'Waru': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Courtesy of TIFF
A highly original structure contributes to a suspenseful film.

Eight women directors from New Zealand construct an authentic, multi-voiced story about child abuse set in the Maori community.

A fascinating glimpse into New Zealand's contemporary Maori community, Waru brings a sense of dramatic, urgent realism to a story that plays out like a suspenseful mystery. Eight women directors from New Zealand each direct one chapter, centered around the funeral of a Maori child we never see, who has apparently died from parental neglect and possibly abuse. (In Maori, waru means eight.) There are passels of non-intersecting characters to follow and the stories go off in unexpected directions, but they all boil down to the same basic question: What social circumstances are behind the tragedy?  

Given the restrictive conditions set by producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, this could have ended up as a mere gimmick film, some kind of whimsical New Zealand-grown Dogma. Each segment had to be shot in one single 10-minute take, telling the story in real time, and directors were allowed only a single day of shooting. Also, each vignette had to take place at the same time, 10 a.m. Arbitrary as they may seem, these pre-fab requirements do help glue together the multiple viewpoints from which the story is told, and the result is surprisingly homogeneous, thanks also to high quality tech work from the same D.P., editor and production designer.

The protag of each story is a Maori woman who reacts with anguish mixed with guilt and helplessness to little Waru's death. In the first, directed by Briar Grace-Smith, the middle-aged Charm is directing food preparation for the mourners like an army sergeant. Her stormy confrontation with Waru's sobbing young mother is truly anguishing, as the girl begs her to use supernatural powers to "bring my baby back."

Casey Kaa's story centers on the boy's kindergarten teacher, Anahera, who juggles talking to his classmates about who will sit in his seat, an ambiguous relationship with a fellow teacher, and her resistance to attending the funeral. It feels strangely unfinished, especially as the character never reappears.

This is followed by Ainsely Gardiner's wrenching account of a single mother who hasn't enough money to buy gas for her car or food for her kids. A complementary piece on motherhood is Katie Wolfe's about a hip young singer who comes home at dawn, falling down drunk, and discovers her baby has been locked in the house, alone. This snapshot of irresponsibility needs no commentary.

The key story recounts the funeral itself, called a tangi in Maori. As directed by Renae Maihi, it is a striking scene in which two elderly grandmothers, each from a different tribal group, contend for the body of their grandson. Anger and pride yield to tears and the sacrifice of one of them to help Waru find spiritual peace. The glimpses of ancestral traditions, like the crowns of leaves in their hair or the exchange of "a bone for a bone," are riveting. It is interesting that editor Craig Parkes sets this emotional culmination in the middle of the film.

In contrast, Chelsea Cohen's modern story about overt racism at a TV studio feels overblown and exaggerated, though who knows. After being treated revoltingly by everyone from the make-up artist to her co-host on a news show, a Maori anchorwoman scandalously speaks her mind on live TV.

The idea of a woman speaking out is echoed in Paula Jones' subtle story of arrogance and abuse, in which the young teen Mere finds her voice to accuse her abuser. It is shot with great atmosphere and a touch of mystery. Awanui Simich-Pene's final story, written by Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, is even more elusive. Two sisters, Titty and Bash, drive to a dangerous place where Bash is determined she will get her kids back. It is hard to know how to take these two emotionally charged women, and the episode again leaves a brooding, suspended feeling in the air.

Adding to the film's unusual aura is Drew Sturge's nearly, but not quite, black and white cinematography shot in majestic DCI Scope with an over-exposed look.

Production company: Brown Sugar Apple Grunt Productions with the support of Te Mangai Paho, NZ On Air, Maori Television, New Zealand Film Commission
Cast: Miriama McDowell, Tanea Heke, Roimata Fox, Maria Walker, Acacia Hapi, Ngapaki Moetara, Kararaina Rangihau, Amber Curreen, Awhina-Rose Ashby, Mary-Anne Mere Waaka
Directors: Briar Grace-Smith, Ainsley Gardiner, Renae Maihi, Casey Kaa, Awanui Simich-Pene, Chelsea Cohen, Katie Wolfe, Paula Jones
Screenwriters: Briar Grace-Smith, Ainsley Gardiner, Renae Maihi, Casey Kaa, Chelsea Cohen, Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, Katie Wolfe, Paula Jones
Producers: Kerry Warkia, Kiel McNaughton
Director of photography: Drew Sturge
Production designer: Riria Lee
Costume designer: Lindah Lepou
Editor: Craig Parkes
Music: Lauren King
Casting director: Yvette Reid
World sales: MPI
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
86 minutes