The Hunt for Taika Waititi

Writer and music maker Alex Beck contributes as our guest blogger, on the subject of one of our favourites, Taika Waititi.

Venerable is not a word used to describe many people of Taika’s age, 40, but his achievements, which are largely obscured from public view, really stack up. From his academy award nomination for the short film Two Cars, One Night, to having two of New Zealand’s highest grossing films Boy and Hunt For the Wilderpeople.

“Māori films now hold the #1 and #2 spots in NZ Box Office history. A massive thanks for all the love and support we’ve received in the last 7 weeks. NZ represent! Mauri Ora!”  – Taika’s Facebook.

Boy, a comedic drama was both funny and harrowing, it follows the life of Michael Jackson obsessed Boy (Tama is a common name in Māori, which means Boy) who cares for his young brother and cousins, due to the absence of his father. For the Kiwi people its a relatable film, the jokes, the scenery, the lingua franca, but it’s also so distant, for a largely white and privileged sector of society. The domestic abuse, absentee parenting, debilitation and crushing disappointment of structural racism and failing education systems aren’t something many of the audience would have experienced.

For many Pakeha, (a white New Zealander) it showed a side of our country we don’t care to admit exists. The image, we had of equal opportunity and an egalitarian society maybe wasn’t all that realistic. It’s not all negatives though, Taika prompted us to see that past the poor schooling, illiteracy and poverty that plagues many rural Māori, that there was a deep well of spirituality and creativity, that just needs the right kind of fertiliser and development space.

For many of us Boy was our on-stage introduction to Taika Waititi, with his portrayal of the absentee man-child father of Boy, Alamein, a sort of Kiwi Hank Moody. His performance was captivating, droll and yet upsetting which, captures the kind of film Taika crafts and the man he chooses to reveal to the public. This tongue in cheek, devil may care demeanour wafts from his social media and public visages, but it’s all tied to a greater message, a public awakening of sorts, but that doesn’t feel preachy or uninclusive.

Unbeknownst to many, a first interaction with Taika’s work, likely would have been Eagle vs Shark. A film he wrote and directed, where he cast old friend Jemaine Clement, the other half of his now defunct comedy duo The Humourbeasts, also known for Flight of the Conchords. He also cast his real life girlfriend at the time, Loren Horsely, to appear as Jemaine’s love interest. What is clear from Taika’s work is it’s very personal, it holds a place very close to his own reality.

His third feature film What We Do in The Shadows, was based on his own student flatting experience in Wellington, where he got to know Jemaine, who also stars in the film. The film takes a seemingly mundane topic and combines it with a contemporary film trend, vampires, and managed to take a cheeky, subtle poke at a genre, most filmgoers were sick to death of hearing about. The film was received well; earning it’s way into Rotten Tomatoes’ top 100 comedies list.

In Berlin, advertising material for the film appeared throughout U-Bahn stations, and on buses and it was certainly a fantastic moment for NZ film, to be rearing its head in a cultural mecca, like Berlin. Validating that Germans seem to appreciate our brand of humour alongside our music talents (Fat Freddy’s Drop, Electric Wire Hustle and more constantly sell out Berlin shows.) 

Also shown at the Berlinale film festival, Down Under Berlin actually hosted and presented an exclusive preview of What We Do In The Shadows, in October 2014. Both Taika and Jemaine made appearances for the screening, which was only fitting considering Taika adopted a hilariously mediocre German accent for the film.

Taika’s most recent film Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens in the UK in September, and has been incredibly well received in international festivals, as well as New Zealand. It focuses on Ricky, an Auckland city foster kid, who runs away to the New Zealand bush to escape being moved to yet another foster home. Taika cast relative newcomer Julian Dennison, as lead Ricky, with lead support going to stalwart of New Zealand and international film, Sam Neill. Also featuring performances from Flight Of The Conchords‘ Rhys Darby and X-factor’s Stan Walker, and a brief on-screen moment with the man himself, Taika has also signed on for his first Hollywood Blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok. Let’s hope he manages to blend his fantastic wit into another genre of film that has been royally overdone.

UPDATE (19 August 2016):
Down Under Berlin will present the German premiere of Hunt for the Wilderpeople on 18 September 2016. You can browse the whole 2016 festival program here.

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Alex Beck moved to Berlin in large part for the burgeoning house music scene, whilst living here for the past two years he’s been working on building a fintech start up geared at the antipodes. In his limited spare time, he writes and makes music.