Chances are, you’ve never witnessed anything like Waru. This isn’t because of its multi-narrative one-shot structure – comparable to 2005’s Nine Lives – and the actual reason for Waru’s uniqueness isn’t a positive one. With only two feature films credited to female Māori directors, Merata Mita’s Mauri and Ramai Hayward’s To Love a Māori, the voices of Aotearoa’s native women haven’t been heard enough in cinema. With Waru, the film’s eight directors deliver an emotional shout into that silence, and it carries the spread and whaea power of a shotgun.
The film displays eight moments in time, each realised in one shot and starting at 10am on the same day. They all connect to the tangi of a small boy named Waru: a teacher trying to cope with the loss; a mother locked out of her house after an all-nighter; two women on a rural road heading straight into a hornet’s nest. The pacing and dynamics of each scene never stay the same, embedding this latitudinal form of storytelling with a convincing sense of time, place and reality.
Cinematographer Drew Sturge does a hell of a job bringing a visual tonality that ties the tales together. Some elements aren’t so consistent, however. The doses of 2D animation in Mihi add very little and somewhat distracts from an otherwise quietly tense situation. The segment Kiritapu calls bullshit on toxic Pākehā media, which is very satisfying, but the cast surrounding Maria Walker’s performance play their roles with a cartoonish satire that doesn’t fit an otherwise grounded feature.
But one thing that cannot be faulted is the nine central performances. Young Acacia Hapi makes an almighty impact as Mere, a quite girl who takes a stand. Kararaina Rangihau and Merehake Maaka effortlessly carry a shipping container’s worth of emotional weight as Waru’s grandmothers, making grim debates in regal fashion. For me, however, the total knockout of Waru is Tanea Heke as Aunty Charm, who juggles distress and command (as well as humour) with levels of authority and vitality rarely matched by any other supporting performance in New Zealand film history.