What makes a Maori Film?

What is a Māori Film? This is a difficult bloody question. There is no easy answer and most genuine responses contain some degree of truth.
Tainui Stephens
July 4, 2024

What is a Māori Film?

This is a difficult bloody question.

There is no easy answer and most genuine responses contain some degree of truth. It’s also a question that must always be asked, because in the asking we gift ourselves the chance to be very clear about our motivations for doing what we do. I’m talking about those of us who are proud to be Māori filmmakers.

For anyone who thinks about these things, some believe that a Māori film must fit certain pretty obvi-ous criteria: connections with the land, with the tribe, with our his-tory, and with the spirit world. For some, the simple presence of Māori on the screen or behind the cam-era is what counts most. Others of a more traditional persuasion look to the presence of Māori language and customs as the only sure way to identify a film as being Māori. Others yet again insist that despite whatever the content may (or importantly may not) be, as long as a Māori is at the helm, it’s got to be a Māori film.

The question is a hot topic mainly when filmmakers seek resources from government agencies. The peeps who actually go to the movies don’t really care. They just want a film that they can enjoy. They are less attracted by the ethnicity of  the content than they are about the type of story it happens to be. And really, they couldn’t give a rats about the makers – unless of course it’s a well known name, someone whose record of work guarantees a certain quality.

One associated and somewhat tricky matter concerns Pākehā who may wish to add Māori material to their work. There are certainly Māori who make screen stories about Pākehā, and it seems only fair that the reverse should be available to any filmmaker. I for one don’t wish to censor or inhibit anyone from telling any story.


It is interesting to note the different perspectives that Pākehā bring to the Māori stories they tell. In the worst instances voyeurism is evident, and in the best there is a clear respect for our shared humanity. The freedom to tell stories should be available for all – unless the lim-ited resources that may be available to Māori filmmakers get siphoned off somewhere else.  

One view of Māori film is that it represents the cinema of survival. Many of our big screen stories scrutinise difficult social conditions that speak to our place in society. WARU is a perfectly formed recent example of that. This portmanteau feature of eight ten minute stories that revolve around the death of a child, is a triumph of form and content with a clear native skew. It is also significant that the eight directors are all Māori women.

But survival isn’t just about conservation and protection of our values, it is also about exploration. Our ancestors were unafraid to explore and they did so safely, by taking their values with them into new ter-ritories. You could easily put most of the films of Taika Waititi into this category.

At the moment, Māori cinema is going through something of a growth spurt. We are witnessing a burgeoning new generation of Māori film-maker. We see the same situation worldwide in the rise and rise of native big screen storytellers. Many of them, are crafting and hurling their films against the shackles of various and usually oppressive status quos.

The cast and crew of THE LAWNMOWER MEN OF KAPU

One advantage of an important albeit misleading question like the title of this piece, is that the answers evolve to reflect the times. One of the truths of our current era is that as the global community is ever more connected, so too are indigenous nations and their storytellers. A second truth is that the world of movies is going through a period of great transition. A third truth is that one of the defining characteristics of Māori film today is authenticity.

And authenticity in an era where fake news abounds, is something to respect and be proud of. One cur-rent view I have about what constitutes a Māori film holds that there are three common threads that run through all indigenous work – and it’s about relationships: With our environment, with each other, and with the total span of time.

From the 21st - 25th March, Māoriland is presenting its fifth annual film festival in Ōtaki. This rapidly growing event celebrates indigenous screen storytelling in all its glory and variety. Any questions about what defines a Māori film can be thoroughly explored when we also see the work of other indigenous screen storytellers. The similarities of our difficult histo-ries and our creative responses to them constitute riveting cinema.

Come to Māoriland and see for yourself our collective and individual authenticity as human beings. Authenticity knows no geographic or political border. Neither does it acknowledge skin colour, gender or belief. I choose to believe that this is our safest way forward into an uncertain future.

Mauriora ki a tātou ki te tangata.

Tainui Stephens