UTU: a Major Kiwi Film

utu redux nga taonga

It’s impossible to speak about NZ cinema without mentioning Utu, Geoff Murphy’s film from 1983. This motion picture is now a landmark & reference in Kiwi Film history. First New-Zealander superproduction, it is also the first kiwi motion feature selected in the Cannes Film Festival.

It narrates the fictional story of Māori Chief “Te Wheke” – a scout for colonial troops during the 1870s. Faced with the massacre of his own people by the white man, Te Wheke turns against his former allies and seeks utu (“revenge” in māori). He becomes the head of a guerilla gang and he kills ruthlessly in the name of his land & freedom. But is freedom worth so many bathes of blood? Both Pākehā and Māori will finally chase him, all of them having a good reason to want him dead.

Trailer here: http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/utu-redux-2013

Nothing more than a Kiwi western?

Knowing that Utu is praised as a Kiwi classic, you automatically have high expetations. And yet, the first time I saw it, I totally missed its subject. The story of Rebel Te Wheke gave me nothing more than a strong feeling of déjà vu. The storyline is about a virgin land invaded by civilization – including a beautiful untamed Pocahontas/Kura in mãori. The screenplay is, as expected, based on violence, love and adventure. The emphatic cinematography supports big action scenes, while a melodramatic score illustrates the protagonists’ tensed feelings. Sergio Leone’s presence is round the corner of each shot.

I deduced quickly that mainstream NZ cinema of the 80s was so influenced by American cinema, it could amost be seen to copy. How fast you can misjudge a movie sometimes!

After reflecting on the film, I asked why wouldn’t NZ be allowed to have their own style of western? Aotearoa’s history is very similar to the one of the New World. It’s the last place on Earth to have been discovered & conquered by the Europeans. Settlers came in, with the will to import civilization & strongly supported by religion. They succeeded in indoctrinating Indigenous people step by step, fighting them throughout the entire XIXth century.

Having the Western codes in mind, the scene of the interrupted preach – in which revengeful Te Wheke takes up power in God’s house – is one of the most striking ones. Its shooting style is intense and is coupled with very good editing. Subjective views allow you to run alongside a hidden warrior who heads towards the church. In parallel, a travelling along the central aisle, presages an impeding danger – this is highlighted even more due to the words of the gospel ring out in a too quiet Maori audience. The suspense is all encompassing! You’ll love it!

Spectacular Utu Redux, one of Ngã Taongã’s treasures

I remembered that scene, and I wanted to overcome my first reaction. Fortunately, the Film Archive of Wellington (also called Ngā Taonga, meaning the treasures!) frequently screens kiwi classics, and some days ago, it was Utu Redux night. 30 years after the initial version, a recut presents the movie in a new light. Director Geoff Murphy & photography Director Graeme Cowley worked along with Sir Peter Jackson’s production studio Park Road Post. (New Zealand’s world of cinema is a small world: Murphy & Jackson seem to know each other very well: Utu’s director had been the second unit director on Lord of the Rings).

So, maybe it was the big screen, may be it was the new version that suits more to a contemporary public, may be I was just more into it this time; but whatever the reason, Utu won me over, and I saw it in a far more positive light.

I remembered just another western & it turned around and showed me a powerful genre-challenging epic, in which lyricism and humour counterbalance each other. This creates a fragile but also very unique equilibrium. Murphy and his whole crew succeed in recreating the atmosphere of the 1870s NZ wars, through entertainment and imagination. With intense cinematography (almost every possible field size is used & all technics are deployed to serve the action), a use of stereotypes that play with the audience’s expectations & a sharp sense of documentary concerning māori customs, their film make you smile, shiver and think at the same time.

Most of all, the actors are fantastic: they play with the caricatures of their characters. Who has ever seen a lone ranger like the one embodied by Bruno Lawrence, driven mad by his wife’s death? To the delight of all, only a quad-barrelled shotgun is proportionate to his pain! Anzac Wallace is an unforgettable Te Wheke, as serious and revengeful as terribly funny when he twists his tongue to rebel against the Law. Kelly Johnson smile reveals the vulnerability of young soldiers in front of beautiful women, and his encounters with Kura appear as the most touching scenes of the film. Then there’s Captain Elliott: as far as he’s concerned, Tim Elliott performs at his best, portraying the caricature of a superior gentleman to perfection.

I laughed this time, and not because I was mocking it like before. It was real laugher and real emotions.

Interested by the remastering work on the new version? take a look at the interview of the Lumière Reader: http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/graeme-cowley-on-utu-redux/

In the end, justice prevails, yet in a uncommon manner

Utu cannot be just another western neither in its subject or its cinematography. Even if Kiwi history is similar to that of the US, it’s also very different. Māori people suffered a lot from the European invasion but the Waitangi Treaty signed in 1840, protected them to be exterminated. The treaty recognising in recognizing equal rights to Māori and Pākehā. Of course, things are always more complicated in real life: Māori lands were spoiled, culture misunderstandings led to massive arguments, and during the entire XIXth century, the New Zealand wars (waged by the Cron to fight the reluctant Māoris) made plenty of dead on both sides of the line.

Despite this, New Zealand stands as a bicultural country from its birth. It’s the unique case in history where segregation has never existed. That’s why each protagonist’s motivations in Utu are so complex. Conflicts on Kiwi soil are not as a simple Blacks VS Whites racial conflict. In this perspective, the end of the movie is a masterstroke.

For more information on the subject, don’t hesitate to have a look on the website dedicated to New Zealand wars: newzealandwars.co.nz.

Don’t forget to rediscover the film! It’s not shown on the big screen anymore but Wellingtonians, you can book a room for free with your friends at the Film Archive, why not treat yourself to a coffee afterwards for a friendly debate…..

Sally Welly

2 responses

  1. I will definitely look this film up, I hadn’t heard of it before.
    Thanks for the info and the links to NZ history.

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