PG, 112 minutes

3 Stars


Review by © Jane Freebury

At a time of mass protests around the world, the indigenous people of New Zealand were facing a crisis situation of their own, despite the Treaty of Waitangi. The land still in Maori hands had shrunk alarmingly through pakeha incursions since 1840, to a fraction of what their people once owned and it was likely to shrink even further if they didn’t take action.

It was Whina Cooper’s moment. In this bio pic about her life, her development as a leader of her people that led to this moment in 1975 is laid out. Whina understood the need to act and stepped up to lead a protest march from Te Hapua in the north of the North Island to Wellington in the south. The protest for Maori land rights began in Te Hapua with fewer than a hundred people and arrived in the capital around 5,000 strong. Enough was enough, underpinned by the belief that if Maori didn’t act, they could lose it all.

This gentle film memorialises the life of the woman known today as mother of a nation. Outside her homeland, the Maori elder who led a march the length of North Island to draw attention to the loss of Maori lands, may not be particularly well known, but it is also surprising to read this is the first time her remarkable life has appeared on screen. Perhaps she was there, in spirit, in Whale Rider, the stirring adaptation in of Witi Ihimaera’s novel about a young Maori girl who strives to fulfil her destiny as a Maori chief.

The Maori Land March, as it is known, covered around 1,000 kilometres and took place over a month, a big undertaking for anyone of any age. Nearly 80 years of age and bent with pain from chronic arthritis, Whina accomplished it with a walking stick.

As firebrand community leader and indomitable matriarch, she is played by Rena Owen, such a strong presence in Once Were Warriors. Actors Miriama McDowell and Tiorere Ngati-Melbourne play Whina’s younger selves, fleshing out the story behind the public figure that saw the evolution of her personality and leadership qualities.

Whina was, if you like, the influencer who led the group of ‘those with foresight’, attracting new followers along the way

The protest itself was filmed by young cinematographer Leon Narbey, and he is the man behind the camera here. Matakite o Aoteoroa: The Maori Long March, a special television documentary, was Narbey’s first project. He also shot Whale Rider.

Born the daughter of a Maori chief, Whina received an education and an inculcation into community leadership from her family, but the leadership role that she was taught to expect was not hers as a matter of course. There was resistance from male Maori elders towards her. As a woman, she had no business speaking up.

Rena Owen in Whina. Image courtesy Transmission Films and New Zealand Film Commission

Marriage to Richard (Richard Te Are) produced children but was sadly cut short by his fatal illness. While he had not encouraged Whina to assume a leadership role, her second husband, William (sympathetically played by Vinnie Bennett), a land officer who sat on the royal commission into land rights and Maori grievance, did. After he also died at a young age, leaving Whina a widow for a second time, she became a founding president of the Maori Women’s Welfare League.

Respectfully directed, but needs more of the fire and zeal of its main character

The depiction of Whina’s story is sometimes seen against a backdrop of Christian iconography. It is remarkable to read that the compelling and powerful ancestral Maori artwork, the wooden carving in particular, had been systematically removed from community buildings throughout New Zealand’s north. In time, they would be reinstated.

Despite this and other matters, like the role the Catholic Church took in her expulsion from community after publicly declaring her pregnancy and intention to remarry after Richard died, Whina accepted the role of Christianity in her life. A closeup of the large crucifix that she wore signals that she maintained her Catholic faith all her life.

Ultimately, this gentle, uplifting drama about a remarkable woman, a fighter her whole life, falls short of having the impact it could. Whina has been respectfully directed by James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones in a reserved style, no gimmicks. There would have been nothing to lose had it reflected more of the fire and zeal of its main character.

First published in the Canberra Times on 4 November 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes