If you are not already familiar with Maori culture, they are a vibrant and colorful community that is native to New Zealand. It’s possible that you may have come across a film or two showcasing aspects of their culture whether it be from Aquaman including Haka and Hongi into his backstory, or some of the mythologies that were touched on in Moana.
However, there is a world of amazing cinema out there for you to learn about and support Maori history, cinema, culture, and issues. Here are 5 amazing Maori films from a diverse selection of genres that are available to watch now.
The Dead Lands (Thriller/Martial Arts)
The Dead Lands, starring James Rolleston, Lawrence Makaore, and Te Kohe Tuhaka, is a masterful, action-packed, and brilliantly choreographed martial artis adventure that tells the tale of an unlikely friendship formed between Hongi, the son of a chief, whose village was pillaged by a tribe, and his mentor, a rumored “monster” that resides in “The Dead Lands” who teaches him how to vindicate himself by becoming a warrior.
While this film appears to have martial arts at its focal point, the narrative is a deeply historical discourse on what it meant to honor your ancestors and it also tells a gripping as well as touching story of the monster’s journey into vulnerability and the retention of his humanity through remorse.
Prepare for some of the best Mau rākau fighting scenes of your life.
In 2020, The Dead Lands was made into an English dubbed series on Amazon and featured Te Kohe Tuhaka (who played the antagonist, Wirepa, in the original film) as The Monster.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople (Comedy)
This adorably outlandish and comedic coming of age film starring Daniel Dennison, Rachel House, Sam Niell, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, and Troy Khingi centers around a Maori teen coming from the foster care system. Ricky Baker, a delinquent adolescent, is coming to terms with finding himself after the death of one of his foster parents. He seeks solace in becoming a “wilderperson” through learning how to escape society’s limitations and living in the wild with his reluctant, grumpy and grieving guide, Hec, who eventually forms a bond with him.
He and his caretaker in mourning form an unlikely father-son/uncle-nephew relationship while on the run from the authorities as they both process the loss of a loved one. The film is hilarious, comedic, heartwarming, and a fun adventure into the wild that takes police stereotypes as well as survival guides and turns them on their heads.
White Lies (Drama)
The serious tone of White Lies, starring Rachel House, explores racism and colorism in the Maori community during the European colonization of New Zealand. When a medicine woman is asked to hide the secret of a wealthy woman, the truth about her employer and the woman she cares for becomes clear and boundaries get crossed. This film shines a light on the direct effects of cultural erasure and colonialism in New Zealand during the 1930s.
Whina stars Rena Owen and is a biopic film based on the story of Dame Whina Cooper, a kuia (or elder) who challenged societal and gender norms. She was a notable political activist who worked to achieve rights for her people with a particular emphasis on women. The film follows her through every stage of life and documents her rise to leadership in the Maori community.
Whale Rider (Drama/Coming-of-Age)
This one is honestly hard to have missed due to its notoriety in the early 2000’s. Whale Rider, starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Cliff Curtis, and Rachel House is especially notable for subverting cultural gender roles. It tells the story of one girl’s rise to become a fierce warrior and leader in her Maori village against the teachings of her grandfather, the chief. This beautiful film showcases martial arts, dancing, and the strength that we find when we tap into our heritage and courage to lead against all odds.