As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.
A member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and an Arts Laureate, Rachel is one of New Zealand’s most celebrated artists. An actor and a director, she appears in varied productions from contemporary Māori plays to Shakespeare, some of which have toured nationally and internationally. Rachel appeared in the internationally award-winning feature film Whale Rider, director’s Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Boy, Eagle Vs. Shark, as well as numerous television productions including the BBC co-production of Maddigan’s Quest, The New Legends of Monkey and Hope and Wire. She is also a voice-over artist, most notably for the Disney feature film Moana, in addition to her work as a director for both stage and screen productions.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
Rachel, you are doing a writing workshop. What stories are you still trying to tell us as a director, as a storyteller?
The writing workshop was called How To Get Out Of Your Own Way.
It is in terms of what you have spoken about with the Women of Impact program: the need to make what women are doing out in the world more visible. There is still something that is ingrained in us from a very young age that tells us, we can’t do it.
A lot of women my age struggle because writing is leading. Writing is putting a very strong opinion out into the world. It was a crucial workshop. I think, and I am not alone here, that this is something with which women still struggle.
For some reason we are still trying to raise our heads above the surface and remember we are relevant. What we have to say is as important, powerful, and relatable. I am very keen on stories that provoke, encourage, and also celebrate empathy and compassion.
When we can enter into somebody else’s world, and put ourselves in their shoes, that experience can genuinely bring us together. I am keen on telling stories that emphasize that, but are also inclusive enough for people who are not indigenous, or Polynesian, to come into our world.
To both come into our world and to see our gaze of the world.
That is certainly something I am working towards. I do not see myself as a writer yet, because I have not finished this script. I previously wrote a feature film, but it never got off the ground. I have written short stories and I have written short films.
I will not really see myself as a writer until I finish these projects.
You navigate two worlds: Māori and Pākehā. What are some of the misconceptions? What is the main disconnect?
I think there are a lot of assumptions made about who we are and where we sit, even socio-economically and intellectually.
The disconnect is the inability to see the world, to have any other gaze than Western.
Our ways of looking at the world, when it comes to systems and our values, they are different from the Pākehā systems. I think because of colonization, we had to accept all of these systems, to live by these roles and these systems, and to operate within them.
There is not an exchange. There is still an inability for people outside of our culture to see our perspective, our way of seeing.
There is still a belief that the Western structures and constructs are the correct way to do things. That is the way we operate. That is our modus operandi in the world.
A massive shift requires a lot of conversations. We are required to make bold steps in terms of our courage.
I have seen a few short films lately with very, very bold indigenous works. They may not necessarily fit into what we expect from a short film or how we expect to see a story like that being told. But it is not wrong, it is just different.
Give the narrative of what that world would look like—it could inspire other people to maybe slightly shift their gaze.
Within storytelling, there are always crossovers. There are always fundamental universal truths that play a part in good storytelling. We might linger on a small moment that is happening in nature. We might linger on where the moon is and what that means. I suppose where the moon is positioned, how full it is?
There is symbolism within our cultures that is unique to us, which we position within our storytelling that could, in fact, play a much bigger part within the storytelling itself.
Give me an example of what you would put in a story? As a director, what kind of subtle symbolism would you put in a story?
It would be the ihi—essential life force. It is definitely an image I always have in my head. It is a certain kind of power. I would love to hear what that life force might sound like.
I would love to share with people how it feels internally. It is such a wonderful sound; it is so important and a wonderful way into the medium of film. Experiencing sound is s a visceral way into film. It is something I want to include in the stories I tell.
What sound do you hear when you talk about that life force?
To me, it is trrrrrrr; it has to be a natural sound. I would treat it in a certain way. I would get an amazing soundscape artist to adapt that human-made sound and take it into a bigger ground that allows us, the audience, to feel because of nature within our bodies.
Life force is something you feel in your whole body. Even though the movement is only coming out in my hand. It is something that comes up from the ground.
I am thinking that the audience would not just see and feel, but also experience the vibration. It would be multi-sensory, appealing to many senses beyond sight.
That is right. It is using all the senses available to us through film. I suppose I would do that and also I think humor is unique.
Talk to me about your sense of humor. Where does that come from?
I suppose we are not earnest at anything. We are not afraid to send each other up.
Your humor is so dry. Are your parents this way? Is it a learned style? Where did it come from?
Yes. Our own elderly people, they certainly have that sense of humor. It is such a hard humor to explain if I am in it. It is like playing tennis: swap, swap. We are not afraid to laugh at our own mistakes. Or laugh at others. It is direct.
In media and entertainment, what is needed to drive cultural and social impact?
We need to address the gatekeepers. We need to address the funding bodies. Polynesian stories are hot. The world wants to see us; they want to hear our stories.
They are curious about us, which is a wonderful place to be. The stories that I have been a part of are some of the best of our stories.
These stories are about the culture of a people. And also, and this is a big one for me, we care more about the immediate audience here than we do the international audience.
Good storytelling is inclusive because it is good storytelling. A really good engaging story is complex and full of characters that reaches out to other cultures in the world.
I think we get a bit caught up with team members who tend to focus on the international. They think that is the most important thing. I cannot speak for everybody, but for my contemporaries who are indigenous or Polynesian, they want to get it right for our people here.
Unfortunately there are a lot of non-Polynesian producers and writers, who are still making our stories. They have a view of making it international. We have a shortage of Polynesian producers. Ideally, our lives would be told by our people.
The funding bodies from the indigenous and Polynesian community are ensuring our stories are told and that the writers and directors come from our culture.
We always ask our interviewees who has made an impact on their personal DNA. The artist you have become, is there a specific person that stands out who helped formed you?
I was adopted by two wonderful Scottish people. They were immigrants and came to New Zealand in the mid-1960s. My dad is gone now. They were curious and open and hungry for knowledge while also respectful, they learned about my culture long before they adopted me. That was a good thing, because it does not always work out when a baby of another culture is adopted.
How was that seen within your community?
When I was a baby, we had questionable systems in place. There were two systems that babies went through. One was the sort of mainstream system and the other one was for bi-racial and colored babies.
I was considered to be light-skinned and put into the mainstream system. I still have deep scars as a result of not being raised in my culture. I can’t deny that, but I also can’t deny the love I received from my beautiful Scottish parents.
The great thing about my mom, she genuinely committed, and not just because of me, to spending time with the indigenous people of this country. She joined a Māori Anglican Church. She became a member of the Māori Women’s Welfare League.
I grew up with the Māori Anglican Church community. Growing up, I do not remember race relations as being good. I know it is better now, but I still think we have some work to do.
I had Scottish parents, but as soon as I left the front door, I was labeled as Māori and all of those assumptions that came with it.
I always felt like an outsider. I have always seen the world quite objectively. I am feeling a bit differently now. Because I found my tribe, I found my people within the arts.
In terms of DNA, that’s a tricky one for me. [Laughs.]
It is literally tricky.
Yes. I was formed by my mom and dad, but I also feel I was already formed.
Do you have any specific things your Scottish parents said that stayed with you and impact how you operate?
I will go back to the state of race relations in our country when I was growing up. My mom was acutely aware because of the opinions she heard about Māori. To anybody else, she was a white woman. She overheard a lot of comments.
We lived in a dominantly Pākehā place, and Māori was not looked upon favorably. She really wanted me to succeed. She wanted me to prove people wrong and wanted me to rise above those opinions of those people. She really wanted me to rise above what people assumed I would become.
How did that manifest?
She pushed me, and that was not always great. She really pushed me and she made me play the piano, ballet, opera singing, drama.
I am not saying these are not Māori things, because dance is Māori and music is Māori.
It is a different kind of dance and music.
[Laughs.] Pretty much! It was all pretty Western.
She wanted me to have all of those skills available.
It is interesting. She did say one thing that never stuck. It is a cultural thing. She said, “You won’t get anywhere if you don’t blow your own trumpet.”
In my culture, there is a beautiful proverb about kūmara, which is a sweet potato. “Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka.” A sweet potato never speaks of how sweet it is. [Laughter.]
I suppose I have got to go back to my mother, who was really trying to get out from under a whole lot of assumptions made about when she was a kid!
How old were you when you were adopted?
I was three months.
Three months? It is interesting to me that there was a cultural clash.
It is interesting, isn’t it? The older I get, the more I realize it is true. It is important to have these open conversations about it.
I guess you will always have your instinct. When things do not feel right, they do not feel right. It is a whole nature versus nurture argument. I also believe that when we come into the world, we are already there to be discovered.
There is initial research that says that even if you did not live the trauma of your parents or grandparents, it somehow carries forward.
I know that to be true. I remember Bastion Point, the land occupation, which happened in the ‘70s. I remember seeing images of it on the news and crying. It was my people.
It was Māori people being carried away, being ripped away from their land. I was feeling it deeply, even as a kid. There is a lot going on in this country right now, lots of conversations around land and ownership and treaty. It is interesting how it can physically affect us.
How do we begin to heal?
I was talking to somebody else about this the other day. It is so important to listen, especially right now. It is so important to listen to indigenous cultures and to listen to the wisdom they have. Particularly when it comes to nature and the cultural principles within nature.
I also think, as I said before, it is about telling our story in our way and our way is always going to be through our gaze.
When people who are not from our culture see this, it will give them a glimpse of how we see the world. That is why I am still in this industry. I would have loved to be an activist. A long time ago I had that dream. I realized that, in fact, I was a part of that conversation about healing and moving forward.
Through media, you have a platform and a great ability to help with healing.
Think so? Yeah, because we all love stories. We all love to be told a story, right? That is never going to change.
We can laugh about the same things even though we are from different cultures.
Yes! That is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
In closing, do you have a few words that describe your own journey so far?
I feel like I am just beginning, but it has been challenging and full.
Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8th, 2019.
impactmania’s Women of Impact program has been awarded with the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.
For more information: [email protected].