The recent discovery of mass graves holding the bodies of First Nations children on the grounds of Canadian residential schools once again puts the issue of “the stolen generations” into the spotlight. Of course, Canada and the U.S. were not the only countries with a policy of taking indigenous children from their families and putting them in educational institutions designed to deracinate them from their culture. Films such as Australia’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and Sweden’s “Sámi Blood” show the collateral damage from this practice. So too does the touching New Zealand drama “Cousins,” directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, now streaming on Netflix.
Unfolding non-chronologically over 50 years, from the late 1940s to the 1990s, the narrative contrasts the lives of three female Māori cousins who follow different paths, some by choice and some by force. The most tragic fate — and the most screen time — belongs to Mata (played by Tanea Heke as an older woman, Ana Scotney as a young adult and Te Raukura Gray as a small child). As a five-year-old, her no-good English father spirits her away from her Māori mother and she winds up in the Mercy Home for Desolate Children where she is bullied, brainwashed and lied to.
Meanwhile, bright, ambitious and confident Makareta (played by co-helmer-writer Briar Grace-Smith as an older woman, Tioreore Melbourne as a young adult and Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels as a youngster) and wild but dutiful Missy (played by Rachel House as an older woman, Hariata Moriarty as a teenager and Keyahne Patrick Williams as a youngster) are brought up on Māori land with Māori customs, surrounded by an extended family with strong female role models and lots of love.
When a custodian at the Mercy Home (one of the few decent male figures in the film) recognizes Mata, now called May Palmer, as part of the Pairama clan, she is sent to spend a summer with her grandparents, aunts and cousins. Even though she is still a little girl, it is almost too late for her to reclaim her heritage. She can’t speak or understand their Māori language and the manners considered proper by the paternalistic colonial population have been beaten into her.
Although Mata’s family wants to keep her, the guardian appointed by her father won’t permit it. She turns into a repressed, extremely religious young woman, ashamed of her hair and the color of her skin. A failed marriage to Sonny (Niwa Whatuira), a street-smart, city Māori leaves her even lonelier than before.
Mata’s cousins, however, never forget her. Even as Makareta flees an arranged marriage to study law in Wellington, she continues to hunt for Mata. Back at home, Missy boldly assumes the role Makareta abandoned as the guardian of their land and it turns out to suit her well.
As the story moves back and forth in time, more exposure to Makareta and Missy, in both their young adult and older incarnations, would have been welcome given that their characters are allowed more agency and control than the damaged Mata. Still, one must give screenwriter Grace-Smith credit: Not only does she co-direct and perform in the film, but she has sensitively adapted a beloved work by one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors, who is also her former mother-in-law.
Shot mostly in close-up with a sensuous, lyrical grace by DP Raymond Edwards, the film is never more gorgeous than when on location in Rotorua, where the Pairama clan lives. Moving deftly between eras, the cutting by Angela Boyd creates a rhythm of circling and repetition that serves the story well. The score by Warren Maxwell and the inclusion of traditional Māori songs further viewers’ immersion into Māori culture.