Before I arrived at UoA, I knew nothing about my culture or Te Ao Māori. Only the fragmented remnants that had seeped through the cracks of colonisation. But through taking Māori electives, writing on Māori subjects, and meeting Māori friends, I was able to learn about Māori protest movements, Pūrākau, and individuals held in high esteem within the Māori world, one such person being Dame Whina Cooper. Born Hōhepine Te Wake, Whina Cooper lived a cinematic life. She worked alongside Sir Āpirana Ngata to promote Māori land development programmes in the Hokianga, she was the first president of the new Māori Women’s Welfare League, and most notably, she led the Māori land march from Te Hapua to Wellington in 1975.
Whina brought organisation and action to a community and culture adrift in the present. A culture that had lost its sense of self due to the impacts of colonisation, loss of land, and the missionary work in the north that devalued Māori beliefs. The Marae of Northland iwi lack traditional wooden carvings due to the insertion of Western religion changing the spiritual health of our people, something that the movie touches on.
Directors James Napier Robertson (The Dark Horse) and Paula Whetu Jones create a melancholic and faithful display of Māori life. Scenes of the 1918 influenza pandemic show a forlorn but spiritual atmosphere in tune with the tikanga of our people. Where a title screen would usually go, the film’s first shot is of the mother of the nation; it is unmistakably Whina. We see panning shots of the land surrounding the Hokianga harbour. Seeing the Hokianga on the big screen is emotive. It’s my home too, and I guess you know you’re Māori when you get emotional at the sight of where you come from and the land from which you whakapapa to. Much credit should be given to cinematographer Leon Narbey (Whale Rider) for his choice of poignant and internally stirring shots.
Whina transitions between three time-points. The titular protagonist’s teenage years are portrayed by future superstar Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, her adult years portrayed by Miriama McDowell, and her elder years portrayed by Rena Owen. All actresses give commanding performances. Ngatai-Melbourne displays the chiefly mana of Whina without uttering a word in certain shots. At the same time, McDowell translates the leadership of Whina as best as it can on the big screen. Rena Owen, as older Whina, is wise and sage-like in her performance. Not to be outshone, Vinnie Bennett gives a persuasive performance as William Cooper. I’m compelled to watch it again purely to see the credits so I can know who portrayed Māori statesman Āpirana Ngata (it doesn’t show up online!). With less than a few minutes of screentime, we still get a charismatic performance of the charismatic and influential politician.
The film is educational and inspiring. Through Whina’s activism, modern Māori are inspired to continue the fight for our right to exist, to thrive, and to heal. With a runtime of one hour and 52 minutes, I wish it had been longer. Whina certainly commanded it.
I think I’ll go home, back up north towards the Hokianga with a newfound drive to make changes. To action our mana and become historically resilient in the pursuit of helping our people.