On the ground: Taratoa Stappard at Māoriland Film Festival

London-based filmmaker Taratoa Stappard looks back on his prize-winning trip to the Māoriland Film Festival in his birth town Aotearoa.

An art-deco style cinema exterior with Maorliand Film Festival banners.

The Civic cinema during the Māoriland Film Festival.

Photo by Taratoa Stappard

My father was British, my mother is Māori and I live in London but I was born in Aotearoa (New Zealand) – so when my short film, Emkhatsini, was selected to screen at the Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki, Aotearoa, I was determined to make it to the other side of the world and attend. Thanks to a travel grant from the British Council I was able to get there.

Emkhatsini is set in Eswatini (Swaziland) in southern Africa. I had visited and worked in the country before and I wanted to tell a story about life led between cultures and between life and death. My short has screened in festivals in the UK, USA, Germany and South Korea but I never imagined it would take me back to Aotearoa, never mind to the precise region of my Māori tūpuna (ancestors) where many of my whānau (family) now live.

Māoriland Film Festival

The Māoriland Film Festival celebrates indigenous voices and stories, welcoming indigenous films and their creators to Ōtaki every March for five days of screenings, workshops and special events. Ōtaki is a coastal town of about 6,000 residents, 70km north of Aotearoa’s capital city, Wellington. It’s home to two marae (meeting grounds) and their wharenui (meeting houses), Māori language kohanga and kura (preschools and schools) and Te Wānanga o Raukawa, a Māori university. This makes it a community steeped in Māoritanga (Māori culture, practices and beliefs). It’s a place where you can hear te reo Māori spoken with a casual confidence by people of all ages and especially by the rangatahi (youth). My mother descends from Ngāti Raukawa, one of the main iwi (tribes) in the area and it was a unique privilege for me to learn more about my whakapapa (lineage) and to reconnect with my relations.

On the evening before the festival began international guests gathered to eat fish 'n' chips outside the Ōtaki Beach Surf Life Club and watch the sun set over the Kapiti coastline. Over the next five days, I met Māoris, Samoans, Tongans, Fijians and Aboriginal Australians along with other indigenous filmmakers from Hawaii, Greenland, Finland, Canada and North America.

Festival highlights

A hand placed respectfully on a Māori carving.

A section of a traditional Māori carving.

Photo by Taratoa Stappard
  • Tahi (1): The traditional Pōwhiri (welcome) onto the Ngāti Raukawa marae included our Ōtaki hosts and Māoriland staff and volunteers greeting every guest with a hongi, pressing noses and ‘sharing breath’.
  • Rua (2): The Keynote speech delivered by Hepi Mita in the beautiful, soulful space of ‘Te Rangiatea’, the oldest Māori Anglican church (1851) in Aotearoa. Hepi shared his experiences on the production of his moving documentary about his own mother, Merata. How Mum Decolonised The Screen.
  • Toru (3): The opening night film, Vai, was a portmanteau feature of eight thematically linked shorts made by nine female Pacific Island filmmakers. It screened to a record audience of 690 at the Ōtaki municipal arts centre.
  • Whā (4): My short, Emkhatsini, was screened in the Wairua (Spirit) program at the ‘Civic’, a classic art deco cinema. The audience is super appreciative and a local teenage festival volunteer expertly leads the Q&A.
  • Rima (5): Attending the lecture, ‘Exploring Ancestral Connections’ in the Wānanga’s beautiful main lecture hall, which is furnished with powerful Māori carvings that speak to the history of the local ART Tribal Confederation: Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa Rangatira.
  • Ono (6): Spending downtime in the sumptuous Māoriland Hub garden to observe and experience the traditional art of Māori performers, carvers and tattooists.
  • Whitu (7): My personal highlight was competing in the Industry Pitch Competition: I have a maximum of five minutes to present a short film idea. Mine is called Kaitaki (Guardians) and is based on recent research I’ve been able to do on my great grandmother, Rangiriri, and her twin sister, Te Rauoriwa. My story wins and I take home the prize of $NZ3,000.

Big thanks to the Māoriland organisers, Libby Hakaraia and Tainui Stephens and to the British Council for enabling me to attend their wonderful festival. It was an invaluable opportunity for me to reconnect with my own Māori heritage and to establish professional connections with New Zealand Film Commission staff that attended the festival.

What's next

I’m currently writing up my short film as well as working on my first feature, with support from the BFI Early Development Fund. Mārama is a Māori revenge drama set in Victorian England which probes themes of identity anxiety, colonial domination and cultural theft.

I reckon both projects will make great UK / Aotearoa co-productions.