Tearepa Kahi Crafts A Riveting But Imperfect Facfiction [TIFF]

Dec 22, 2022

Tearepa Kahi’s “Muru” opens with several spiky title cards: “The views and accuracy of the information contained in this production are not endorsed or supported by the New Zealand Police.” “This film is not a recreation of the police raids against the people of Tūhoe…”; “…It is a response.” The raids in question took place in 1916 and 2007. The former ended with the arrest of Māori prophet Rua Kēnana; the latter, which sought to uncover paramilitary training camps, ended with the seizure of four guns and the arrests of eighteen people, including Tūhoe activist Tame Iti. Kēnana was pardoned in 2019; and the New Zealand Police have since apologized for their actions during the 2007 Ruatoki raids, though not for carrying them out.
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Kahi is right not to call “Muru” a recreation—but it’s not too far off. Instead, he dabbles in the film equivalent of what Truman Capote termed faction or facfiction—a form of creative reportage in which reality is given the poetic and structural furnishings of a novel. But it’s only dabbling, because while Kahi does reconstruct the Ruatoki raids with often stunning geographical and social accuracy, he also makes up a lot of things. Some of these fabrications feel cheap and sensational (the stylized police shootings, helicopter tussles, and climactic brawls, to list only the very worst offenders), while others are nothing short of inspired. The final effect is a heartening but excessive drama-cum-actioner in which the harrowing cries of silent human gestures are routinely lost in the vacuum of the gunshot.
The film starts off encouragingly enough. We meet “Taffy” Tāwharau (Cliff Curtis), the village’s police sergeant and occasional bus driver. Taffy is a good, charitable man, daily shuttling the kids to and from elementary school, changing his father’s dialysis bags, and, often several times a day, reprimanding troubled youth Rusty, who has a fondness for joyriding stolen trucks and smashing up storefronts with a 3-wood. Also introduced is Taffy’s friend Pōtaka (Rangi Rangitukunoa), a fellow cop moonlighting as a government mole. With Pōtaka’s help, the New Zealand Police’s Special Tactics Group (STG) has been secretly monitoring Ruatoki and its leader Tame Iti (playing himself) for several months. But their intel is wanting. Either by incompetence or prejudice (or both), they have come to mistake Iti’s fireside assemblies and survival skills classes for seditious meetups and terrorist training camps. And it’s after one such stormy night-time gathering, during which Rusty discharges a firearm in a fit of pique, that the word comes from head office to start the now-inglorious raid.
It’s here that the problems begin. With two humane and sympathetic characters in place, and a thuggish raid poised to test their loyalties to badge and brethren, it makes very little sense why Kahi and co-scenarist Jason Nathan decide—a mere ten minutes into the police’s occupation—to quite literally gun down their most promising narrative partnership. From then on, the film undergoes a rapid and irreversible Neesonification, with the conflicted and affecting Pōtaka replaced by the über-macho—and in no way divided—villains Gallagher and Kimiora: two STG officers concerned only, it seems, with pride and gunsmoke and meticulous beard-sculpting.
When they take the reins, the subtlety all but disappears, and the plot descends into a series of protracted bust-ups and fabulous chase scenes. Take, for example, the closing set piece. Hot-headed Kimiora threatens to throw Tame Iti out of a helicopter and then pick off the indignant locals one by one; but before he can crush the trigger, Taffy grabs hold of him and dive bombs from the chopper. When the action finally resumes on the ground, Gallagher and Kimiora kick the stuffing out of each other and spew ridiculous platitudes like “You ain’t the Cap; you ain’t nothin.” And just when proceedings have reached an Everest-like peak of improbability, Rusty limps over to the grappling bodies to act as peacemaker, apparently forgetting the high-speed crash he’s just been in and the near-fatal bullet wound he sustained five minutes earlier. And there are yet more specious elements: against all protocol, the police take Taffy’s ailing father hostage; a group of conveniently ill-cuffed arrestees bust out of a police van, and we’re asked to believe that there’s only one government official in the Situation Room overseeing the whole operation. It all brings an air of silliness to what is otherwise a serious and poignant film.
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Barring Jay Ryan’s Gallagher and Manu Bennett’s Kimiora (who may well be fine actors but whose roles here often condemn them to caricature), all the performances are thoroughly persuasive and affecting. As Rusty, Poroaki Merritt-McDonald carries out his verbal assaults and petty misdemeanors with considerable aplomb; equally convincing is Roimata Fox as his stolid but exasperated mother; and, as he gallantly crests a hill on his quad bike, bounding along like the Omdurman charge in “Young Winston,” Tame Iti is at once unknowingly righteous and rabble-rousing and absurdly funny. Tying it all together, of course, is Cliff Curtis, who, after an assured performance in Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s “Murina,” looks now to have reached a stage in his career in which he is more comfortable wielding words than guns. His Taffy is about as humble and gentle as you can make a protagonist without lapsing into insincerity.
Though the film is frequently addled by its lust for spectacle, it is not without its moments of brilliance. Among the best is a sequence in which the whistling of kids on a school bus is beautifully and eerily intercut with the kicking down of doors and the unlawful detainment of innocent townsfolk. Shortly after, the bus is stopped by the authorities and used as a bargaining chip to lure Iti out of the forest, while a crowd of increasingly distressed parents look on from the barricades. Not a single gun or chase is in sight, yet this scene is more powerful and dynamic than any street shootouts or car-flipping stunts. Around this time, too, Kahi and Nathan’s script really hits its stride: “The longer they keep us here, the better our chance of a Happy Meal,” says one bus-bound kid. “How’d you know that?” asks the girl behind him. “Have to feed prisoners of war.” It’s these delicate and darkly comic moments that go some way to explaining why “Muru” has been so warmly received by New Zealanders: they personalize, rather than gratuitously exteriorize, the essential subject and purpose of Kahi’s “response”: to tell a story of persecution and estrangement—both historical and contemporary—in a way that is not concerned so much with the explication or obfuscation of fact as in strengthening the voice of a sorely mistreated community. [C+]
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