Maori Arts as Film Art: An Analysis of Ritual and Myth in Whale Rider, Once Were Warriors and Te Rua

Lousie Child


This paper analyses three key films of the Maori Renaissance, which, in addition to being art forms in themselves, depict ritual song, traditional dance, martial arts, tattoos, carvings, and mythical storytelling.  Moreover each film has both drawn from and generated debate about the roles of religion, ritual and cultural performance in the negotiation of resources and identity for indigenous peoples against a background of post-colonial late capitalism.   In Once Were Warriors, the central problem is conceived in terms of a loss of the traditional means of disciplining male aggression and attempts to re-vitalize them, including the teaching of haka (war dance) and the martial arts of taiaha (spear) to young offenders and the adoption of tattoos resembling traditional moko by local gangs.  Whale Rider in contrast, has a peaceful rural setting but also emphasizes the teaching of haka to young males as an initiatory rite for potential leaders.  Both films have been criticized for their emphasis on gender and their silence regarding economic and political forces, although Whale Rider's enactment of mythical connections between human and animal communities suggests subtlety in the transmission of animist religion.  Te Rua, exploring Maori efforts to repatriate ancestral carvings from European museums, suggests the power of the carvings themselves and highlights the virtues of consulting with one's community more than martial arts.  Taken together, these films suggest that while traditional myth, art, and ritual are central to the shaping of Maori post-colonial identities, their precise role is a subject of intense scrutiny and debate.

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