Muru

MA15+, 105 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Pumped police take the film into actioner territory, despite the breathtaking landscapes and issues of divided loyalties raised

Shot on location in a rugged and forested region of the North Island of Aotearoa, Muru is a film with a cause. It is set in the traditional home of the Tuhoe people, who held out against the colonists for longer than most and have since taken a strong stance on Maori sovereignty.

After opening at a camp in the forest the film sets about drawing together some disparate threads from across the rural community that New Zealand police raided in 2007, suspecting sedition. Muru is, it says, a response to those events, rather than sticking rigidly to the facts. In online dictionaries, the Maori word ‘muru’ means to confiscate and take ritual compensation in a form of restorative social justice, so the urgent tone and a note of grievance in the film are no surprise.

Much of the interaction that takes place in the early scenes are in Tuhoe, the language of the local community. Written and directed by Tearepa Kahi, Muru was made under a New Zealand initiative to support new cinema in Te Reo Maori, the voice of the country’s first nation peoples.

After a boot camp in the night, the beauty of the landscape with images of mist trailing across the Te Urewera mountains is striking. Muru has an immediate impact with deft cross cutting on the action across its glorious forested valley locations. Great work here by acclaimed editor John Gilbert (the first Lord of the Rings, Hacksaw Ridge).

The film has been inspired by several raids on the Tuhoe people that have occurred in the Ruatoki valley since 1916, in particular the most recent in 2007. The narrative is loosely based on the police incursion into the Waimana and Ruatoki areas that year. When officers of the Special Tactics Group, an arm of the NZ police force, confiscated some weapons and made arrests. The STG action was based on intel that the boot camps that ostensibly taught identity awareness and survival skills, were actually for para-military training.

With a foot in two worlds of contesting realities, Taffy has to choose between them

One quiet day in the valley, people are going about their business. Taffy (Cliff Curtis), in uniform as community police Sergeant Tawaharau, is driving the school bus. At one point he pauses the journey to school to drop in on his ailing father. Somewhere else, a pair of raucous hoons try to drive their 4 WD across a river. Taffy’s female colleague, Blake (Ria Paki) is trying to intercept an outsider pakeha couple she suspects of making illegal entry, at the same time as she is trying to apprehend a wayward young teenager, Rusty (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald). It’s all in a day’s work.

Cliff Curtis in Muru. Image courtesy Rialto/New Zealand Film Commission

The grounding presence of Cliff Curtis as the main character, “Taffy”, helps holds the action together. He is the decent bloke, just returned to live in his community. With a foot in two worlds with contesting realities, he and other Maori with loyalties inside and outside the community, eventually have to choose between them. The dilemma they face is one of the more interesting dimensions of Muru.

You would think that Taffy or Blake would be the first people that government authorities would go to when a red alert shows up. But no, police enter the area by road and by air to deal with a plot, supposedly being hatched, to knock off the Prime Minister.  Is it just “bush talk” or will they uncover a domestic terrorist cell?

The protests in 2007 are seen briefly in a snippet of recorded vision with timecode. An activist community leader at the time was Tame Iti, who is one of the film’s producers and is played by the man himself here. He was targeted in those raids and his role at the time is apparently a matter of debate, even today.

In Muru, we see Tame Iti on his quad bike, tending to his bee hives in the forest. As the police chopper swirls overhead, there is a touch of irony to the scenes of the village elder, his tattooed face hidden inside his beekeeper’s gear,  just tending to his bees.

While the political backstory to this new film from across the ditch is interesting and controversial, a foreboding, insistent musical score and the pumped police in STG uniform keep the film in actioner territory, despite the other things it has going for it.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 October 2022.  Jane also posts on Rotten Tomatoes, as a Tomatometer-approved critic