Waru: A remarkable five-star Kiwi drama
86 mins ★★★★★
Waru is a remarkable New Zealand film of the highest quality and most-profound impact – and all the more remarkable because there is not just one main reason for this, but three.
First off, its troubling narrative revolves around a topic which is raw and devastating, and a scourge on our country's psyche: the death of a child at the hands of his caregiver. Specifically set in the context of the child's tangi, the narrative is woven from eight scenes, each shot as a 10-minute short film with distinct characters, all of whom are in some way affected by the tragedy. Add to this the fact that each sequence consists of one, perfectly-choreographed take, and the viewer is readily immersed in these individual stories of pain.
And finally, the most impressive aspect of Waru is that it is a collaboration between eight Māori women directors, who workshopped and wrote the sequence for which they would take control. What emerges is a fluid portrait of a community grappling with the ripples of tragedy.
There is much to applaud, but added to the fact that having eight talented women directors in New Zealand feels (unfortunately) like kind of a big deal, it is imperative to acknowledge the importance of tangata whenua in the telling of this story. Not because child abuse is a "Māori problem", but because the nature of whānau (as in "community" rather than our Pākehā definition of "nuclear family") lies at the heart of Waru – and it is our whole community that suffers when one of our children dies.
The eight scenes differ greatly in style and tone, but the performances are almost universally stunning – all the more so when you consider the actors don't have the benefit of short takes and edited reaction shots, but are in effect performing a piece of theatre, often with incredibly intricate movement, while conveying an enormous depth of feeling. The camera therefore swoops and surrounds, as the characters carry on so intently and obliviously you feel you're right there with them.
And despite the context, it's not relentlessly grim. There are laughs (albeit more of outrage) as a TV presenter speaks her mind; two plucky sisters decide to take a stand; and the viewer's (and characters') judgements are overturned as well-written scripts demonstrate, time and again, that human nature has both flaws and beauty.
Even if some scenes resonate less than others, the overall impact of Waru is stunning and it is impossible not to be moved and impressed in equal measure.
A reviewer's work is such we seldom get the luxury of time to watch a film more than once, but Waru is one I'll be revisiting as soon as I can.