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A face racked with anguish is framed in a rear vision mirror in the opening frames of new Kiwi film Rurangi.
Our protagonist, Caz Davis, is clearly driving away from some sort of hurt, so only seconds in we’re already invested and on his side.
"It’s the language of cinema — being in a mirror, this is something to do with what has happened in his past," director Max Currie says, explaining the shot. "He’s moving away from that, which is unravelled during the course of the story."
As the camera pulls back, we discover we’re in rural New Zealand, and the essential trajectory is in place: Caz — played by charismatic newcomer Elz Carrad in a standout performance — is running from something and heading for home.
Home is Rurangi, dairy country, and Caz is back after 10 years in the city, returning as his confirmed trans gender for the first time. He clearly has reservations, so it’s another measure of the pain he’s recently experienced that he’s doing it anyway.
From this point, the film poses a string of pretty interesting questions, among them whether this is simply a very enjoyable and uncomplicated Kiwi film, ticking all the quirky, funny, moving and heartwarming boxes — or something more.
"This is the interesting question," Currie agrees. "Does the fact that the main character is trans and comes from this trans background actually change the way that the story works ... there’s a universal story there about a son seeking understanding from a father."
"We were really confident that it would," Currie says. "It had a beginning, middle and end and this thematic story about a ‘who is this?’, ‘who are you?’ journey between father and son. It starts with ‘who is this?’ and ends with ‘I am Caz Davis’. We saw that it was actually, in some ways, a pretty traditional three-act structure, inside the web series."
Early in the development of the web series, trans writer Cole Meyers took on scripting duties and the whole production adopted a consciously inclusive process to ensure the voices on screen were authentic — and gender diverse audiences were not confronted with the sort of othering behaviour they meet all too often in the everyday. There is no dead-naming here, Caz is the only name you’ll hear the main character called.
Lead Carrad is transgender himself.
While Caz and his story are central, other lines of inquiry into identity are quickly opened. Caz’s childhood friend Anahera is hesitantly embracing her whakapapa while his dairy farmer father has had an environmental awakening.
"This is kind of our job as storytellers," Currie says. "If we are wanting people to invest in the story of someone who, as a person, is maybe a bit outside their experience, then by linking it to other struggles of identity maybe a little closer to home, it has this synergistic effect. You go, ‘Oh, OK, I get that’ or ‘I can relate to that’.
"And there’s also ... there’s kind of this slightly messy but joyous righteousness rising up in the world at the moment for all sorts of people who feel they are part of minority groups or who are not seen, or don’t get to inhabit their identity in the way that they want to."
There’s the potential for lots of different people to share in that phenomenon, he says.
Which brings us to the audience for the film. Gender diverse people make up a really small percentage of the New Zealand community, Currie says, so while Rurangi has been created by gender diverse people and is for gender diverse people, the audience is overwhelmingly cis-gendered (people who identify with the gender assigned at birth).
"So there is way, way, way more cis-gendered people seeing this film than trans people. And that’s kind of the point.
"I guess film-makers are always going to say they have been overwhelmed by the response, but we really have been. We had a commander from the army drive his family from Palmerston North to Wellington to watch this. It just seems because it is such a celebration of the talent of trans people, and it has become this accessible platform where anyone who has a trans colleague, or friend, or someone in their family, it is just a great reason to be jubilantly proud and enthusiastic about them and their community. There have been a lot of parents, especially, who have been connecting in the show in a really strong way."
But the important subtexts don’t end there.
Currie says that in making their film they began to think about the places where cosmopolitan trans and traditional Kiwi rural cultures meet, and one of those places is mental health — a pressing issue on the farm and for gender diverse communities alike.
"One farmer every month is killing themselves and the gender diverse community is also overrepresented in self-harm statistics," he says.
"We think that’s where we’d like to continue taking the stories, realising there’s actually something really painful that these two groups who are so often seen as opposed to one another, have in common."
There are hopes of a sequel series.
It’s not plot-spoiling to share that the credits roll at the end of Rurangi to a cracking cover of the Bronski Beat banger Smalltown Boy, sung by Ramon Te Wake, who also has a role in the film.
"This was a way of taking something that has its roots in the gay and lesbian rights movement — and is just a banging song — then giving it a contemporary take," Currie says. "Reminding people, maybe in a subliminal way, that the centre of the site [of struggle] has moved now, now that gay and lesbian people have rights, legal recognition, are doing pretty well. Now the site is more about the ‘T’ in the LGBTQI group. And that song was kind of a way to nod to that."
SCREEN TIMES AT RIALTO, DUNEDIN
Tue 9 Feb, 11am
Tue 9 Feb, 5.30pm
Wed 10 Feb, 10.30am
Wed 10 Feb, 5.40pm