We wander into the Civic Theatre’s vintage foyer to view our first film, arriving a little early. The festival host lingers to chat, since the ticket office isn’t busy yet. She cheerily offers to make us a cup of tea, disappearing into an adjoining kitchen. “Milk? Sugar?”
No charge, of course. That’s very Ōtaki, my local friends say later. Spontaneous small-town hospitality, which you just don’t find at city festivals.
Living down the road in Paekākāriki, this year was my first visit to the Māoriland Film Festival. A friend-of-a-friend kindly loans us their house – a classic wee bach at Ōtaki Beach, featuring a solar-powered hula dancer and Nelson Mandela curtains. I join my cousin Davinia Thornley, a film lecturer from Dunedin, and her husband Pete for a five-day immersion in indigenous films.
Sitting back in our seats, each movie entertains and also enlightens; laughter, gasps, heavy silence and sniffing can all be heard from the audience. Feature films Mekko (US) and Le Dep (Canada) are hard-hitting thrillers, making us think as well as sweat. An animated Canadian short film – succinct, but memorably clever – depicts the arrival of man on the moon, only to find the land is already occupied by an indigenous person.
We occasionally emerge from the dark to eat, drink or go for walks along the beach, often visiting the cafés and the Curry House. It is easy to get around; sometimes we bike in to get to our next film session. Taking part in the festival is relatively cheap (most films were only $6, outdoor screenings and panel discussions were free).
The festival brings together a smorgasbord of films – 130 all up – from assorted countries, showcasing stories from places as diverse as Canada, Finland, Guatemala and the Marshall Islands. Topics and settings vary, yet the films are united in their indigenous lens.
This unity extends to the filmmakers, some of whom have travelled here for the festival. Speaking at the sessions, they say they immediately felt at home in Ōtaki. A Mohawk filmmaker from Canada describes the network of indigenous filmmakers as a family, and feels Māoriland has grown a lot in just three years.
Filmmakers at the festival said they feel a responsibility to tell the stories of their films, partly to honour their own predecessors and history, but also as a way to keep traditional stories alive, and to strengthen the identity of current generations. A highlight of this festival, for sure, was the strong community and whānau involvement. Each film was opened with a karakia, delivered beautifully by high-school students.
The power of film to communicate the strengths and struggles of indigenous peoples to a wider, non-indigenous audience was also clear. One filmmaker, from the remote Pacific nation Rapa Nui, likened movie-making to building windows for the rest of the world to look through.
The Ōtaki community, especially the festival organisers, volunteers and café staff, should be proud of Māoriland 2016. Catering to more than 7000 visitors is an amazing achievement. Thanks to Ōtaki for a great festival experience – and for our bonus cup of tea.