Berlin: Lee Tamahori and ‘Mahana’ Cast Talk Westerns, Maori Tradition, Gender Equality

Lee Tamahori’s out of competition screener “Mahana” (“The Patriarch”) won loud kudos from critics and reporters following its screening at the Berlin Film Festival on Saturday.

Media reps attending the press conference that followed were treated to philosophical discussions on Maori culture, John Ford westerns, the role of gender in society and were left ultimately stunned by a Maori haka impressively performed by actors Temuera Morrison and Akuhata Keefe.

The film, which marks the director’s return to his native New Zealand, is an adaptation of “Whale Rider” author Witi Ihimaera’s autobiographical novel. The story centers on a Maori family in the 1960s that is shaken by a teenager’s rejection of tradition as he grows close to the daughter of a rival clan.

Morrison, who toplined Tamahori’s 1994’s “Once Were Warriors,” plays the authoritarian family patriarch who sees it as his responsibility to keep the family together, whatever the cost.

Tamahori noted that Ihimaera’s novel was not as pervasive as some of the author’s other works, but added,“It spoke a lot to me. I wouldn’t say nostalgic, but it touched memory for me.”

The director, whose works include the James Bond film “Die Another Day,” Nicolas Cage-starrer “Next” and “The Devil’s Double,” said he saw the story as a western with its focus on rugged individuals who work the land.

“The publicists don’t want me to refer to it as a western, but it is a western,” Tamahori said. “I’m a great fan of American westerns. It’s the purest form of a moral play.” He added that while “The Patriarch” was not in essence a proper western, it shared many of the same elements and had many echoes of the American western.

Producer Robin Scholes said the story examined a transition of generations seen in many parts of the world. “This new generation represents the first generation to be educated. The older generation worked the land, but their children became the first to read books, to be able to earn a living with their minds rather than by physical labor.”

Tamahori added that the character of the patriarch represented “a dying breed of man — men who had seen war, men of action and of few words who worked hard but were not given to great show of emotion.”

Actress Nancy Brunning added that while Morrison’s character is seen as somewhat of a tyrant, he, like many of his generation, saw it as their responsibility to keep the family together in a time of social upheaval. “This was a time when Maoris were moving to cities and families were falling apart, so many families were trying really, really hard to stay together.”

Scholes pointed out that Maori culture had been matriarchal in the past but society and things like land ownership changed with the arrival of colonialism, leading screenplay writer John Collee to quip that “all bad things today, from ISIS to Donald Trump,” seemed to result from a lack of equilibrium between men and women.

Asked about a Maori haka performed in the film, Morrison and Keefe proceeded to awe the audience with an impromptu version of the traditional dance and war cry.

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