Witi Ihimaera: authenticity at the heart of his works

_MG_0473Witi Ihimaera is not a great fan of conferences. To talk about his books and productions, this writer from New Zealand who is taking part in his first FIFO as a member of the jury, chose this Tuesday at the Maison de la Culture to hold a conversation with his friend, Deborah Walker Morrison, one of the only art teachers in New Zealand of Maori origin. A passionate and original discussion lasting over an hour between two outstanding figures on the Maori landscape…

Witi Ihimaera is a forerunner in Aboriginal literature, he was the first Maori writer to have published a book, Tangi, and a collection of short stories, Pounamu Pounamu, in the 70s. Other collections followed, more short stories, anthologies and even opera compositions. In the majority of his works, the most famous of which is the internationally successful Whale Rider (translated in France to Paï) thanks to its film adaptation, Witi Ihimaera is inspired by his personal experience and explores conflicts between the cultural values of the Maoris and the Pakehas, white people of European origin.

In the middle of a small but attentive audience, the two friends discuss the extraordinary journey taken by Maori ancestors. ‘Their voyage began in Tanzania then in Taiwan ending up in Tahiti. The Polynesians are a youthful people perhaps even the most youthful. It is important to narrate its history and little tales,’ explained the writer recalling an anecdote from his childhood. ‘Once when I was returning from school, my paternal grandmother asked me what the white people had taught me? I replied that they had told us a rhyme, one about a woman who went up a hill to fetch some water in the well. She treated them as idiots: why build a well on top of a hill? In her eyes, I was going to a school that belonged to an upside down world in which nothing had meaning.’ It is certainly the reason for which this Maori, born in the town of Whangara in the north-east of New Zealand, is of utmost importance to the question of authenticity. ‘Before the 70s, there wasn’t a director or historian of Maori origin,’ explained Witi Ihimaera shocked by the absence of Tahitian directors at FIFO, if I want to write about Polynesia today, I need to first address French culture. Polynesian culture must be perpetuated by Polynesians.’

Of slim appearance, Deborah Walker Morrison whose friend keeps praising the beauty of her blue eyes and porcelain skin, returned to the themes addressed by the author in his books. To illustrate their conversation, the two old friends, originating from a different tribe but with shared family connections, put on several extracts from films adapted from books by Witi Ihimaera : White Lies (2013) and Kawa (2009). The first, nominated at the Oscars, tells the story of a Maori woman, doctor and midwife of his tribe, whom a rich white woman with many secrets calls upon. Here, Witi Ihimaera raises the problems and lack of understanding between the two cultures. The second film, awarded by the ‘National Geographic Film’ as the best indigenous film from New Zealand, depicts the life of a Maori father who reveals his homosexuality in a traditional world where family responsibilities cover several generations. The author touches upon a delicate question: homophobia. Lastly, in a third extract taken from his next adaptation, The Patriarch,  Witi Ihimeara looks back at the 50s, with the explosion of urban development and wealth but also those internal conflicts that divided the Maori community. The common thread in all these films: the central role of the Maoris. For almost forty years, Witi Ihimaera has committed himself to being the spokesman for his ancestors, his culture, for what he is… with the ultimate hope that Maori and Pakeha voices will be heard on equal ground