Giving a voice to the river

23:34, Jul 28 2014
Voices from the River
THE ART OF STORYTELLING: Voices from the River tells the story of Whanganui iwi to reclaim guardianship over their ancestral river.

The recent Te Wiki o te Reo Māori is an annual reminder that Kiwis simply don't know enough about Maoridom. 

Through the art of storytelling, Paora Joseph is in the business of changing that.

Te Awa Tupua -- Voices from the River, showing as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, is the latest work from the award-winning film director. 

Joseph is a recognised name at the festival, following the success of his 2012 film, Tatarakihi: The Children of Parihaka. This year's film looks at the 1995 iwi-led occupation of Whanganui's Moutua Gardens, or Pakaitore, a sacred block of land in the central city.

The 80-day protest gained support from other iwi across New Zealand, and highlighted the people's long struggle for custodianship over their ancestral taonga, the Whanganui River. 

Joseph admits it was a difficult story to broach, even though it's part of his own history.


"My dad left there when he was 17, and as a family we didn't go back. I couldn't pronounce Maori words properly until I was about 25, and I grew up at a time when Maori language was unheard of, and it's not that long ago. 

"I had to make an effort to go back to Whanganui in my early 20s, and that's how I got to know my people from the river. They're fairly familiar with me now."

With a Maori dad, and a Pakeha mum, Joseph has a foot in both worlds. Add to that his training as a clinical psychologist and passion for storytelling, and it's no surprise he draws audiences. 

"I'm passionate about trying to translate to other people, who don't have an understanding of a Maori worldview necessarily, how they can develop that strong connection with the elements, the land, the seas, in a respectful and wholesome way," he says.

"That perception is open to everybody, not just Maori."

The Whanganui river is unique in that it's the first to be granted legal status, meaning it's recognised by law as a person. This is because, as one interviewee said in the film, the tribes' identity is inseparable from the river. To Maori, the awa is a life source, supermarket, chemist, laundrette, tabernacle, entertainment. "The River to us was everything."

Joseph threads historical imagery into his own more recently captured footage to express a sense of continuitythrough time, to tell the story of the Whanganui iwi, past and present, and the power of the river itself. 

Spectacular aerial scenery shots will make any Kiwi proud to call this place home.Interviews convey the tensions of the times, and the pain of kaumatua relating to the Crown's actions of sidelining Maori. 

"What the film actually does is it gives the audience the bigger picture, around why the iwi were occupying Pakaitore at the time. 

"If you were to only watch the media, I remember going there at the time, and I remember the coverage on the television, it was all one-sided. That's part of why I wanted to do the film.

"People can hold prejudices for a long time."

Some iwi members were given a pre-screening before the film's premiere in Auckland on July 20. It was important to Joseph that the people of the land took ownership of the film, and they did. 

"They automatically took ownership of the story, and that hasn't really happened before, with other productions. That's the beauty of doing a documentary as well, because it gets closer to the truth. They felt comfortable with the story, and celebrated it."

Of course, the film wouldn't be doing its job if only iwi understood it. Joseph would like to see everyone inspired by a Maori worldview, not only for personal growth, but for the sake of the environment. 

"As far as the world's concerned at the moment, we've reached a stage where we're exhausting all our resources, something has to change there, so that we actually slow ourselves down, and take time, and see how we can be in more connection with nature.

"That's a similar message in Tatarakihi as well. Appreciating our history, knowing where we've come from, that's really important."Through film, Joseph has a way of making these controversial topics palatable, without getting political. The word race is never mentioned. 

"From my point of view, I would like everybody to become Maori," he says.  ''And why not?" 

Having already played at the Auckland and Wellington legs of the New Zealand International Film Festival, Te Awa Tupua - Voices from the River is currently scheduled to screen in Dunedin and Christchurch in mid-August. For more information, see