Pietra Brettkelly talks with Pamela Cohn about Maori Boy Genius, her new documentary about New Zealand’s Maori people and their Boy Genius, Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti.
New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly’s new feature non-fiction film is headed to this year’s Berlinale as part of the always fantastic Generation Program, a section of the festival that since 1978 has been devoted to children and young people. Brettkelly’s last film, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, one of the most intimate and disturbing portraits of a modern-day artist I’ve seen, debuted at Sundance in 2008, and went on to garner many accolades and win many awards around the world, including exhibition slots at the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Her new film dives into New Zealand’s Maori community to tell the story of 16-year-old Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, whose name roughly translates as “the energy around where lightning strikes.” His name is based on an old Tuhoe tribal saying, “Like lightning in the sky, here is an example on earth.” According to Maori culture, Ngaa Rauuira was born under very auspicious omens; much is expected of this young man from his native community. He is being hailed as a new leader, “a visionary who can directly tap into the wisdom of his ancestors.” He himself has quite high ambitions; at just twelve years of age, he began his first university degree. Brettkelly, along with her long-time director of photography, Jacob Bryant, with whom she also made Art Star, spent one year following the 16-year-old. As much as the film is about an extraordinary young man from a culture struggling to survive, it is also about a teenage boy on the cusp of manhood figuring out his place in the world.
I had a chance to speak with Pietra a couple of weeks before the 62nd edition of the Berlinale. She was ensconced in Peter Jackson’s Wellington production facility to finish up post-production and ready Maori Boy Genius for its international premiere. As excited as she was about coming to Berlin, I also found an exhausted and tapped-out woman in the throes of a life crisis, wondering why she’s still struggling so damn hard after all these years—not an uncommon story for someone who has devoted a life to documentary filmmaking.
Pamela Cohn Congratulations, Berlinale is an exciting place to premiere the film. How is it going?
Pietra Brettkelly It’s very hectic, actually. But, when I came down here to Wellington with the realization that I had locked-off the picture and that there was nothing more I could do at this stage, there’s been a sense of relief. There’s still a hell of a lot left to do; as an independent filmmaker, I have no budget. I’m doing everything myself. There is a shitload of work to do, to be truthful. But there’s a wonderful conclusion for the film and so all the hard work has been worth it, really.
PC It says “Volume 1” underneath the title of the film. You mention that this might, perhaps, be the first part in what could be a “7-Up” kind of multi-part piece on the making of a political leader from the age of 16. Is the plan to dip in and out of his life as the years go by?
PB (laughter) Well, that’s my plan at the moment but that may change. To be perfectly frank, if I do not get any funding I just can’t do it. I’ve really had it. In fact, just today, it’s really hit me that I can’t carry on doing this. If I can’t get funding, then I can’t carry on. Other ideas and projects may intervene, who knows? And maybe it’s better to leave Ngaa Rauuira alone for a bit. He’s got his own path to pursue and I’m sure he doesn’t want me hanging around him with a camera the rest of his life.
PC There is a really lovely and quite comfortable rapport between you and Ngaa Rauuira and that extends to everyone in his family, mother, father, his siblings, the grandparents. They’re all really wonderful in front of the camera—very generous and relaxed, as is he.
PB There is always a deep and genuine interest in the people involved; it’s not just a story that draws me in, necessarily. The trust between my subjects and myself happens quite quickly since I end up spending a lot of time with them. My DP, Jacob Bryant, and I have been working together for years and he’s a very delightful and gentle person. The two of us hang out with our subjects in a fairly casual way. I would never tell anybody lots about my life. It’s not exactly a friendship that you’re building. But you do have to share some of yourself for this kind of intimacy to come through. I couldn’t do a film where I didn’t thoroughly enjoy being around the person or people I’m shooting or if the story wasn’t really worth telling. I mean I won’t be the filmmaker making a film about the guys on Wall Street, for instance, because I just don’t care about them very much. I only want to invest this much time and energy into people I care about.
PC The larger Maori cause that’s depicted in the story is one of a native people’s struggle for rights and equality, a marginalized indigenous population fighting against total integration, living in a white culture that seems intent on having the Maori culture disappear completely. How was this larger issue weighted in your mind in contrast to doing a more personal coming-of-age portrait of Ngaa Rauuira?
PB Maori make up only about 14% of New Zealand’s population. However, I come from a part of the country where they make up 60%. I’ve grown up amongst a rather large Maori population and have been influenced by that. My extended family is Maori. My immediate family is not, but a lot of my cousins are Maori because aunts and uncles have married or become partners with Maori. I’m also a first-generation New Zealander. My family arrived here in 1950, and as kids, we were all brought up to try and understand how we fit into this culture, rather than how this land fit us. How can we, who live in a place with an indigenous culture, move forward in a bicultural way that’s good for everyone? That’s really important to me. We’re in a dire situation, I think, here in New Zealand in that the Maori language has been lost. You can recognize that a culture is important and should be preserved, but if we don’t stay as vigilant as possible, in the next twenty years it could easily disappear. I want this portrait, more than anything, to show that this biculturalism can reside in individuals or in an entire family. As a member of an immigrant family, I understand that it’s got to be much healthier for the generations to come if this country acknowledges and recognizes the importance of helping to keep this culture relevant. The only way that will happen is to work together to make sure that happens.
There are huge issues on both sides at the moment. The difference in New Zealand to other cultures with struggling indigenous populations, is that the Maori chiefs and the Crown—the British government, the colonizers of New Zealand—have had a contract which is called the Treaty of Waitangi, Waitangi being the place where it was originally signed in 1840. That contract has always been revisited in the courts over the centuries. Through that process, Maori have managed to claim ownership of land, the rights to fish, the right to have their own education system and their own health system, etc. So, as those things happen more and more, hopefully empowerment will come about, as well. Twenty-five years ago, a bicultural education system was put in place. Those things are positive. Is Ngaa Rauuira some kind of aberration, or are there going to be more kids like him that really gracefully straddle and utilize the power of being bicultural? Hopefully, the answer is yes, even though he seems to be unique at the moment. But if he is to become a significant leader—and everything points to the idea that he will—this biculturalism will play a huge role in that.
PC What’s remarkable and what one notices immediately in your portrayal of this sixteen-year-old is his incredible poise, his lack of intimidation in meeting this “appointed” role head-on. So much is resting on his shoulders, but there is so much lightness and humor in him. But however much he has integrated white and Maori culture within himself, he really hasn’t finished forming as an individual. He is in this stage of life where he is straddling childhood and adulthood, as well as two cultures. This is something you show to great affect in many of the scenes with his family and friends. With all this tremendous pressure, we never see him have any kind of meltdown. I kept waiting for it and it never came. We see him struggle, certainly, but we mostly see him strong and calm and composed—an ideal picture of youth.
PB Ultimately, the film has those dramatic moments that, as a filmmaker, you hope to capture, but I struggled with this throughout the production. I was so impressed by his sheer competence at everything, and I thought, Where am I going to get all my drama? I kept thinking, When is he going to fall apart? When is he going to rebel? When is he going to tell someone off or act like a spoiled brat when he doesn’t get what he wants? He’s just too good to be true! He told me once that he thought it was great having Jake and me around because he could have conversations with us that he couldn’t have with anyone else he knew. He knew we had traveled a lot and seen the world, read a lot of books, and were well educated. He told me that he could have conversations with me that he can’t have with anybody at home. It was lovely that he feels that he has some relationship with us that is unique. His time at Yale when he had this kind of crisis of faith was great for us. It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but when that happened I was quite happy that I could show that this kid isn’t perfect and does have moments of weakness and doubt. The drama came without the teenage stroppiness, without teenage angst. I thought I was going to get attitude and tantrums and all of that. But I didn’t because Ngaa Rauuira isn’t like that. What I did get in that protest at the end of the film was everything I wanted, though, since that very much displayed his “rebellion.” He took that moment as his and channeled that aggression beautifully because it’s something that he really believes in. There was no reason for him to act rebellious towards his family because he knows that that’s not appropriate.
We had no idea he was going to take that bullhorn that day like he did and neither did he. That’s why it’s such a powerful moment because he just felt it and acted. That’s why you see Jake literally running with the camera, because once I recognized his voice, Jake went running towards him. We were quite far away from him trying to get a wide-angle shot of the whole protest march from the front. These were Ngaa Rauuira’s first political steps on his own without his family there to witness it.
In his sixteenth year, I also wanted to point toward the issues that may come about for him in the future. Is it realistic to hope that someone like him who is bicultural can become a significant leader for New Zealand in a language that is not an international language, to become an international leader with an international education? Is that going to be possible? In the film, the family, particularly his father, already begins to realize that he has grown so far beyond them and he will continue to. The family is quite keen on doing an arranged marriage; that’s what they’ve been talking about since the moment he turned 17. What if he’s studying overseas and meets a foreigner and decides that he wants to marry her? That is not part of the equation for the family right now. They want to arrange a marriage with the right Maori lines. There’s the vast distance between him and his best male friends. They represent the average statistic for young Maori men, the ones Ngaa Rauuira is trying to break through. We see this in the course of the film, as well. As he continues to pull away, what happens to those friendships and will they still be relevant for him? This film doesn’t try to answer any of those questions, really. I wanted to merely point out all that’s at stake for him right now. He won’t always have this fabulous support around him out in the larger world. The family is incredibly strapped financially and they just don’t see any way out. But all the restraints they have, he doesn’t consider restraints for himself.
PC It was really nice to watch a film in which we get to see the boy he is now since it will provide such an interesting reflection on the man he becomes. It also presents an apt metaphor for everything the Maori culture is experiencing.
PB My supposition was that I was going to meet this teenaged boy and he’d grunt. Seriously, New Zealanders are even worse than your average teenager. They just can’t hold the line together. I wasn’t optimistic. Speaking of this metaphor you mention—even within the family, his grandparents’ names are Mike and Janet, right? His mother’s name is Margaret, and his father is Adrian. And then his name happens to be Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti. This shows you what has happened in the last hundred years in New Zealand. Colonialism demanded that everyone had to be white or pretend to be white, with white names. They were to speak English, not Maori. His parents rejected all that and brought back long-ignored traditions, speaking their own language alongside English and giving their children fabulous, long Maori names. It represents an extreme within one generation. At this moment in time, Ngaa Rauuira is extremely politicized, quite extreme in his views. He says that he feels that this extremism is totally necessary, that a distinct challenge to the status quo needs to be expressed in a fairly aggressive way. But as he moves into learning more about diplomacy and what that is, he will become less extreme, probably.
PC This is where his age is really advantageous because this is exactly the time to be rebellious and to test out your voice, to see how things fly, when you learn how to articulate what you’re thinking out loud, taking a stand on something in which you believe deeply. Many people never bother to hone this skill.
PB Part of the reason for wanting to do this story is that I once heard my sister say that she heard that our sixteenth year is when we start to form our own political views, when things start to impact us and make us realize that we need to figure out how we fit into society, or how society fits into our world view. It can be a time of great social awareness and awakening, for some more than others, certainly. I remembered this when the opportunity to make this film came along. I could explore that so well with this particular sixteen-year-old and the year we shot with him brought all kinds of opportunities to explore that in a very distilled way. He is such an advanced learner and thinker and processor of information that it only took a year for him to grab a public stage the way he did in a fairly improvisatory and spontaneous way. But he had totally prepared himself for that moment in the months that came before.
PC Aside from all that, he still retains this poetic, very romantic point of view descended directly from his Maori heritage. One can sense that even without knowing a lot about Maori culture. This is what will truly distinguish him as a public figure, I think. It’s not all about anger and protest and being extreme. I hope he never loses that or that gets pushed aside too much in favor of a more centralized way of negotiating on the world stage. On top of that, he’s being watched and groomed and pressured with being the leading voice of his people. There really is a lot to wrap one’s head around in this film. How do you sustain your clarity of vision during the long process of making and crafting a nonfiction story about someone whose life is changing moment by moment in this way?
PB (laughter) Well, today I was in tears so I don’t really have a whole lot of clarity at the moment. Look, to be honest, I’m at a stage in my career now where financially I’m in the worst place I’ve ever been. I’ve had a film that won an award at Sundance, which had never happened with a New Zealand documentary film, and now I’ve got a film headed to the Berlinale. And I can’t get any funding for anything. I’m at a stage where I’m considering whether or not to carry on in this industry. The problem is I can’t think of anything else I want to do. I’ve loved every moment of it but it’s just not sustainable. I’m really tired. I love this film and I’m really excited it’s going to Berlin, but I’m pretty fragile at the moment because of everything I’ve had to put into it. I mean you put all this time and love and money into something and then some people come along and just do the cruelest things because of their own fragile egos. And you just have to shut your mouth and take it. In the end, it is my film and I’ve just got to let people have their go, but it’s so tough.
I get a lot of strength from other filmmakers I meet at the international festivals along the way. I realize there are other people out there like me who take all these risks. There isn’t anyone in New Zealand that does what I do and takes these kinds of risks. There are some great filmmakers here but they don’t produce the way I produce. So it’s always nice to find that I’m not totally crazy; there are others that do it this way. But I am at a bit of a crossroads at the moment. I’ve tried to teach or do commercial work here in New Zealand but I don’t have a degree so I can’t really get a full-time teaching job and the commercial industry here is so small, there’s not a lot of room.
PC Most of your other projects have taken you out of New Zealand. Was this easier to produce because it was in your own backyard, so to speak? Or did this present other issues and problems?
PB It’s been difficult to tell a Maori story here and while I’ve encountered some wonderful support, I’ve also experienced some racism about me, a white woman, telling this story, or any story about the Maori people. I’ve just had to bite my tongue through a lot of this production. It’s just a small minority of Maori that displays this behavior and it’s usually said in some social context in a fairly casual way, but it always throws me. In some regards, it is easier to tell international stories, perhaps; I don’t really know. It’s just this intense love-hate relationship I have with what we do and it has to do with where I am now which is not a good place, probably the worst place I’ve been in the eighteen years I’ve been making films. I’ve worked with the same editor for many years and she told me the other day that she’d never seen me quite like this. I don’t know why I’m really feeling it now. Maybe it’s a cumulative thing.
PC Or a certain stage of life where you just need to re-evaluate things. It’s a natural evolution of some sort, I guess. For women, as well as men, there are these “markers” in one’s life, certain times where there is a strong urge to find a partner, have children, move ahead in one’s career, change careers, run off with your neighbor’s wife, etc. But you can look at this very rough patch as fertile ground in which to plant the seeds of what you might do next—creatively, personally and otherwise.
PB Well, you’ve just made me feel so much better—that’s good to hear! (laughter)
PC This is how I make myself feel better.
PB I must admit, I feel much more realistic with this film than I did with Art Star. I thought having a film in competition at Sundance would be the answer to all my prayers. I thought it would be bought up straight away and that I’d be on to the next film. And of course that isn’t the reality. This happens for maybe one international documentary a year. Now I feel much more grounded in terms of my expectations in Berlin. It’s a completely different market. It was such a gift working with Molly Stensgaard [Lars von Trier’s editor] up in Denmark. She took what could have been a very parochial piece and gave it an international perspective. Yes, there is this exoticism and this window into something that very few people in the northern hemisphere will ever experience in terms of Maori culture, but it is really an international story. It’s a story of a family. Molly brought that out so beautifully. She’ll come to Berlin and a few other people that have supported me throughout the process. I don’t think it will have a particularly big splash here in New Zealand but I hope it does well overseas.
PC I’m looking forward to meeting you here where you can find solace, perhaps, in listening to everyone else’s struggles and not feel so isolated.
PB That is the part I’m looking forward to the most.
For more on Pietra Brettkelly, Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti and Maori Boy Genius, go to her website.
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.