Anahera Winiata and her moko kauae. Photo / Supplied.

Award-Winning Film Director Hiona Henare's Ode To A Sacred Maori Tradition

As part of the Doc Edge Online Festival, Hiona’s film Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin explores the journey of two women receiving their moko kauae

In the opening scenes of Hiona Henare's documentary Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin, viewers are given an emotional and intimate glimpse into a time-honoured tradition in Maori culture. Anahera Winiata is preparing to receive her moko kauae - a traditional Maori chin tattoo, while her whanau gather around in support, singing waiata, as visible tears stream down Anahera's face. 

Taking viewers inside two moko kauae ceremonies - the first with Anahera and the second with Janice Cherie Pania Eriha - Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin explores the powerful and personal reasons for women getting the tattoo, a practice once suppressed through legislation now experiencing a resurgence. 

WATCH: Trailer for Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin

Hiona's prolific work in documenting indigenous stories has garnered praise over the years. The multi-award-winning filmmaker and alumni of the prestigious Berlinale film talents programme is the recipient of several accolades; the Australian Solid Screen Contribution to Screen Arts Award; the Audience Choice award and B​est Actress Award​ at the 2010 Wairoa Maori Film Festival; the New Zealand Film Commission's Huia Publishers Pikihuia Highly Commended Script Award; and the S​outhseas NZ student film award​ for Best Film Production.

She has represented filmmakers on the executive boards of Women in Film & Television, Nga Aho Whakaari (Maori in Film & Television), Wairoa Maori Film Festival and TeNati Tahitian Film Festival. 

Hiona shares her experience of filming Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin, showing as part of this year's Doc Edge Online Film Festival.

What sparked the initial inspiration for you to document this very sacred process of receiving the moko kauae?

This really was an unusual film project because it came together in a very mysterious way but our ancestors often work like that. Initially, my cousin Sian contacted me to ask if I would film her moko kauae ceremony so we had a digital copy of it for our whanau archive. That’s how it started. Sian, who is an incredibly talented moko artist was preparing for her first moko kauae, a significant milestone for any moko artist and the whanau wanted me to capture it. And of course the two wahine receiving their moko kauae were family too.

How long was the process of filming and editing the final documentary?

We filmed over one day at our Kohutoroa marae in Levin so the filming side of things only took one day. I remember being super busy at the time with a New Zealand Film Commission film project so I just put the footage away and forgot about it. When I finally got time to watch it, I was surprised at how beautifully the camera captured and transferred the ceremony to screen. Watching it again transported me back to the ceremony and I had this feeling that through this film we could show the world what wahinetanga (womanhood) and whanaungatanga (family connection) values look like, feel like and sound like.

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I spoke to my whanau about taking the footage to another level and producing a documentary with it and they were like “we trust you” and that was that! I contacted veteran editor Annie Collins and told her I had something special for her to watch and she signed onto the project immediately. You wouldn’t think we condensed a four-hour ceremony down to 30 minutes without losing any of the sacredness. The final film duration is 40 minutes long and viewers stay engaged for that whole time.

Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin is showing as part of the Doc Edge Online Film Festival. Photo / Supplied.

We have many incredible women in the field of ta moko and tatau here in Aotearoa and the Pacific, like your cousin Sian Montgomery-Neutze; and others such as Tyla Vaeau and Julia Mageau to name just a few. How does the moko kauae give Maori women a sense of identity?

The moko kauae is one of many wahine symbols of identity that is permanently etched into the chin. The kauae can’t be covered by clothing and pulled out when it suits the wearer, it doesn’t work like that. These women absolutely committed to wearing it everyday for the rest of their lives. They understand the responsibility, the mana, the legacy and the attention they get by wearing it. They’re also aware of the ridicule, the judgement and the envy targeted at them too. And for these reasons, I choose to see them as pou, icons and leaders.

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The spiritual significance of receiving a moko kauae is very special. Can you talk a bit about how a recipient prepares spiritually for this?

The preparation as I understand it is different for everyone but the general practice of preparation is done with karakia (prayer), waiata (song), whanaungatanga (family) and manaakitanga (respect). Some might want to fast and others might want to go to the urupa (burial ground) to visit loved ones before their ceremony - it is really up to the individual. It’s their wananga (education/learning), their journey so they get to decide how they prepare spiritually.

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The film first premiered at the 2019 Asinabka Film, Media & Arts Festival in Ottawa. How was this received by the audiences there? What were some of the interactions and questions from people after viewing it?

I’m used to traveling to film festivals alone but for this trip I had Sian, Anahera and Janice with me. Sian’s sister Ana, who is a Fullbright scholar and filmmaker based in New York came to support us too so we were rolling deep in Ottawa. As you can imagine, Anahera and Janice got a lot of attention but they handled it very well like mana wahine. In fact I would say they enjoyed the attention and the conversations that came to them. The response was incredibly positive and transformative we received so many good reviews on our Facebook page from our Ottawa viewers.

The Moko kauae has been seen controversially on pakeha women such as life-coach Sally Anderson. There’s also the western ideology of meritocracy that has been imposed on many Pacific and Maori traditions over the centuries. Is mom kauae a taonga (treasure) to be shared beyond Maori women?

Anyone can wear a chin tattoo but the pattern should reflect their own culture and identity. Moko kauae and traditional Maori designs are for wahine Maori only. No exceptions.

Sian also touches on this in the film about how the criteria is evolving, and the symptoms of colonisation ultimately “us colonising ourselves”. How can we continue to dismantle colonisation in Aotearoa through our traditional art forms and practices?

Together we have to infiltrate the system from every angle possible whether it be through Maori academia, literature, education, film, economics, science or politics we can’t rest on our laurels we have to keep pushing, resisting and raising consciousness.

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Is there resurgence amongst women receiving the moko kauae?

From what I know, the last two generations of wahine Maori have had different experiences and were most likely not raised in church, which in the past was the ultimate breeding ground for oppression and judgement against colour and the lower class. There are also more wahine Maori in leadership spaces now, like my cousin Sian and so many other extraordinary wahine tohunga (experienced) practicing ta moko. We all have a responsibility to ourselves to change the course of our history by infiltrating the system.

What are some of the books, podcasts or films that have inspired you and your connection to filmmaking and indigenous storytelling?

I enjoy all the publications by New Zealand director Vincent Ward. His books are filled with pictures, poetry, thoughts, scribbles, paintings and visual references. He is a whole mood to me and his creative process inspires my creative process. I watch a lot of films, probably too many films sometimes five films a day but I learn a lot by watching. At this stage in my career I am focussed on narrative sovereignty and having absolute intellectual property of our whakapapa stories. We all know that Hollywood is desperate for stories and I’m genuinely worried that Hollywood and Disney will steal our stories if we don’t tell them ourselves. So I’ve been working with the Muaūpoko Tribal Authority, they funded Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin, and they continue to support and trust my work. I’d really like to challenge all other iwi out there to start supporting their whanau filmmakers and storytellers.

You are also currently working script development for your first feature-length film Kurahaupo (Halo Around The Moon). Can you tell us a bit about how that is going and what your goal is for this next project?

My HALO feature is still in early development and we’re hoping it gets picked up for an international lab next year for advanced development. In the meantime I’m in preproduction to film a series of short films based on my tupuna (ancestors) “Tuteremoana” of the Ngai Tara and Muaupoko people - which will also serve as a proof of concept for the feature. I received funding from TUIA250 to make these films so I feel I have a huge responsibility to my tupuna to tell these stories from a Maori and indigenous world view. I’ve just signed up with veteran cinematographer Fred Renata to help me on the project along with internationally renown Sweetshop & Green productions to produce all these films. There are a lot of Maori films coming out, so get ready!

Ruahine: Stories In Her Skin presented by Doc Edge 2020 is showing at 6pm Monday 15 June 2020; and at 5pm Wednesday 24 June.

For more information visit Doc Edge Online Festival

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