Powerful portmanteau film about grief and survival in an economically depressed community following the death of a young Maori boy

Film Review by Carmen Paddock | 26 Jun 2018
  • Waru
Film title: Waru
Director: Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Cohen, Katie Wolfe
Starring: Miriama McDowell, Tanea Heke, Kararaina Rangihau, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara, Acacia Hapi, Maria Walker
Release date: 23 Jun
Certificate: 15

A Maori boy named Waru dies – no one will say how, though what is unsaid suggests alcohol, abuse and neglect in the home – in an economically depressed community. While the details of his final hours are left fuzzy, the impact on the women whose lives he impacted is heart-wrenchingly tangible. In eight vignettes – each written and directed by a different Maori woman director – women of all ages and from all walks of life grieve, cope, and continue living and fighting for their dignity, their families, and their people as the tangi (traditional Maori funeral right) is underway. The resulting film is a poignant, brutal look at grief and survival in a society that is often overlooked and over-generalised.

Over the course of the film, our protagonists are family, friends, classmates, teachers, and public figures struggling to reconcile their identities with the violent reality they live in. The emotional aftermath spares no one. Each scene – about ten minutes long – is delivered in one take, completely unedited. There is no place for the characters or actors to hide in these relentless takes, and each director brings out the rawest emotions and motivations beneath each interaction and choice.

While there are moments of levity set against the formalities of death – a son brings home his live-in girlfriend to the surprise of his mother, two girls fight an imaginary dragon, the discomfort of a white television host when called out on his bullshit – the atmosphere hangs heavy. The darkness, however, never feels overdone or mawkish. Instead, it exudes vulnerability on the part of the storytellers. There is a bravery in telling a tale so heart-rending without trying to wrap it up neatly or shield an audience from its cruelty.

In the first and last scene, a voiceover from the dead child fills the silences, tying the separate journeys explored here into one overarching anthem to the various survivors. As a final quest is undertaken, Waru says he sees the anger in his loved ones: “Their anger is a lightning bolt. It lights up the sky.” Waru is a poignant tragedy of loss, love and lightning-like rage – possibly one of the most important and honest films at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Waru had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival – more info here

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