Told from the viewpoint of nine female filmmakers, Waru is the first feature film from New Zealand to be made by Maori women since Merata Mita’s Mauri almost 30 years ago.

Eight female Maori directors each contributed a ten-minute vignette, presented as a continuous shot in real time, that unfolds around the tangi (funeral) of a small boy (Waru) who died at the hands of his caregiver. The vignettes are all subtly interlinked and each follow one of eight female Maori lead characters during the same moment in time as they come to terms with Waru’s death and try to find a way forward in their community. In Maori, waru means 8.

“Our goal for Waru was to communicate the shared feelings we have towards child abuse in Aotearoa (New Zealand), and we felt the best way to tell this story was from a female Maori perspective and from multiple viewpoints,” explain producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, who were initially doubtful they would find eight female Maori directors when they launched their search through social media.

“They never really expected to find enough Maori women to do it and they ended up with 50 applications,” explains one of the directors, Paula Jones, when STACK meets with this lively tribe at the Toronto International Film Festival where their film premiered in the Discovery section.

Together with her fellow directors, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace-Smith, Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, Renae Maihi, Casey Kaa and Chelsea Cohen, they have all flown in from different parts of New Zealand and today presents a boisterous reunion.

“Some of us were approached directly but the rest of us applied because we wanted to be a part of this project,” says Kaa.

“There were no stories in place although they had roughly looked at ideas, so we all came in really blank and made our offer to the table,” says Maihi.

Positive word of mouth on Waru has been overwhelming despite the fact it doesn’t premiere in New Zealand until October 19.

“we felt the best way to tell this story was from a female Maori perspective and from multiple viewpoints”

All the women agree that it’s an important story to tell. “At home we rarely see women on screen, let alone Maori women – so people are finding this to be quite fresh and shocking, which is something none of us actually considered when we were writing and directing. We’re only telling the stories that we know and that we’ve been trying to tell for ages,” says Simich-Pene.

Most of the directors are mothers themselves, and see Waru as a way of breaking the silence on New Zealand’s escalating child abuse statistics.

“Every five weeks there’s a child killed in New Zealand,” says Grace-Smith softly, checking her phone and announcing how another death at home has been reported during the two days they’ve been at the festival. “There’s lots of reasons,” she adds. “Stress, poverty, the growing gap between rich and poor. Apparently we have the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the world. People don’t understand that about our country, they think it’s all green and beautiful.”

None of the women shy away from a tough conversation. “The loss of tribal lands, loss of our language and a cultural and spiritual deprivation has created the sting of poverty and addiction,” says Simich-Pene.

“I grew up with that so I know that to be true and how that really destroys families. When someone is off their face, they’re not taking care of their children. Poverty causes the stress to rise and you’re just trying to make ends meet, and then there’s the drugs and alcohol and all that plays a really big part in our children being neglected and it becomes a vicious cycle.”

They all hope that Waru can make a difference. “I hope it can start a conversation about bringing our families into recovery so they can see the light and start looking after ourselves again,” she says, pointing out that child abuse is not just a Maori problem.

The latest addition to a small but growing canon of Maori films, including The Patriach by Lee Tamahori and James Napier Robinson’s The Dark Horse, Waru emerged as one of the most talked about films at TIFF.

Left to right – Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Paula Jones, Casey Kaa, STACK’s Gill Pringle,
Briar Grace-Smith, Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu and Chelsea Cohen