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NATIVe 2019: Decolonising the Screen

In 2019, NATIVe – A Journey into Indigenous Cinema navigates us through one of the most picturesque areas on Earth: the Pacific region. The cinematic tour-de-force features myriad languages, a host of islands and a whole lot of female power. In the interview, co-curators Anna Kalbhenn and Maryanne Redpath talk about Indigenous filmmaking in the Pacific region, environmental threats to the area, their approach to their work at NATIVe and the crucial role cultural consultation plays in curating an Indigenous film programme right in the heart of Berlin.

Fiona Collins in Vai

In this year’s programme, you link two main focal points: one is regional and the other has to do with female perspectives. Is this connection especially evident in the Pacific region?

Anna Kalbhenn: I’m not really sure if we would really relate that so much to the region. We would definitely say though that this link is generally strong in Indigenous cinema. Our experiences of the past years have shown that women have been very present and active for a very long time now in Indigenous cinema, on both sides of the camera.

Awatea Mita, Merata Mita and Eruera 'Bob' Mita in Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

Maryanne Redpath: A good example for this is the great Merata Mita, the first significant female Maori filmmaker and staunch activist from New Zealand, who unfortunately passed away unexpectedly in 2010. We’re screening a film about her this year at NATIVe: Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. The film was made by Merata’s son Hepi Mita, and it also chronicles her life, especially her role as a mother. But above all it is about the impact she made on the Maori film industry and how her work has influenced not only Indigenous cinema all around the world for many years. Merata Mita continues to serve as a great source of inspiration to this day, for her own community on one hand, but she is also an extremely important figure for Indigenous filmmakers the world over. The same can be said of Freda Glynn, also a very influential woman herself. In the documentary film She Who Must Be Loved, her daughter Erica Glynn shows the pioneering path that this Aboriginal matriarch took in her efforts to indigenise the media in Australia.

The episodic anthology film Vai

AK: This year’s opening film is another strong piece of work by female filmmakers. Vai is an episodic anthology film, realised by eight female directors, composed of eight stories, set on seven different Pacific islands, each telling the tale of a character named Vai. We see Vai as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult and then later on at some point as a grandmother. It’s a coming-of-age film that is at the same time a film about life as well as about growing older. We also thought the project was so great because it’s really got it all: a female protagonist, female directors, female production. It’s the first film where screenplay, direction and production are all completely in the hands of Kiwi-Pacific women.

What is also striking is that many of the films were produced in New Zealand or Australia. Although the Pacific region certainly encompasses so much more than just these two countries...

AK: That is in fact the case. When you look at our programme, frequently one of these countries is listed as the production country. But if you take a closer look at details like the setting, language or culture, then you suddenly find yourself on a lot of different islands. The main reason for this is the fact that a lot of island residents migrate to New Zealand or Australia to work, study and train there. When they begin realising their film projects they usually try to draw on support such as film funding or other resources from the countries where they went to school, since comparable structures are simply non-existent on the islands.

MR: It’s not easy to identify an established film industry for the greater Pacific region. If you consider all the islands in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, usually the production is not based locally. The situation is similar for Hawaii too, although there production typically takes place on the mainland, meaning in the continental USA. That is really quite remarkable when you consider that the Pacific Ocean with all its countless islands takes up about a third of the Earth’s surface. And what’s even more unimaginable: many of these islands will cease to exist in the near future. Hurricanes, rising sea levels, coastal erosion...the islands are disappearing.

Speaking of the environment – to what extent does this topic play a role this year at NATIVe?

Michael Tatira and Mereana Bishop in Snow in Paradise by Justine Simei-Barton and Nikki Si'ulepa

AK: Our last regional focus was on the Arctic. Climate change, global warming and the attendant consequences were of course also already explicitly or implicitly present in this region. What the two regions have in common is that the melting of the ice in the polar regions inevitably leads to a rise in the sea level. And it is in particular the island cultures that are most heavily impacted by this of course. The issue of environmental destruction and the effects on the Pacific region can be seen in many of our films, albeit in more of an implicit manner once again. We’ve only got one film this year that treats the subject explicitly: the short film Snow in Paradise by Justine Simei-Barton and Nikki Si'ulepa. It was previously featured in the Generation programme, in 2012. The film thematises nuclear tests in the South Pacific, like the ones carried out from 1966 to 1996 by the French government. The neighbouring island populations weren’t informed about the tests back then, let alone evacuated. A lot of people have had to struggle, indeed are still struggling today, with the disastrous consequences of these actions.

MR: We are assuming that there are also fewer films being made which deal very explicitly with the current environmental situation because the people don’t have any extra capacity for that at the moment. They are simply way too busy trying to evacuate the islands, as is the case all over the Pacific region at the moment. It’s a tragedy that we are not at all aware of over here in Europe. Some of those affected are still attempting to stick it out somehow in their situation, but it is hopeless. The waves flood their homes, there’s nothing that could possibly hold them back. That doesn’t leave much time for making films of course. We are going to host a talk with the Alfred Wegener Institute again in 2019, as every year, on the topic of the environment and climate change. Both are subjects that unfortunately often receive little coverage in our media, and we would like to place them front and centre here.

With absent infrastructure and threatening environmental conditions, it is of course no wonder that migration and diaspora feature heavily in many of the films...

AK: For sure. These themes can be found in many of the cinematic narratives here. Usually they are coupled with central existential questions: Where do I come from? What do I identify with? Where will I return to when I die? For Indigenous individuals in particular the connection to their origins, ancestors, and ancestral lands is of extreme importance.

For My Father’s Kingdom by Vea Mafile'o and Jeremiah Tauamiti

For instance, the documentary film For My Father’s Kingdom is very characteristic of the special situation of the Pacific islanders who came to New Zealand as migrant workers in the early 1970s. In this film by Vea Mafile’o and Jeremiah Tauamiti, the inner turmoil of these individuals becomes evident: on one hand, there’s the need to somehow settle into this new reality, while on the other hand there is this desire and sense of obligation to remain part of the community left behind.
What is particularly interesting is that the film doesn’t just depict the perspective of those immediately affected – it also shows the perspective of the next generation. Vea Mafile’o follows her father around in his everyday life, her father who immigrated to New Zealand back in that era. Years later, he is still investing a whole lot of time and energy to come up with cash to donate to the church on Tonga. Not only does he himself go into debt in the process, he drags his kids along with him too. At first his actions are totally unfathomable for his daughter. But when she travels back to Tonga with him, she gradually starts to understand her father’s existential connection to the community there and to his own origins... In the end, this experience, this examination of roots, plays an essential part in the evolution of the director’s own conception of herself.

Independent of the region in question, many of the films in the NATIVe programme investigate the theme of colonialism. This year among other films you have selected Mababangong bangungot (The Perfumed Nightmare) by Kidlat Tahimik. This work is considered a milestone of post-colonial filmmaking.

Mababangong bangungot by Kidlat Tahimik

AK: The film celebrated its world premiere in 1977 in the Forum section of the Berlinale. Kidlat Tahimik was the first Philippine director to show a film in Germany. Though it’s true that Tahimik himself is not an Indigenous director, he was recommended to us by our advisor Kanakan-Balintagos. Kanakan-Balintagos is an Indigenous filmmaker from the Philippines and Tahimik is also regarded in the region as a central figure when it comes to Indigenous filmmaking – above all for the fact that he was intensively preoccupied with the subjects of colonisation and decolonisation in the Philippines in his films.

So you consult with Indigenous advisors in making your selection?

MR: Yes, as our aim is to decolonise the screen. That means we don’t want NATIVe to feature films about Indigenous people, we want it to show films by and with Indigenous people. In order to ensure that this is the case, we have worked from the very beginning with a close network of advisors that is based on mutual trust and respect. Most of our advisors are either Indigenous themselves or they have very close ties to an Indigenous community. They advise us on cultural matters and help us to resolve questions which may be initially unclear to us as non-Indigenous people.

AK: We first reach out to consultants from the region in question that we are focusing on. This could be producers or directors, but it could also be festival organisers or other people who are involved in the film industry. On the other hand, we have also been working with Bird Runningwater from Sundance Institute and Jason Ryle from imagineNATIVE in Toronto. Those are two festival organisers and programmers with a deep knowledge of international Indigenous cinema, thanks to their many years of experience.

One film in which colonialism doesn’t seem to play any role at all by comparison is Tanna, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2017. What moved you to include it in the programme?

AK: That’s right, colonialism doesn’t play any role in Tanna. Instead, the film treats a conflict between two tribes, combined with a love story. White people don’t make an appearance in the film – and in our opinion that’s just as it should be. In a certain sense, there’s also something decolonising about that.

Mungau Dain and Marie Wawa in Tanna by Bently Dean and Martin Butler

MR: What we also liked was the collaborative process involved in the creation of the film. This film was also not directly made by Indigenous directors, but it did take shape in very close co-operation with the inhabitants of Tanna. The two directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean spent a long time on the Pacific island, living with the inhabitants there and developing the story together with them. The inhabitants then also participated in the film as actors. Here we come back to this practice of cultural consultation. Not only in our own decisions, but also when it comes to how the films were created and developed. We have always insisted that non-Indigenous filmmakers seek the correct advice from Indigenous peoples.

AK: In Australia, there are a whole lot of guidelines and regulations you have to adhere to in order to be permitted to incorporate Indigenous elements in a film at all, or if you wish to shoot on location in Indigenous territory. As a filmmaker, you are then obligated to engage intensively with the subject in question and to enter into contact with the community – otherwise there is no possibility of receiving public funding. That’s exactly the sort of thing that we pay close attention to as well. When we show films made by non-Indigenous filmmakers, then it is only when they have been realised with the assistance of appropriate mentors.

Out of State by Ciara Lacy

MR: In this context, I’d like to conclude by expanding some more on our work at NATIVe: first and foremost, we show Indigenous cinema by Indigenous filmmakers. Our aim is to provide a platform to show Indigenous works and for artists to enter into dialogue with one another. We want to create a space for vital discussions. The conversation revolves around the role of cinema and the responsibilities of artists and filmmakers, always in relation to current international and industry developments.
Independent of their origins, many film-makers would not necessarily claim to make Indigenous films – they simply make films. That’s why it is very important to repeatedly emphasise that we don’t want to open up a niche with our work. That would only serve to further marginalise Indigenous peoples and their art. NATIVe does not see Indigenous cinema as a genre, because it isn’t one. On the contrary, the cinematographic spectrum that we cover is incredibly diverse. It has always been a challenge to execute the vision we have at Berlinale NATIVe; we see it as a perpetual process. And that’s where our close connection and collaboration with the NATIVe advisors and Indigenous film-makers play an enormously important role.