MURU

TEAREPA KAHI AND TĀME ITI'S RESPONSE TO THE TRAGEDIES OF TŪHOE

INTERVIEW
By Connor Dalton
16th October 2022

Tearepa Kahi's 'Muru' is not a retelling of history, but a response to a century of pain. Inspired by the 2007 New Zealand antiterrorism raids, the film centres on a mosaic of characters involved in the police manhunt for activist and artist Tāme Iti, who was falsely suspected of leading paramilitary training camps. But Kahi makes a point to remind viewers that this wasn't the first attack on Tūhoe land, with a title card stating a similar incursion occurred in 1916. Doing so gives 'Muru' a mythical quality, as it aims to reframe a history of violence and restore power to the people of Tūhoe in a unique blend of rage, soul, action, fiction, and truth.

During their recent promotional tour across Australia, I spoke with writer and director Tearepa Kahi and producer Tāme Iti (who also portrays himself) about the consultation they received from the community, their desire to tell this story on the big screen, and how they both knew the best person to play Tāme Iti was Tāme Iti. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CONNOR DALTON: How did you two meet? What's the Tearepa and Tāme story?

TEAREPA KAHI: True story; my father was a jazz fusion drummer down in Christchurch where he met Papa Tāme, and my father-in-law is a good friend of Papa Tāme. So there's a familial connection.

TĀME ITI: Yeah, and I think it's really good - well, particularly for me - because that helped me too because I only work with people that I trust, and sharing those stories to people that I can trust, [and people] that can make things happen. And, I guess, it's a story that needs to be told and having people like Tearepa and others with him, they bring the magic, really, and put it together like gravy.

KAHI: So we go back. We go back way beyond a film script.

DALTON: What attracted you both in wanting to tell this story on the big screen?

ITI: There have been a couple of documentaries made about the raid itself, and I think there's a lot of different layers. And I think having Tearepa around, and provoking the conversation, and then for us to be able to share that story for me; it was interesting. [It was] interesting just having those sorts of conversations: the layout, what does it look like? Where's it gonna happen? Is it going to happen now? Soon? How? And all of those different elements of it. And working within the village, [and] can we get the police in there? Can they be part of it? How do we do that? So we went through that whole process.

KAHI: New Zealand media has only ever presented Papa Tāme in a certain way, and because of our relationship, there was a possibility to get beyond the headline, beyond the news grab, beyond the bulletin, and really commit to the 100-foot screen and the depth and complexity that required. So, in that sort of sense, taking on that responsibility, it was like, "Well, let's go for it!"

'MURU' TRAILER 2

Cliff Curtis wanted to be a part of it. A lot of great actors [wanted to be a part of it]: Jay Ryan, Manu Bennett. They were all attracted by the idea of being able to come in and support Tāme Iti. And that's a cinematic prospect in itself: Tāme Iti! [laughs]

DALTON: At the beginning of the film, I was intrigued by one of the title cards. It reads: this is not a recreation; it is a response. What made you decide to go in that direction?

KAHI: This is a great question. I had written quite a faithful, chronologically sequenced script earlier, and Papa Tāme organised a meeting with the village - the full village - inside of one of our traditional houses. And in there, an auntie spoke up, and she said, "Boy, is this film about one day?" And at that time, I stood up and said, "Yes! I've got it right here, here it is, you can read it." And she said, "What a waste," and I got a little nervous [laughs], [I] didn't understand what she was saying.

And she goes, "The government have been doing this to us for over a century, so why would you make it about one day?" And that's when I got even more nervous because [I] spent all that time writing the script. But at the same time, she was right. And that's why it's a response because it's not a recreation of a single day in the events of the government against Tūhoe. There's a much more layered approach. A bigger cultural canvas to sort of bring to life on the big screen, and I think we've achieved that. And it was through so much contribution and guidance from the valley, from Papa Tāme's people, and the time that we spent in collaboration with each other.

DALTON: I found it interesting that the film was shot in the same locations where the '07 raids occurred. Was that difficult to clear with the community? Did either of you have concerns about replicating what could be some very intense memories?

KAHI: Full honesty, I've been nervous about that every single day of pre-production in terms of the duty of care required, as well as the responsibility, as well as opening up the full community - Papa Tāme's community - to more trauma. But because we took our time, we all committed to this action of not turning away and actually being inspired by the people within the community to ensure that this chapter is not forgotten because that's what you're dealing with.

If you don't go into the valley, if you go into a West Auckland warehouse or if you go to a film set which is convenient, you're not representing the real truth, and you're actually creating more distance between you and more understanding. And we have taken license, but we've taken license from historical threads [and] put them together, hopefully, in a way that is artistic, cinematic and deeply truthful and resonates in a way that we can't ignore it anymore. And that's the real call for 'Muru' - to prevent this moment from ever happening again.

DALTON: When I watched the film, it really shook me. I found it quite distressing. As someone who has worked on film sets in the past, I was wondering what kind of energy would the two of you try to instil on set. Was it an emotional set? Was it invigorating to revisit certain things and take creative license?

Everyone could always see what we're trying to do here, whose story we're trying to bring to life, and why.

KAHI: This is another great question [laughs]. We had so much fun.

ITI: Yeah, it's fun.

KAHI: And Papa Tāme was on his quad [bike] whether he was called to the scene or not. He was always there, and that was one of the most important things - that any of our actors could turn around and they would see he wasn't there to intimidate or cast his shadow over everybody. But everyone could always see what we're trying to do here, whose story we're trying to bring to life, and why.

ITI: Every coolness of making the movie on a daily basis is always new things I've learned from the making of it and the process. This is the first film I've actually been involved [in] from the beginning to the end, right through on a daily basis - that's massive work. Not just writing the story but putting it together and weaving [it] together. Then you take those whole weeks of making it, and then you've got to cut it. I think what they came out with, I say, "Wow, that's huge."

And in making it, to me, there had to be a reason. I mean, the amazing thing about the film is [it's] done by indigenous people. It's been done in the village. It actually happened in their village, but it's also fun and interesting. You know, [asking] the village people whether they want to be part of it, they want their horses to be in there, they want their dogs in there, their cowboy hats, all of that. All [of] them kind of make it really interesting. And the whole village talked about it whilst we were in the making of it, and they were quite excited by it. And even right up to your point there, when the movie was presented and when the door was opened, they all wanted to go in and see it. Yeah, all of that was fun.

DALTON: I was going to mention it later, but since you brought it up, at what point did you both realise that the best person to portray Tāme was the man himself?

KAHI: I always knew, but I held it as a secret. And there was a big rumour going through the village that Cliff Curtis was here to play Tāme Iti, and everyone agreed with it [laughs].

ITI: And I was gonna play Cliff Curtis [laughs]. He'll play me, I'll play him. [But] no, it was good, I really enjoyed playing that part of it.

KAHI: But only because we took our time. It was about building confidence, and it was always an understanding [of] making him an offer he couldn't refuse because it was too late to pull out [laughs]. But having spent so much time with Papa, when he read the script, he could see that his dialogue actually was his dialogue. That these are things that he had said over time; that I had not imposed any of my ideas on him that didn't belong. We just spent time where when he read it, he read himself, and that was good.

DALTON: You've made this film, you've released it in your home country, now it's getting released in Australia, and it played at the Toronto International Film Festival. I can imagine it's been quite a journey for both of you. How cathartic has this endeavour been for you both?

KAHI: I was in Busan a day and a half ago, and the Busan International Film Festival audience are cinephiles, but I never knew whether our valley would translate to their valley or over into Toronto as well. But they were both packed houses, and they had the same response to watching the film as everyone does back home, and that is when the credits go up and the lights come up, everyone stays glued to their seats. Everyone eventually walks out of the cinema very quietly and wants to have a conversation and want to be able to share about it, and seeing that response in international waters and lands means that the valley speaks authentically and connects to these other places, and that's a powerful thing.

DALTON: Have you found the response to differ at all when you have shown it in other countries?

KAHI: Well, in Toronto, a woman in the audience burst out into a traditional call, and that was unexpected. And [in] Busan, [there was] this huge silence across the room. The biggest reaction they had was when they asked me how did I get Tāme involved and when I told them my father and Papa Tāme were friends and the connection was family, everybody in the audience went, "Oh!" It was like now they understood that this wasn't a director asking an actor to please be in my film. Relationships brought 'Muru' together. Relationships brought 'Muru' to the screen.

'Muru' is in Australian cinemas now.

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