by Brannavan Gnanalingam
The International Film Festival’s retrospective this year is showcasing a milestone in New Zealand film and television, the 1974 series Tangata Whenua. Made by then barely known director Barry Barclay, the then barely known historian Michael King, and the film production company South Pacific Pictures, Tangata Whenua showcased Māoridom from “within” for arguably the first time in this country’s broadcasting history.
Barry Barclay is still unheralded. His 1989 feature film debut Ngati is regarded as the first indigenous film made in the world and played at Cannes – and to a large extent it is where his contemporary reputation lies. However, the importance of his earlier documentary work, and Tangata Whenua in particular, is only now being rehabilitated with Barclay’s death in 2008. The series caused a stir on New Zealand television, and brought up issues which had been barely explored before, within the cultural landscape of the country.
Barclay grew up in the Wairarapa, with a Māori mother of Ngāti Apa descent, and a Pākehā father. Associate Professor Russell Campbell, film lecturer at Victoria University, documentarian and script consultant on some of Barclay’s work says : “Barclay didn’t grow up in a Māori environment, unlike many other Māori activists of his generation. When he fiercely adopted this idea of pursuing Māoridom in this way, it was with a fervour that other people didn’t have. I don’t think he was particularly secure in his identity, which is often a driver in creative people.”
Barclay made a number of short documentaries which are being screened as part of the retrospective, in particular The Town That Lost a Miracle about Opononi, and its famous visitor Opo the Dolphin. However, it was the TV series that changed the cultural landscape. Campbell says. “I don’t know of any single film series with comparable significance to Tangata Whenua.” Barclay approached his subjects from within by letting his subjects have a voice, and in the process, helped kickstart the Māori renaissance movement. Prior Māori-themed documentaries such as the Film Unit work according to Campbell adopted “a kind of Pākehā perspective on these ‘interesting natives’. They have a mainstream Pākehā voiceover, which would interpret that society from an unspoken assumption that ‘we know what you’re like and what you’re thinking.’”
Campbell says “Tangata Whenua didn’t have any of that. Māori people were speaking for themselves. He let them speak in Māori if they wanted to. It had a rhythm which was much slower than television, and didn’t have that heavy educational thrust that the Film Unit documentaries had. Finding a whole lot of elders, and significant people in the Māori world talking about their values, histories and traditions was fantastic. Nobody had done anything like that.”
Introducing the Tangata Whenua retrospective for the Film Festival is Graeme Tuckett’s documentary, The Camera on the Shore. The title of the documentary references Barclay’s own quote of using the camera as if indigenous peoples were standing on the shore and seeing the colonists arrive, rather than the camera coming from the colonists themselves. Tuckett captured the last interviews with Barclay before his death, and assembles interviews with many of Barclay’s collaborators and friends. Tuckett says that Barclay, in Tangata Whenua, “Did something with the camera that had never been done before. He taught the camera respect, how to be a ‘younger’, as opposed to an elder. He tamed the camera and taught it tikanga. The results he and Michael King got from that, the answers they got, were just astonishing. Of course, he was filming this, as he said in the interviews, in New Zealand in 1972. Not deliberately divided, but an absolutely divided nation.”
Given New Zealand only had one television channel in 1974, the series gained considerable coverage by being shown at prime-time on a Sunday evening. Tuckett says : “This pretty much guaranteed a lot of people were going to be watching. It was the talk the next day, in some cases in extremely disparaging tones e.g. ‘why are they bothering’, ‘who are these people’, ‘this is just a bunch of Maoris, how funny is that’. But for other people, some scales fell off some eyes.”
The Tangata Whenua series also put into practice Barclay’s approach to filming Māori. He coined the concept of “Fourth Cinema”. Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino had wrote of “First Cinema” being that of commercial America, “Second Cinema” that of European art cinema, and “Third Cinema” being those of former colonial countries trying to capture a new form of self-expression which critiques the other two cinema models. Barclay added a “Fourth Cinema” to this framework, to account for minority indigenous peoples trying to express themselves within dominant cultures.
Barclay’s approach was to step back, and make his films appear as if they were not directed. Campbell says that Barclay liked reciting a quote : “Get that camera out of here, we’re making a film”. Tangata Whenua for example, has an unobtrusive camera and respect for its subjects. Campbell says “they put a long lens on the camera and a radio mic on the interviewee, and he was out on the camera. Some subjects would have been blissfully unaware of the camera, which was an interesting technique. It allowed, paradoxically, quite a bit of intimacy.”
In his book Our Own Image, Barclay focuses on how to bring a camera onto a marae, or as Tuckett puts it : “[How to] introduce the camera to an indigenous community who is mistrustful of anything that will take away your image, where an image means an awful lot more than a temporary facsimile. It was very much ‘how do you teach the camera manners’. The European camera is extremely unmannered, it’s very rude. It breaks down the door, steals what it wants, and then runs away again.”
Barclay also sought to create links with other indigenous populations around the world, such as in Hawaii, First Nation peoples in Canada and indigenous groups in South America. He championed indigenous expression, and suggested that a shared experience of being indigenous can be mutually expressed through film. Barclay was also a noted writer – Our Own Image and Mana Tuturu dealt with indigenous rights, intellectual property, (such as copyright for cultures who don’t have such a fixed concept of time), and cultural expression.
Campbell says “He’s important in terms of the cultural politics of New Zealand cinema, as much as for his practice as a filmmaker.” Tuckett suggests : “He was far more of a philosopher, than a filmmaker.” Tuckett says that a film like 1991’s Te Rua, despite being disowned by its producer and being considered a failure, had ideas in it that “Were twenty, twenty-five years ahead of its time.”
However, tension exists in his work, which suggests an indigenous voice is potentially a little simplistic. A series like Tangata Whenua highlights the myth of national tikanga – that it is impossible to pin down one Māori voice, given the divergent views and customs that exist within Māori. Barclay argued that “You’re having yourself on if you think the camera’s neutral”, and that despite Barclay’s non-interventionist style, there’s still a considerable authorial voice throughout his work. Campbell suggests that the concept of “Fourth Cinema” is “working off a slightly outdated model. That’s a model from the 1970s. There’s too much diversity in world film production [now] to be able to classify things in that way.” Tuckett suggests a film like Ngati, despite its status as the first indigenous film, “works because it’s accessible to Pākehā. It’s a great strength. It’s a good film, but it plays by some of the rules, it’s got great entertainment values, it’s got a perfect three-act structure and a love story.”
That said, Campbell maintains in the wake of Tangata Whenua’s ‘talking in’, that “there has been lots and lots of ‘talking in’ since then, the Maori community speaking for themselves.” Programmes such as Waka Huia, Marae, and the more recent developments in Māori Television owe a large debt to the impact of Barclay’s work. And the series itself is still considered a fresh, vital piece of art-work, filmed with a unique rhythm and empathy for traditions, te reo, and pride in the country’s Māori history.
Campbell emphasises Barry Barclay’s significance. Despite getting up a lot of people’s noses, “He’s the guy who put biculturalism on the map, as far as film and television goes.”