City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Taika Waititi: Un-New Zealand-ish

4 July, 2018

Victoria University’s Jo Smith and Ocean Mercier on New Zealand media and Taika Waititi for the This Is New Zealand catalogue.

When Taika Waititi (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) tweeted a photograph of himself sitting with Chris Hemsworth and Angelina Jolie at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, he included the caption, ‘Whatever. New Zealander of the Year 42 years in a row.’ Embedded in this social-media moment was a double gesture typical of Taika: the image documented a noteworthy moment of global success, while the caption undermined the significance attached to such celebrity gatherings. The declaration appears to dispense with any pretence at ‘kiwi humility’ or ‘kumara syndrome’, while its shoulder-shrugging to feats of significance is perhaps also calculated to allude to a New Zealand ability to level global playing fields. Such ironic gestures are a hallmark of the creative talent responsible for such films as Boy (2010), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), and, yes, Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Yet the tweet was taken up by New Zealand media outlet Newshub in a more straightforward way, as evidence of the idea that Waititi ‘is one of our most successful exports’.1 Titled ‘Kiwi Golden Boy Taika Waititi’s Big Night at the Golden Globes’, the brief story noted that ‘rubbing shoulders with Hollywood A-listers’ was a sign of success for New Zealand’s export industry. It also reported on Waititi’s participation in the ‘Time’s Up’ silent protest again sexual misconduct and gender inequities in the film industry. Yet, as scholars interested in Waititi’s evolving creative works (together, we co-edited a special journal issue on Boy in 2012),2 we think this small media moment illuminates the political nature of Waititi’s creative practice within a national media ecology hungry for media content that signals ‘New Zealand’ on a global stage.

Waititi’s deft hand at negotiating the expectations placed on New Zealand, particularly Māori, media makers, includes consistently drawing attention to the power of popular culture in affirming and confounding everyday realities, particularly for Māori youth. In his films, pop culture is often used as an ideal to which film characters aspire; but when these aspirations lead to failure, reawakenings of how to be in the world emerge.3 In Boy, the titular protagonist fantasises that his absent father is a Michael Jackson–like figure with a glamorous lifestyle doubling and tripling as a deep-sea diver and a samurai warrior. But the reality—playful comedy softening the blow of the major-bummer aspect—is something quite different. The absent dad is broken and in need of the healing provided by putting deep-seated issues to rest at home. As such, Waititi is heralded for his comedy of ‘deflation’4 and use of strategic misdirection5 to shine light on larger social and cultural issues, particularly those facing Indigenous peoples. Yet, his films have also been labelled great ‘New Zealand’ works (public commentators note how Boy is ‘quintessentially Kiwi’ or a ‘beautiful piece of New Zealand’) as well as media productions that translate well to an international audience (What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople). The strategic negotiation of popular culture and the power of media within Waititi’s films also extend to his self-mediated and public persona.

In 2017, Waititi received the Te Waipuna-ā-Rangi Award for Arts and Entertainment and was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year. A reluctant public role model, Waititi has extended the political comedy found in his fictional work to more issues-based media. In his 2013 Blazed TV ad for the New Zealand Transport Agency, he featured child characters similar to those in his Academy Award–nominated short Two Cars, One Night (2004) to demonstrate the ill effects of drug driving. His contribution to the 2017 Human Rights Commission campaign, Give Nothing to Racism, began in a typically wry way when he stated, ‘As New Zealander of the Year, I’m calling on everyone of my fellow Kiwis to help support a very important cause. Racism needs your help to survive.’ Yet Waititi’s celebrity power as ‘woke’ became a target for more conservative agendas when hosts of a morning talk show claimed he had ‘thrown New Zealand under the bus’ by raising awareness of ongoing social issues facing the nation.

The LA-based interview with Waititi, conducted by Marae, a Māori-focussed news and current-affairs programme, offered Waititi a platform to state the following concerns: ‘I’m not very proud of coming from a place that everyone overseas thinks it’s this pure, clean, green country but, in reality, all our lakes and waterways are poison … We’ve got a lot to learn about our depression rates, our suicide rates, teen suicide rates, child poverty numbers and the housing crisis.’ The hosts of a morning news-and-talk show subsequently used these comments to assess and adjudicate on the proper conduct for someone named New Zealander of the Year. In terms that echo the 2015 criticism of Eleanor Catton by a Pākehā journalist employed by the same media organisation, AM Show hosts read Waititi’s statements as ‘treasonous’. Fellow hosts nodded in agreement as one Pākehā woman noted how Waititi ill-used his ‘position of power and privilege’ in this interview. The male host went a step further to opine that as New Zealander of the Year ‘you cannot be this treasonous about your own country’.6  These media personalities demonstrated a retrograde form of nationalism tied to a fear of harming ‘brand New Zealand’, at the same time as they revealed how they themselves were blind to their privileged position as mainstream-media commentators. Focusing on Waititi’s comments about the environment (rather than high youth suicides and poverty), they revealed a recurring dependency on the clean-green myth of 100% Pure NZ. Perhaps simply a cheap shot designed to attract ratings and attention by criticising a much-loved public figure, the AM Show hosts nonetheless failed to gain support for their criticism from other media outlets. This failure unwittingly revealed the important role of Māori media (Marae and Waititi’s public persona included) in contesting dominant ways of thinking about national identity.

Waititi’s comments on Marae highlighted the idealised nature of notions of New Zealandness that seem to have been somewhat anxiously designed for a global audience. His links to global Hollywood provide the necessary celebrity power for Waititi to affirm a form of so-called un-New Zealand-ness that throws light on the mythmaking machinery which grounds New Zealand Inc. In his films and mediated performances, Waititi’s political comedy invites new imaginings of how it might be to signify differently, the place of this nation, the face of its people, and the fantasies of collective belonging attending discussions of nationhood. There are lessons to learn from his longstanding ability to shake off expectations surrounding his creative labours and his identity as a New Zealand and Māori media maker.7 His interview, the AM Show response, and his ongoing negotiation of his celebrity status highlight the limits of representational politics. These media events mark out an Un–New Zealand–ish place of creative and political possibility that can simultaneously speak back to us and for us (whoever this ‘us’ might be).

—Jo Smith and Ocean Mercier

 

  1. Newshub, 9 January 2018, www.newshub.co.nz/home/entertainment/2018/01/kiwi-golden-boy-taika-waititi-s-big-night-at-the-golden-globes.html.
  2. New Zealand Journal of Media Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012. https://medianz.otago.ac.nz/medianz/issue/view/9.
  3. Caroline Grose, ‘Talking Back’ to the Mainstream: Pop Culture and the Child in the Cinema of Taika Waititi’, in Debbie Olson ed., The Child in World Cinema (Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2018): 451–76.
  4. Dan Taipua, ‘Summer Reissue: Thor and His Magic Patu: Notes on a Very Māori Marvel Movie’, The Spinoff, 31 October 2017, https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/25-12-2017/summer-reissue-thor-and-his-magic-patu-notes-on-a-very-maori-marvel-movie/.
  5. Misha Kavka and Steven Turner, ‘Boy and the Postcolonial Taniwha’, New Zealand Journal of Media Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012: 37–46.
  6. In April of this year, the same AM host took issue with a second international Waititi interview, where the director noted how New Zealand was ‘racist as f**k’. www.radiolive.co.nz/home/articles/the-am-show/2018/04/new-zealand-reputation-sabotaged-by-taika-waititi–duncan-garner.html
  7. Jo Smith, ‘Shaking the Frame: Taika Waititi’s Anti-Anthropological Edge’, New Zealand Journal of Media Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012: 66–76.