May 18, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

White Lies, powerful new movie about holding deep secrets, the challenges of identity

6 min read

White Lies – Tuakiri Huna- is a deeply powerful movie that quietly speaks to the human condition of truth and identity.

1005125_10151457284316022_1037443243_nBased on the novella Medicine Women by Witi Ihimaera, White Lies is a film set in the late 19th century/early 20th century Aotearoa-New Zealand and stars Whirimako Black as Paraiti, the Maori medicine women, Rachel House as Maraea and Antonia Prebble as Rebecca Vickers. Director Dana Rotburg weaves togetherthe lives of 3 strong women, telling a story of pain and perseverance, of hope and of hopelessness, of dignity and of loneliness, and in turn, setting a new benchmark forNew Zealand film by authentically telling a Maori story largely in te reo Maori.

The savagery of the opening sequence is the living history and herstory of our people from Tuhoe, as it was for many hapu during those initial decades of colonisation.

We were extremely proud to see Te Ahurei Rakuraku,open the film and start the story. Te Ahurei comes from a talented whanau, beingthe daughter of our cousins Matene Rakuraku and Pihitahi White. As a young Paraiti, Te Ahurei looks at home in the lands of her ancestors, Te Urewera, holding the flora and fauna of the forest, feeling the mauri, the life force, of each plant, each leaf.

The bewildering loss of her father and her whanau occurs so quickly that a young Paraiti, scarred by a fiery blow from a Colonial soldier, seeks a cleansing through water, hiding, drowning.

We move forward in time and find Paraiti deep in the bush, again gathering rongoa, moss, leaves. Paraiti is a tohunga rongoa, a wahine of deep traditional knowledge, and people come from all around to hear her advice and to receive her medical attention. A young kotiro finds herself being examined by Paraiti and it is this meeting that sets of a chain of events which bring out the growing conflict between traditional Maori world and the new New Zealand society, a time in itself saw the banning of traditional Maori healers under the Suppression of Tohunga Act 1907.

What is striking for me was how the next few scenes moved. My grandfather was a Ringatu Minister, a man of Te Haahi, and we always talked about how we thought no one would honestly depict our Belief, that any movie made around Te Haahi Ringatu would miss the complexity of our korero, yet our simplicity of living with basic truths. When I heard nga whakamoemiti and our Ringatu karakia surround my ears in the movie theatre, it brought back memories of our Haahi in Waimana, in Waitangi, in Otautahi. The pain, the suffering, the stories of our resistance. It was beautiful to hear and see Ringatu on the big screen.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 1.09.44 AMIt is here that we meet Maraea, played skilfully by Rachel House, who requests the services of Paraiti as she waits to attend a Charlie Chaplin movie. Chaplin was himself known for playing characters who struggled against adversity. Maraea pleads with Paraiti to come to the aid of her mistress, Rebecca Vickers. Though Paraiti half-heartedly agrees, Maraea then suggests that they walk to the residence with a bit of distance between them, so that “no one will assume that they are together”. Classic stuff.

Paraiti finds Rebecca Vickers,a stunningly beautiful women,who is both pale and angelic. Many people will know Antonia Prebble as Loretta West from the tv show Outrageous Fortune, or as Trudy in the Tribe. Some may even recall Prebble from What Now? In this film, Antonia brings a powerful performance as Rebecca Vickers, exuding extreme confidence yet slowly giving way to the secrets which bind her life. One secret is that she is pregnant, and that her husband will be furious to find out that she is hapu upon his return, so asks Paraiti to help remove the baby, a difficult decision today as it was back in the early 20th century.

Paraiti says no and continues on.

It’s at this time that news of the kotiro who first asked for help from Paraiti comes, and there is trouble. As Paraiti rushes to the hospital and attempts to support the young girl, the Matron physically stops and then patronisingly warns Paraiti not to bring any of her herbs or practices in. Neither can be saved. The Matron instead looks down upon both the dead mother and Paraiti, belittling her requests to recover the whenua of the baby. The tangi scene made my heart cry as every pore in my body welled up with grief, pain and longing.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 1.11.20 AMParaiti then returns to support Rebecca and from here, our heart and soul are taken on an often tense yet graciously contrasting view of our culture and those times. In her efforts to restore justice, Paraiti learns more and more about both Rebecca and her servant Maraea. Today, as Downtown Abbey draws critical acclaim, White Lies is sure to appeal to movie goers who love period pieces and crave to see more movies in this genre come out of New Zealand.

Tensions mount between Paraiti, Rebecca and Maraea as each adjusts to the presence of the other, resenting each other yet knowing that the other is important to the whole, each bringing a part of the solution to a series of serious problems. The burden feels heavy for one, the price too high for another. The way Rotburg reveals the tension through contrast, showing struggle in the darkness and yet maintaining order of imagery in the bathroom scenes are superb.

In saying that, we absolutely adored the setting and the scenery.

The house was stately yet awkward, the marae rustic yet crucial. Each shot told its own story and many times, the rapid movement and quick tone was easily brought back by the tableau shots and the quiet stillness of all 3 women clinging to one another. We found ourselves stunned by scene after scene – from the open bush scene which reminded me of home in Te Urewera, to the beautiful Mother Mary-esque shot when all 3 women are found in the basement, in the dark, clinging to each others pain. The birth scene was unexpected yet brilliantly real. To this we wish to applaud DirectorDana Rotberg.

Rotburg herself came all the way to Aotearoa from Mexico to make this film. She said the seeds of the movie were planted in her head after reading the novella Medicine Women, in which the main character Paraiti, would not leave her thoughts. The novella itself was an idea brought about by the experiences of Witi Ihimaera, who as a child was healed by a tohunga he named Blightface, similar to the young boy who is cured of his monster by Paraiti.

Added to that the film production was remarkable and the music superb, bringing back the korero of the forest as heard with the Ruru, the kaitiaki of Hinenuitepo, as well as the haunting sounds harnessed by Richard Nunns.

White Lies made my wairua cry many times over.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 1.13.08 AM

Watching Maraea polish her silver made sense. Seeing the companionship provided to Paraiti by Oti the dog for me, gave her character balance. Hearing the accusation of witch and then seeing the lack of tenderness or compassion by the hospital Matron made us angry. Knowing that each characterheld a deep secret and that uncovering those secrets could havefatal consequences, well, it made us want for more.

This movie will be loved by wahine Maori for its deep portrayal of realistic wahine characters in tense yet tender moments. It will also appeal to audiences who imagine how things happened when Maori and New Zealand first started to join. International audiences have asked for authentic representations of early New Zealand for some time and White Lies provides that rare glimpse of rural life, similar to that seen in classics likeUtu, River Queen and Rain of the Children. While it might have strong themes for younger audiences, we think rangatahi may love this film as it allows for insight into how our ancestors lived and will definitely give them things to think about, like life, death, birth and the nature of identity.

For us, White Lies rates as one of the best films of the year, earning 5 Kete out of 5 Kete, and we think it will go on to be a classic New Zealand film and a must own Maori movie.

White Lies is 80% in te reo Maori (with english subtitles) and plays for 96 minutes.

It will be open for NZ wide release from June 27th 2013.

You can join White Lies on Facebook

Also check out White Lies on the NZ Film Commission

Many thanks to Michael Eldred and Kylie Leggoe for inviting us to the screening. Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui.

3 thoughts on “White Lies, powerful new movie about holding deep secrets, the challenges of identity

  1. This movie had much more to it than expected, and I realised that some of the reviews I’d seen were from people who were simply ignorant of things Maori and had little to no understanding of what they were seeing, hence the complaints about the film ‘dragging’, etc. But I’d describe this movie as an incredible portrayal of colonisation, assimilation and wahine Maori. Not ‘loud’ and ridden with violence and abuse, but subtle and powerful, exploring the destructiveness and rejection of self; the inner-loathing, and the ultimate emptiness the lies at the core. This was highlighted by the mood of the film and the quiet soundtrack and soft, low lighting, something Pakeha reviews simply ignored or complained about but I thought central to the key themes. The scene in the hospital when Paraiti looked for the whenua was gut wrenching and I had tears in my eyes several times throughout the film. I don;t know why this film has had such a limited release, I live 20 mins out of a main centre (say, 150,000 people), yet had to drive an hour in the opposite direction to a small town of 4,000 to see it. Apparently some are driving 2 or more hours for the same reason. Perhaps the ‘big cinemas’ think that we’d all rather see American movies with super heroes and gun fights, or think they don’t need to cater for Maori audiences who might like to see their own stories in film, let alone the audiences who like to watch NZ films. Maori make up more than a quarter of the population in my region, so we’re not talking small numbers. All in all, I think the film / story was outstandingly clever and relevant to the lives of the colonised first nations peoples around the globe in its portrayal of the ‘soul wound’ of colonisation.

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