Whina tells the incredible true story of Whina Cooper, a Māori civil rights and land rights activist who in 1975 united her people to lead a historical march across the entire length of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and became known as became Te Whaea o te Motu: the Mother of the Nation.
Historical drama is always a balancing act: stick too close to the bare facts and you risk boring your audience. Embellish the past a little too flamboyantly, and you’re in danger of rewriting history. This is the tightrope walk James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones embarked on when they directed Whina. Telling the life story of such a beloved national treasure is a great responsibility requiring no small amount of courage, but Robertson and Whetu prove themselves to be more than up to the task.
Whina, it emerges, is not only the story of that famous march in 1975, but a tale of one woman’s outrageous courage in the face of impossible adversity. She faces not only the cultural discrimination imposed on her people, but also what seems like insurmountable personal grief. Set against the breath-taking landscapes of Aotearoa, Whina herself is played simultaneously by a host of impressive actors, with Miriama McDowell taking on the role of Whina during her earlier life, through the events that made her the public figure that she was; and Rena Owen playing the contemporary part of Whina at 79, the age at which she braved the 29-day march from the tip of New Zealand right down to Parliament in Wellington to petition for Māori rights.
Whina’s life story is one of conflict, bravery and commitment to one’s culture, even when that culture seems to turn against you. Her struggle is twofold: both as a woman struggling for recognition within her own community, and a member of a community struggling for recognition within their own country. Whina appears as a touchstone in a New Zealand whose values and culture were violently in flux; and at times it is all she can do not to be swept away by the tide.
Despite her iconic status within Māori culture, Whina is portrayed as a real human being with a complicated inner moral life. At one point, when her father, the chief, cautions her against using violence and criminal methods to resist their Pākehā (European) landlord, explaining that the there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve change, Whina simply retorts “I will do whichever way works”. By the end of the film, she insists against violence during the course of their march. It is impossible not to be moved by the collective action that the march represents, and a community rising in solidarity against oppression. This awe is compounded by the majesty of the big screen spectacle with its dazzling landscapes and vibrant cinematography.
But the devotion to historical accuracy in the film sometimes comes at the expense of a deeper insight into Whina’s personal life. Many promising characters fall by the wayside as the plot is dragged along by the inexorable tide of historical fact, and in the face of the mammoth task of summarising such a huge chunk of modern Kiwi history. Historical biography and personal drama vie for the spotlight, and the overall effect may leave audiences wishing we had more time to spend with Whina the person instead of Whina the legacy, as well as the people who joined in her struggle. The precious human moments in which history slows down and we witness Whina’s internal conflict are the most valuable parts of the film, and it’s hard not to wish there were more of them.
While Whina may occasionally stumble into the all-too familiar pitfalls of historical drama, it is nevertheless a beautiful, respectful, and desperately important piece of indigenous storytelling and representation for a culture whose struggle for recognition is far from over, and an inspiration to cultures and communities in the same position the world over.
Words by Eli Dolliver
This film was screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. You can find the rest of our coverage here.
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