"Welcome to my interesting world" - Powhiri styled encounter in Boy
By O. Ripeka Mercier
Boy, considered by director Taika Waititi as his “first feature film”(1), is a thematically rich text, which comments upon masculinity, absenteeism, identity, superheroes, childhood and adulthood, social hierarchy, loss, rurality and poverty. Genre-wise it has also been multiply understood(2)– as a coming of age film, comedy and drama(3). And in terms of film technique it uses devices of realism, fantasy, animation, intertextuality as well as a unique Aotearoa voice. It is all these things and can be read in all of these different ways, but here I contend that it can also be read as a film that conforms to notions of encounter, according to a Tumatauenga/marae-atea framework(4).
Boy sees 30-something Alamein (Waititi) return home to Waihau Bay to recover some buried cash, the theft of which he has spent time in jail for. Incidental to this, he grudgingly agrees to spend “quality time” with his sons Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu). Boy, initially excited by the homecoming of his idolized hero, comes to a painful realization that his father is not the person he has imagined. Meanwhile, Rocky comes to his own realization, but in reverse – his initial doubt and suspicion of Alamein turns to respect. As each boy’s inner-world fantasies about Alamein disintegrate, Boy and Rocky effect an outer-world transformation of Alamein from his self-centred reality, beyond what they could have dreamt themselves.
A Kaupapa Maori approach to filmmaking has been argued by Barclay and Mita to be by Maori, about Maori(5). Film analysis should also be designed in this context, giving us a few options in reading these films. Such a reading may recognize their themes (by contrast with Pakeha cinema) as being about resolution and survival, according to Mita’s conception(6). Barclay’s “Fourth cinema” employs specific technical devices as well as thematic, and his own films – The Kaipara Affair in particular(7)– can be read for signs of these. The camera and the editor behave according to protocols that assume camera and operator as part of a group and the narrative unfolds in a way that is community-driven. Tainui Stephens talks about the films he has made being driven by empathy. More lately Jani Wilson has proposed that t?niko (thread knotting/weaving) provides a parallel for understanding (Maori) film(8).
In an attempt to steer away from the Eurocentrally-assumptive question of what is a “Maori Film”, in 2007, I sought to centralize a film analysis in te Ao Maori, and argued that character interactions in Waititi’s short films suggest and invite a maraebased reading. The narrative and style of Two Cars, One Night exemplifies a Tumatauenga/marae-atea mode – characterised by a central encounter. The negotiation of a new relationship is evocative of the p?whiri performed at marae when the hau kainga (home people) ceremonialise their meeting with a manuhiri (visitor) group. The powhiri ritual is performed under the watch of the atua (spiritual force/personality) Tumatauenga. By contrast, Tama Tu exemplifies a Rongomat?ne/wharenui mode. Once formal powhiri proceedings are over, parties enter the wharenui (meeting house) and in so doing cross into the domain of the atua Rongo. Because the parties are now acquainted with each other, interactions inside the wharenui are freer, characterised by Barry Barclay’s description that “all have a voice”(9). A Tumatauenga/marae-atea/p?whiri film (such as Two Cars, One Night) is based on the negotiation of a new, central relationship between people, whereas a Rongo/wharenui film (such as Tama Tu) is concerned with how a group of people and characters negotiate particular issues. In Tama Tu a close unit of soldiers dealing with the boredom in between fighting engagements are seen to negotiate a liminal space that is charged with anticipation, fear, ennui and uncertainty. How they collectively enact this negotiation aligns with a Rongo/wharenui reading.
A powhiri, no matter which iwi or hapu it is enacted in, has certain common ritual elements. I will discuss these only briefly here – the reader is referred to Salmond(10), Higgins(11) and Mead(12) for a more detailed description. The rituals are designed to manage the levels of tapu that are heightened during a meeting between groups. The karanga, or calling between the manuhiri and the haukainga, allows the manuhiri to walk across the space of the marae-atea and physically close the distance between the two parties. One of the roles of the kaikaranga (callers) is to clear a noa (safe) pathway across the tapu space of the marae-atea for the engagement to proceed. After the manuhiri have been seated on the opposite side of the marae, the whaikorero (speeches) allow each side to state their purpose for meeting and engaging. In the tau-utu-utu (back and forth) form, someone from one side speaks, and then someone from the other, alternating until all have spoken who were delegated by the group to speak. In dramatic and performative fashion, the whaikorero present the issues from their perspective. Each kaiwhaikorero (orator) is supported, once they are done, by the singing of a waiata (song) which, well chosen, should support and embellish their argument in some way. Once the whaikorero are complete, the onus is upon the manuhiri to cross the space to present a koha (reciprocal gift). This is a form of sacrifice or payment, and should be of sufficient quantity and quality that it acknowledges the mana of the haukainga. The physical moving across space of the one who lays the koha on the marae-atea is important, because it brings resolution to the formal proceedings. Koha is the final tapu element – and when properly enacted, allows the group as a whole to next cross the space to perform the hariru. The hongi, kiss, hand shakes, hugs and greetings, all a part of the modern hariru, mark a physical resolution of the tensions and separation of the groups across the marae-atea. When physical contact is made, the groups are symbolically becoming one. The group as a whole then partake of kai, and by eating together remove the tapu of the ritual ceremony. In the organizational device that follows, I juxtapose elements of Boy’s plot with these five elements.
Karanga - "Welcome to my interesting world"
Boy opens with the quote “You could be happy here…we could grow up together” (from ET the Extra-Terrestrial) against a quivering Hammond organ rendition of Hine E Hine. We are then thrown into the landscape of Waihau Bay, to the upbeat strains of Poi E, and we hear Boy (played by James Rolleston) in voiceover. As he narrates the characters and features of his interesting world, he invites us to share in a fantastical performance of his life.
The fantastic real and fantastic imagined are interwoven in his narrative. It is 1984, and his idol is the fantastic Michael Jackson. His other idol is his (not-so-fantastic) Dad, but Boy imagines him as a deep-sea diver, a prison escapee whose only tool-cum-weapon is a spoon, and a holder of the one-punch body count record. His fantasies about his father suggest intertextual links to late 70’s and early 80’s popular culture and films, such as Jaws, Rambo and Hong Kong martial arts film. In the fantastic real community, social and cultural histories are carried in naming of characters. Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest; Holden, Kingi and Chardonnay represent the naming of a younger generation by a (young) generation steeped in popular culture of the day. Similarly Alamein and Tunisia were names given in remembrance of the engagements of the 28 Maori Battalion, by a generation steeped in the social and cultural issues of their day.
Our welcome to the world is also a nostalgic trip back to the 80’s: the language (choice, undies), clothing (stubbies over track pants), hair styles (rats tails and sideways pony tails), artifacts (round combs, exercise books) and social behaviour (graffiti inside a flip-top school-desk, a teacher smoking inside) all serve to immerse us into the marae-atea space.
As the function of karanga is to whakanoa the way for manuhiri into a tapu space, so Boy’s humourous and breathily imaginative introduction to his world is a safe and idealized depiction of a reality that is not so sweet under the surface. Through the comedic and fantastical, Waititi as director-writer-actor thus silkily slips us into a space in which to engage with the effects of the absent father who is himself just a boy. While this was also a theme of Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider, Waititi’s karanga allows us to engage on a comedic level.
Whaikorero - "can you stop calling me Dad"
The function of the whaikorero is to lay out the key kaupapa or issues. In the film, the delegated orators, or key characters, learn more about each other through the course of the film, performing so that onlookers (both us as the audience and others in the community of characters) also come to know them better, and understand the overarching narrative and concerns. Understood as a coming-of-age film, I will discuss the key plot and character developments of Boy as they pertain to themes of childhood, adulthood and maturity.
In the whaikorero schema, Boy and Rocky can be seen to represent the haukainga, or the ahi kaa that keep the home fires burning in their rural community of Waihau Bay. Alamein, although he grew up in the house and indeed the very room that Boy occupies, can be understood as embodying the role of manuhiri. The back and forth between orators/characters is often infused with humour – rather than being dour ritualistic speeches, the kaiwhaikorero were expected to humour, inspire and entertain. If they didn’t, they were liable to be talked back down into their seat. Humour serves multiple purposes in this film too.
The humour is particularly poignant in Boy’s idealization of Alamein. In spite of his prescient observation to Leaf, as Alamein arrives, that a “storm’s coming”, and Rocky’s animated imagining of three toothy, red eyed demons emerging out of the blackness of a terrifying hearse-like car, Boy is ecstatic to meet his father. In spite of evidence to suggest that Alamein means no good by his visit, Boy continues to idolize him, seeing him at various junctures as a Michael Jackson, an iconic figure. At times we see why. Alamein’s explanation of why the Crazy Horses won’t admit Boy – “it’s more of an adult’s gang, we don’t muck around with toys and games” – is ironically juxtaposed with his initiation of a charmingly boyish mock-battle. Alamein and his neo-gang of sons use driftwood and seaweed to suppress the enemy. We also cannot help but laugh at his immature behaviour: from his rejoinder to Aunty Gracey’s accusation that he is an egg “I know you are, you said you are, so what am I” to his fascination with popular culture, from Shogun to Michael Jackson to Stephen Spielberg “I seen it [E.T.] four times”. Boy can’t help but see a superhero in Alamein “Dad did a mean-as haka and scared the Commies away.” This contrasts with Rocky’s search for a superhero in his own imagination and in his drawings, that he habitually shares with his mother by her graveside.
Boy’s idealization of Alamein leads him to emulate him. He is encouraged in this by Alamein, who shares beer with him, and doesn’t notice when Kelly reminds him futilely of his responsibilities to feed the children at home. Alamein at one juncture asks, “Can you stop calling me Dad… Besides, we’re more like brothers you and me.” and Boy agrees to call Alamein Shogun. Alamein’s fantasies about himself don’t quite surpass Boy’s in imagination, and yet, they are more viscerally realized. When Boy becomes “Little Shogun” to his friends, he loses the sense of place that ‘Boy’ gives him as the m?taamua (eldest) in his family, its attendant responsibility and becomes instead a little version of Alamein. When he takes on the role of digging for the buried cash, he uses the so-called responsibility to create a division between himself and Rocky, by declaring “this is a man’s job” he denies Rocky any part in entering that world. Furthermore, Boy uses some of the money to buy goods from the shop for his friends, proclaiming that no one is quite as grown-up as he is (“pashing’s for kids” and “I rooted her”). The emulation comes to a head, however, when he is caught dressed in Alamein’s leather jacket and gang patch. When Alamein violently strips him of the patch (in Boy’s conception, his adulthood), Boy loses much more than this. The sweet sound of Maisey Rika singing Hine E Hine with the St Joseph’s Maori Girls’ College Choir reconnects us to the E.T. quote at the beginning – “you could be happy here…we could grow up together” an oh-so-ironic comment on how much growing up Alamein has to do, and how dangerous and potentially unhappy for Boy to have to grow up together with his father.
Alamein later apologises for his behaviour “I’m sorry for being the way I am sometimes… Reckon you could handle having the Incredible Hulk for a Dad?”. But it is after this that Boy discovers that Leaf has eaten the cash, and becomes afraid that Alamein might once again lose his temper. It is in this movement that Boy comes to a realisation about his Dad. When Alamein harvests gang marijuana, and is confronted by the gang at the pub, Boy’s “Beat It” fantasy doesn’t quite conceal the truth of the beating Alamein gets for it. And his illusions are further shattered when Alamein hits and kills Boy’s goat-friend Leaf. This incites Boy to smoke marijuana and drink alcohol together.
In the film’s only overt reminder of the world outside of Waihau Bay, the drunk and stoned Boy climbs up onto the bridge railing to make way for a group of P?keh? cycle racers whizzing past. When Boy, leaning over backwards, sees the horizon upside down, we viewers also see his upside down view of the world. Simultaneously and coincidentally by design, his view of Alamein is being righted. This upside down moment incites him to lose his fantasies about his father, and to remember that his mother was alone and not “always laughing” while pregnant with Rocky, and to see that Alamein was absent when Rocky was born and his mother subsequently died. When he falls into the river, and awakes after being rescued by Weirdo, he sees Weirdo clearly for the first time. His coming of age is completed in the following movement, and his actions incite Alamein to also ‘come of age’, as will be discussed.
Koha - "why do you like to eat other people's rubbish, eh Leaf?"
The koha can be seen as an exchange or a sacrifice. It is designed to reciprocate the manaakitanga (hospitality) of the haukainga, and is laid on the marae-?tea before proceedings can reach their resolution and the manuhiri and hauk?inga can become as one.
In the film, a mutual sacrifice must be made between the key characters in order to progress the relationship. For Alamein, one of the wedges in the relationship between he and his sons is his obsession with recovering his buried money. The discovery of that money would arguably enable him to continue to be absent, by allowing him to escape to the city to “wear tuxedos and ride on dolphins”. Alamein’s challenge is to come to terms with Leaf, the goat, eating his money, and furthermore to let go his car and ill-gotten marijuana to fellow Crazy Horses gang members Juju and Chuppa.
Similarly, Leaf the goat, which stands in for a meaningful human relationship with Boy, needs to be sacrificed in order for Boy to have a relationship with his father. This comes about when Alamein, driving dangerously and drunk, hits Leaf. In spite of Rocky’s attempts to heal Leaf, the goat dies, and the circle of koha is completed. The loss of Leaf is a key turning point in Boy’s attitude to Alamein, and from this moment he begins to re-evaluate his fantasies about his Dad. When each character realizes the loss of, on the one hand, financial independence, and on the other, friendship, they are confronted with points of no return in the narrative.
Hariru - "The best thing about him [E.T.] is his finger, it heals all wounds."
The symbolic crossing of space between the two parties, is crucially accompanied by touch, and marks another point of no return in the relationship. In the film, I would argue that the harir? occurs after Alamein’s apology to Boy, and just after Boy discovers the ruined cash stash. The header quote is actually spoken earlier than this, by Alamein to Rocky, but is relevant as it refines Rocky’s ideas about how he might use his powers.
After Boy falls off the bridge and is rescued by Weirdo, he and Rocky individually confront Alamein. Confident and assured in his superhero powers, Rocky, in roller skates and cape, sparkler in one hand, approaches Alamein in the garage and touches his forehead. “I’m sorry for killing Mum” is a trigger that heartbreakingly brings Alamein’s grief to the surface. Rocky thus discovers that his own powers have to, in Weirdo’s words, be used “to do good aye” and that “they don’t work on everyone”, but only on a particular someone.
On the other hand, though, Boy interrupts this moment with “Don’t touch him” and then shoves the ruined cash stash into Alamein’s hands with “my goat ate it”. He intercepts Alamein’s mounting rage by then slapping him, hard, twice, with the accusation “you weren’t there”. Alamein, stunned, can only try to wrestle his 11-year old son into submission. Boy then walks away with Rocky throwing “I’m not like you. I don’t have potential.” over his shoulder at Alamein.
Rocky’s use of soft touch and apologetic words are to heal, but so also do Boy’s use of slaps and confronting Alamein with his absence bring about healing. Both forms of touch bring each relationship to a head. One incites Alamein to confront his grief, and the other incites him to confront his absence. The grief and the absence are connected, and in the final scene of the film, we see Alamein has finally brought himself to enter the urup?, and, seated next to the grave of Boy and Rocky’s mum, he is reunited with the boys.
Kai - "E rere ra e, taku poi porotiti"
At the end of the film, the actors/characters perform a Thriller / Poi E hybrid haka amidst the credits. This unites the community of characters, who we as an audience see as the actors “as him/herself”. Like the sharing of kai after a p?whiri, this serves to return us to a noa state and reminds us of the performance aspect of the ritual. Waititi’s hybrid haka reminds us of the pretend nature of the film. The idea of whanaungatanga is extended through the credits. Those who watch the credits right through to their end are rewarded by the resurrection of Leaf. Actors who inhabited distinct characters during the performance of the film are shown in a noa state – being themselves, while still interacting with the world of the film set.
Like Two Cars, One Night, Boy can be read as an “encounter film”.(13) The tensions operating in the meeting of father and son(s), Alamein and Boy (and Rocky), are central to the narrative. By film’s end the relationship has only just reached a point where it can begin and so I argue that the film enacts the relationship negotiations evident in a powhiri. As a feature film though, Boy provokes a fuller exploration of the analogy between encounter rituals – five specific elements of the powhiri were used to unveil five pivotal plot movements in Boy. If we were to perform a textual analysis of other recent films from Aotearoa, such as Rain of the Children and The Strength of Water, in line with a marae-based model, how might we see these films differently?
1 Boy Press kit (2009). Available from http://www.nzfilm.co.nz/filmcatalogue/Films/BOY_(1).aspx Wellington: New Zealand.
2 Through previews and advertising it has also been widely misunderstood as being a ‘Family film’.
3 “I guess that’s the difficulty of my style of film really – they’re all like that, they all have this mix of pathos and comedy…”Taika Waititi, cited in Nick Grant, “Boy Wonder”, OnFilm, March 2010, pp. 21-22.
4 Ocean Mercier, “Close Encounters of the Maori Kind – Talking Interaction in the Films of Taika Waititi”, New Zealand Journal of Media Studies, 10 (2), 2007, pp. 15-21.
5 “We’ve always just said we make it as Maori about Maori.” Barry Barclay cited in Grahame Reid, “Present Tense, Future Perfect. New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 10 December, 2001, B6.
6 Merata Mita, “The Soul and the Image”, in Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa, (eds), Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992.
7 Stuart Murray, “Activism, Community and Governance: Barry Barclay's The Kaipara Affair, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 1(2), 2005, pp.147-159.
8 Jani Wilson, Traditional Knowledge Conference, Auckland: Nga Pae o te Maramatanga. June 6-9, 2010.
9 Barry Barclay, “Amongst Landscapes”, in Dennis and Bieringa. op.cit.
10 Anne Salmond, “The Ritual of Encounter”, in Hui: A Study of Maori Ceremonial Gatherings, Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1975.
11 Rawinia Higgins and John C. Moorfield, “Nga tikanga o te marae: marae practices”, in Tania Ka’ai et al. (eds), Ki te Whaiao: an Introduction to Maori Society and Culture, Auckland: Pearson Longman, 2004.
12 Hirini Moko Mead, Tikanga Maori, Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2005.
13 Mercier, op.cit.