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Stars: Whirimako Black, Rachel House, Antonia Prebble, Nancy Brunning, Te Waimere Kessell, Kohuorangi Ta Whara and Elizabeth Hawthorne.
Writer: Dana Rotberg; based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera.
Director: Dana Rotberg.

Rating: 4/5

New Zealand’s leading independent production outfit, South Pacific Pictures, return to the source of their biggest hit, Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera, for their latest exploration of traditional Maori culture, White Lies. Producer John Barnett can’t expect the same sort of international adoration that greeted his feel-good 2002 classic for this deep, dark tale, but critics and arthouse audiences will appreciate it’s refined quality and thematic depth. Fittingly, it is New Zealand’s 2013 submission for the Foreign Language Oscar category.

Expat Mexican filmmaker Dana Rotberg reportedly moved to New Zealand after having been inspired by director Niki Caro’s worldwide hit, a Kiwi classic that secured an Oscar nomination for its leading lady, 12 year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes. It was Rotberg’s mission to craft a similarly moving narrative and has adapted Ihimaera’s story ‘Medicine Woman’ into a darkly personal chamber piece that represents the struggle for identity, both gender specific and as an indigenous culture.

Set in the racially volatile landscape of 1920’s rural New Zealand, the protagonist is the nomadic elder Paraiti, played with a regal nobility and graceful warmth by Whirimako Black (a recent Best Actress nominee at both the New Zealand Film Awards and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards). Carrying the guilt of having forsaken a young mother and her child who died during labour, Paraiti agrees to help a well-to-do pakeha woman, Rebecca Vickers (the chilly Antonia Prebble) with the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. Rebecca is served by Maraea (Rachel House), a maid that casts a watchful eye over her in the absence of a fiery husband.

The intermingling of the three women’s lives becomes a complex study in deception, social standing and heritage. Paraita’s mission is to save the child, not have it perish, but that ruse is countered when the horrible truth behind Rebecca’s past and the role Maraea has played is revealed. The raw, stark nature of the bonds that the trio share and the immensity of the lies being perpetrated makes for potent, graphic drama (heightened during an extended birthing sequence that may be too challenging for those of a weak constitution).

Whereas Caro’s vision was a vivid cinematic work, rich in colour and movement, Rotberg opts for a very still frame. The result is no less visually compelling (thanks to ace DOP Alun Bollinger, one of NZ’s most renowned lensmen), but the stillness does amplify the single-setting, three-hander theatricality of the narrative. White Lies is full of dark shadows and long passages of silence, exemplifying the chasm between the women and their place in the world; it is an aesthetic that may prove taxing for some.

Above all, it is a stunning showcase for Whirimako Black, one of Aotearoa’s most prominent and successful Maori singer-songwriters; she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006. Given her long-established status as an artist that embraces the humanistic traditions of her race in her music, Paraiti is a role she was destined to play. From the Ta Moko tattoo on her face to the spirituality she embraces when performing post-birth rituals of the earth, Black is a towering screen presence who honours not only Rotberg’s and Ihimaera’s creation but also the centuries-old dignity and customs of her people. 

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