The main story of Mahana directed by Lee Tamahori is a drama of past romance, a coming-of-age tale, and a tale of rural New Zealand in the 1960s. I do not with to spoil the plot, but more importantly wish to look through this, into the thriving backdrop of culture and environment that pervades the film, based on one of the acclaimed Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera’s books.
In a colonial and a postcolonial setting, where people are from is important, and speaks volumes about their perception of the world, and their place in it. It oddly took me a while to see the structure of race and culture present in Mahana’s rural mid-twentieth century New Zealand; the main story looks at a rivalry between two Maori Iwi’s (family groups), the titular Mahanas and the Poatas. While these two groups squabble and struggle against one another, the white employers, mostly shown in the character Collins, can take a back seat; they have guaranteed employment, why should they be involved? Indeed, the arguments between the Poatas and the Mahanas incorporate the contracts given out by the white man.
Although the patriarchal grandfather Temehana Mahana owns lands, it is accentuated that he started from nothing, and seeks out contracts for employment from white employers anyway. It is thus interesting that young Simeon and his peer group are so interested in American culture, particularly cowboy films featuring the likes of John Wayne; although in Mahana, the Maoris represented are the cowboys, in the cowboy films native Americans are the enemy, and Maori’s likely suffered similar humiliations and defeats, resulting in the drastic assault on the landscape with European land tenure systems and livestock practices, namely sheep rearing, which the Mahanas have settled into reciprocating and maintaining. While the sheep munch away the environment, changing the landscape, there is a scene wherein the main characters are ‘reduced’ to scrub clearing; not only do they maintain the livestock which has changed the indigenous landscape, they are forced to become the changers of landscape to settle the need for cash income. The Maori culture is attacked in more overt ways throughout; the Maori language is not allowed to be spoken in court and Temehana is fiercely biblical.
I am also interested in the character of Mr. McKenzie. McKenzie is Simeon’s teacher, and seems to be more progressive, taking Simeon under his wing, and encouraging him to be honest and true to himself. I wonder if the character of McKenzie could be anything other than a Scotsman; the same role filled in with an Englishman or a white New Zealander would have a flattened effect, as their dominance as a teacher would merely be accentuated; but the Scottish are different, they have a culture separate from the English and an ecological history that has been similarly assaulted by capitalist agriculture.
I am merely flexing my thoughts on culture and environment in this piece, and regret that I do not go into the complexities of feminism apparent in the film; outside of New Zealand, the film was released under the title ‘the Patriarch,’ and it is accentuated throughout the domineering social structures that oppress women in society, both in the mid-twentieth century Maori society, and New Zealand society more broadly.