Who Owns the Rights to a Story?

"My Brother Mitchell" 2019 dir/writer Todd Karehana

Big excitement a film producer bowls up to your home and wants to buy the rights to your mothers/brothers/uncles/grandmother/ great grandfathers story.   Finally the world will know the true story of someone you have long admired and respected.  What's even better they wave a nice fat cheque in front of you, payment for the rights up front with residuals once the film is made.  

You talk to your brothers and sisters,  they agree, well actually one of the sisters was a bit snippy but she'll come around.  You sign the paper.   You're happy so you tell the rest of the family, the other descendants/children/aunts and uncles, suddenly World War 3 with World War 4 looming, breaks out.   You've banked the cheque, you've signed the paper there is no going back.   A war of words breaks out on Facebook and everyone has a say even those family members you haven't seen or heard from in decades. 

Meanwhile the Indigenous or Māori or Pasifika or Asian film community are up in arms too.  Did we mention the producer was a Pākeha (New Zealander of European descent)!   Why is a Pākeha telling our stories?  Why did that whānau sellout?  Māori or Pasifika should be telling Māori or Pasifika stories on film. 

You suddenly become the pariah of the family and community.  No-one will talk to you or if they do they call you a 'sell-out' or worse.    It is a difficult place to be and one that is causing dissent not only within families but also within the Indigenous screen industry. 

Indigenous people world-wide are claiming that they the people of the land, the people that the "subject" belongs to should be telling these stories.  Pākeha reinterpret stories from their world-view but the person the "subject" comes from another culture, with a completely different outlook on the world and life with their own values.

Take for example "Whale Rider".   In the film story "Paikea" or Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes)  the lead, is rejected because she is a girl and cannot be regarded as a tribal leader.  She then breaks 'taboo' by daring to use the taiaha a traditional weapon of war.  

The only problem is that this is a story from the East Coast of the North Island from the proud tribe of Ngāti Porou.  Ngāti Porou is renown throughout the Māori world as the tribe  which celebrates its powerful women leaders, in legend, song, carvings and traditions. They have an ancient history of generations of women ariki highborn chieftains that continues to this day.  The Hon. Hekia Parata a Minister in Cabinet from 2010 -2016 comes from such a linage.  

Ngāti Porou have a tradition of powerful women who not only led in their tribe but also lead in battle.  These women claim  the right to speak on the marae, the traditional sanctum of men, the focal point of Māori communities and culture.   

In the film Paikea's grandfather is angry because she breaks an ancient lineage and dares to weild a taiaha  a traditional weapon.  Yet again within Māori tradition there were women of renown who were fighting warriors in their own rights.

At the time of the launch of the film I was a parent at a small Ngāti Porou school from the beautiful Waipiro Bay on the East Coast and we took the entire school of 12 students to the film in Gisborne. 

We loved the film "Whale Rider" but even the smallest child laughed and shook our heads at the glaring faults of culture.  The lines " I am a chief I come from a long line of chiefs..." is hilarious to Māori children because if you are a chief, you don't need to say it, you are.  It's not something we teach our children, its inherent in their upbringing and cultural knowledge.

But it was a great entertaining film.  Why let a good story get in the way of real life culture?  Just because it's inaccurate and is a foreign interpretation of a living, breathing, vibrant culture that still exists to this day?

At one time it was accepted that all films were made in New Zealand by Pākeha with a Māori attached as a "Consultant".  Now the Consultants are being called to task but gently especially if they are Māori, because we know that a consultant can advise but has no real power over the film.   

Screen Australia has taken a pro-active stance with their Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) Rights.  They state  "Indigenous cultural and intellectual property (ICIP) rights refer to Indigenous people’s rights with respect to their cultural heritage. This is a living heritage, which comprises all objects, sites, stories, images and knowledge, the nature or use of which has been transmitted, or continues to be transmitted, from generation to generation, and which is regarded as pertaining to a particular Indigenous group or its territory."   

Belatedly New Zealand is following suit.  Considering at least seven of the top selling 10 New Zealand films are based on "Māori" stories it is a change that is causing ructions in the NZ film and television industry. 

There is no mistaking it is a challenge not only for the Māori screen industry but also for Māori whānau (families) but also for individuals.

Author:  Hineani Melbourne is an award winning writer, director and producer.  Hineani is also the present Toihau/Chair of Ngā Aho Whakaari who represent Māori in screen.  This is her personal opinion and perspective.


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