Waru: The New Zealand film you need to see

Eight is enough

In the powerful new film Waru, art addresses social issues, with a dream team of Māori wāhine directors creating an elegiac eight-part examination of a young child’s death.

In New Zealand, a child dies from abuse once every five weeks, on average. The new film Waru, produced by Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton and released nationwide this month, aims to dispel the damaging stereotypes behind screeching media headlines and show the multi-faceted reasons behind child abuse instead. The film is told in eight 10-minute parts, with each part directed by a different Māori wahine. Each section had to be 10 minutes long, and filmed at the same time of day, in one shot. The film’s central focus is the tangi of a child, Waru. Each vignette explores the death through a different lens, collectively raising questions about what we as a society could do to stop our young people from dying. New Zealand recently ranked 34th out of 41 developed nations in a UNICEF Child Wellbeing Report, so Waru hits hard. “They’re very complicated, multi-layered issues that we’re talking about with child abuse,” says Awanui Simich-Pene, one of Waru’s co-directors. “Is it to do with addiction and poverty, and is it the trickle-down effect of colonisation, and disenfranchised people, and taking away a language and a culture, and taking away tribal lands?” Here, we hear from the directors whose contributions shaped the film.

Briar Grace-Smith

Briar Grace-Smith’s vignette opens the film. It is located at the marae where the funeral of Waru is taking place. Aunty Charm is leading the chaos in the kitchen.

“It’s women that are quite prevalent in Māori communities that we don’t often hear from. They’re kind of our unsung heroes. There are many Auntie Charms. Food is almost like the opposite of what we’re dealing with in the subject matter… we’re talking about the death of a child through domestic violence, and so we come into this almost light-hearted family or extended family that are putting together a meal – which contrasts with the issue we’re dealing with, and also because food is about togetherness and community and sharing. Essentially that’s what Charm’s about as well. Also, for me, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the kitchens and I’m quite a background kind of person, so for me it was an accessible entry into quite a heavy story which I understood.”

Casey Kaa

In Kaa’s segment of the film, Waru’s teacher Anahera mourns his loss and feels a responsibility for his absence and death.

Waru is not a Māori film. This film has been told from a  Māori lens because we are all Māori directors. Ultimately, [abuse] is not a Māori problem, it’s a New Zealand problem. We have some of the highest child abuse rates in the world… ultimately we are talking to the community of New Zealand and saying we all need to take charge. [The character of] Anahera is one of the community members, and what we’ve done in this film is try to show the shared responsibility we all have in making change to save more children. Anahera, I don’t believe, has had much hands-on experience with child abuse, but it shows the ripples of guilt and the ripples that one of these sorts of events can cause throughout the community.”

Ainsley Gardiner

Gardiner’s vignette shows a single mother named Mihi, who tries to take her kids (who are in Waru’s class) to school. Her car won’t start and there’s no food in the house.  

“My story is about disconnection and isolation, moreso than it is about poverty. I spent three years on the DPB and I really was amazed at the ways in which it was demoralising, and that it had an effect on me that was bone-deep and changed my way of thinking about myself and the world. My family is not poor, I’m not an inter-generational beneficiary… but I have three young kids and I worked in the film industry when my relationship broke up – that’s just what I needed to do out of necessity to support my kids and also to try and stay in this industry. It is definitely a commentary about the welfare system in this country and how it contributes to the problems of abuse, but the biggest aspect of it is how it isolates you from your community, it isolates you spiritually and it isolates you practically from your family and community.”

Katie Wolfe

Katie Wolfe’s segment of the film focusses on a mother, Em, who gets home drunk from a night out and discovers her baby is locked inside the house and she can’t get in. 

“One thing we wanted to do was break through this idea that people who are involved in these crimes are monsters. It’s easy to cast them as monsters because it means that they’re different from us and there’s nothing to be done about them, when actually, these people are part of our society. With Em, it was important to show that she was someone who had a job, she was with her workmates – even though it was part of a culture where everyone had been out drinking, she was incredibly popular with her friends and she had huge love for her child, so in some ways is a very normal young woman but who cannot control what she drinks. So taking her out of the monster realm I think means we can look outside ourselves and think whether we know anybody like that, is there any help I can extend to someone like that? When you have drug and alcohol issues, sometimes you have to get out of certain environments in order to choose a path of wellness.”

Renae Maihi

Renae Maihi’s vignette zooms in on Waru’s paternal grandmother, Ranui, as she arrives at his maternal marae to retrieve the child’s body.

“This kaupapa or issue has really been very close to my heart for a very long time. I remember when I was about 11 years old, growing up in south Auckland, and I watched a documentary based on the death of Delcelia Witika, who had passed away in really tragic and violent circumstances. It deeply affected me as a young child. Film is one of the most important mediums of storytelling and healing in the world, and I knew that this was an opportunity to give voice to those children, give voice to the reasons why this is happening within our country, and perhaps offer a perspective of when you break down a village and destroy a people’s mana, they’re left with no guidelines as to who they are.”

Chelsea Cohen

In Chelsea Cohen’s vignette in the film, a Māori television presenter, Kiri, confronts stereotypes about Māori by speaking out about domestic violence when she’s on-air.

“I think when you are Māori you get associated with these labels, because it’s easy to chuck a label on anything, so if you identify with that culture then you’re part of that label process. [I used] real anecdotes and stories that reporters had told me. I spoke to a lot of journalists and throughout their careers, they’re seen as second-class, or seen as not quite as knowledgeable as their male white counterparts.”

Paula Jones

Paula Jones’ vignette zooms in on the moment when the community says their goodbyes to Waru’s body, and a young girl, Mere, confronts her sexual abuser.

“[Sexual violence] is something that we don’t talk about. It’s something that affects so many people and we would prefer to just gloss over it. I make documentaries and every documentary that I’ve made, people talk about this as being a thing that’s pretty much destroyed their lives. At the moment, you’ve got these enquiries with state wards that people are just ignoring, so I wanted to put it in the film because it’s real. When I put my story forward, the other women weren’t wanting to vilify men, they felt that maybe I was going a little too far adding this. But, I pointed out he’s the only man in the whole film that actually has done something bad – we don’t ever reveal who did kill Waru. I pointed out that all of our stories have got women and we’re okay with pointing the finger at ourselves and taking that responsibility on. We wear that. We don’t want to put our Māori men under the spotlight, so we wear the guilt and the shame and whatever else.”

Awanui Simich-Pene  Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu 

Awanui Simich-Pene and Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu teamed up to create the film’s final segment about two sisters, Titty and Bash, who rescue kids from a violent, neglectful household.

Awanui (director): “The key message right throughout the film is to have courage: the courage to change, the courage to move on, the courage to step in. For us, Titty really represented the everywoman in our community that says things like, ‘oh if it was bad enough someone would have done something already’ or has all those fears that we all have, or ‘who am I to step in?’ Then there’s Bash, who we all want to be and all should be and she’s the one that’s just had enough, she’s had e-nough.”

Josephine (writer): “They were inspired by our mothers really, but our mothers were both Bash and we’re Titty. Awa told me a story about her mum intervening on violence and not just being a bystander, and I turned it into this story between these two women and also imagined them a little bit as us, as me and Awa when I wrote it.”