Lens on human bonds

Hariata Moriarty (centre), one of the three actors to play Missy, in a scene from Cousins, the...
Hariata Moriarty (centre), one of the three actors to play Missy, in a scene from Cousins, the new film adaptation of the novel by Patricia Grace. PHOTO: VENDETTA FILMS
A Kiwi film about separation and connection has arrived at just the right moment, its co-director tells Tom McKinlay.

After a long and circuitous journey, a film adaptation of Patricia Grace’s novel Cousins has finally made it to the big screen.

And despite the time that has elapsed since work first began on a film version, and its mid-20th century setting, co-director Briar Grace-Smith says she thinks the story’s big themes are more relevant than ever.

The film follows the lives of the three cousins — Mata, Makareta and Missy — who whakapapa to the same marae but for various reasons become separated.

"It seems to me the film has more relevance — right now it is very timely," Grace-Smith says.

The effect the Covid pandemic has had, of isolating people, keeping them apart, has placed a new focus on connection, not just as it is understood in te ao Maori, but universally, she says.

"I think the reason it has hit such a note with audiences that have watched it thus far is something to do with the changing times, that have helped us understand how important these basic human connections are."

The film begins in the years after World War 2, the dislocating impact of which, together with the ongoing impacts of colonisation, mean the young Mata finds herself in an orphanage — distant from her land and her people.

Once again, the film seems to speak directly to current events, in the form of the recent upheavals at Oranga Tamariki, which became the target of outrage following the separation of Maori families.

Grace-Smith says they have been touring the film around marae connected to those involved in the production, where it has sparked conversation — at a screening at Ngawha in particular.

"It was amazing, because after the screening we were in the wharenui, the meeting house, and it is kind of an intimate environment — different from being in a movie theatre — and everyone is family, but people gradually stood up and started talking," she says of the Ngawha visit.

Some spoke of children who had been taken from families.

"And also, sometimes in their own cases, how they had been dislocated from their family or been adopted and had to try to find their way or were trying to find their way back home."

The novel on which the film is based was published in 1992 and its author has been closely involved in its adaptation. That was initially with the late Maori film-maker Merata Mita, who worked to develop a script with Grace over many years. Mita died in 2010, and some time later Grace-Smith’s co-director Ainsley Gardiner picked up the baton.

Grace-Smith was initially involved as screenwriter, then co-director and finally as actor, when she stepped in to play the grown-up Makareta. Nancy Brunning was to have played the part, but died before she could do so.

The film is not short of seasoned players, or riveting performances, but it could be argued that the youngest and least well-known members of the cast steal the most scenes.

Te Raukura Gray, as the young Mata, Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels, as the young Makareta and Keyahne Patrick-Williams, as the young Missy, all appear to inhabit their characters.

A huge net was cast in terms of looking for the child actors to play the three main parts, Briar Grace-Smith says.

"Eventually, it came down to those three and they all embraced in their natural personas the aspects of the characters they are playing."

One of the tricks was to make them feel safe and confident, she says.

They were also given time to bond with each other and make the connections the film is all about.

 - Cousins opens this week at Rialto cinemas

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