that balance is one sided, lots of problems happen, so it’s really important for our culture to survive, how male and female works together.
Robin Scholes – The other factor is that men of a Mahana generation were uneducated, so Simeon represents a new generation who actually read books, gets an education and actually have a different future because, like Witi, which Simeon is very much modelled on, they can earn a living through their minds, and what they can create through their imaginations as opposed to what they can create through hard physical labour. So it kind of represents that shift and that’s very much a factor in every country, so there’s a period where you had to shape the land and you had no money, there was no resource other than what you could create out of your physical labor and then there was a period where physical labour was replaced by intellect and what you could earn from your brain power, so I think that’s part of the story as well.
Lee, could you maybe say something about the haka at the end of the movie?
Lee Tamahori – The haka which I was discussing before was written specifically for the film, many of you are familiar with the haka in rugby, the all blacks, the haka is very specific to the tribal structure, you can’t just misappropriate and use someone else’s haka. It’s not there as a free for all to be used, so we wrote one for the movie and used it. It’s created for the film to be an aggressive haka to confront the memory of the departed patriarch himself.
Temuera Morrison – The haka. Ha is the word for breath, ka is light or fire. We’ll give you a little demonstration.
Temuera Morrison and Akuhata Keefe perform a haka in the Press Conference for Mahana Movie at Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival 2016
Mahana (The Patriarch) was shown at Berlin Film Festival 2016 on 13th February 2016.
You can read our ★★★☆☆ review of the film here