The following is a review I wrote for Thread, a new publication on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand. Pick up a copy if you’re in the area, or you can visit their blog version here. Hopefully this will be a somewhat regular thing, so support a really cool new thing!
I was fortunate enough over the weekend to attend a screening of NZ feature White Lies followed by a revealing Q+A session with writer/director Dana Rotberg, star Antonia Prebble, composer John Psathas and novelist Witi Ihimaera. It might seem odd for a film about NZ colonial identity to be made by a Mexican filmmaker, but surprisingly the story benefits greatly by coming from an outside perspective.
Adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novella Medicine Woman, White Lies doesn’t have a particularly well told story at its core, but is nonetheless an important film for NZ to have produced. Set during the early days of settlement, the film depicts a sinuous power struggle between colonial housewife Rebecca (Prebble), her housemaid Maraea (Rachel House), and Paraiti (Whirimako Black), the Maori medicine woman whose particular skills and discretion are sought.
The shifting dominance of each of these women, representing different aspects of female identity at the time, weaves a compelling and bleak narrative, but some of the story beats that should have had greater impact unfortunately fall a little flat. Elements that needed more room to breathe play out much too quickly, not allowing audiences time to digest, although the film’s closing scenes are powerful. White Lies deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and Rotberg doesn’t shy away from the story’s most tragic aspects.
Thankfully, White Lies looks better than any NZ film for some time. The cinematography by NZ legend Alun Bollinger gives the rugged setting of the film a beautifully oppressive quality reminiscent of his work on Vincent Ward’s Vigil, and has moments of rare, haunting beauty.
It’s a shame that most viewers will be unable to hear Rotberg speak about her approach to the film. The director’s keen understanding of the tragedy of colonialism in her homeland brings significance to White Lies that a Kiwi director may have been guarded about addressing, and hearing her thoughts on NZ colonialism and our nervous attitude about exposing our own violent past was incredibly refreshing. Her desire to treat the subject with integrity while never sugarcoating it comes across with wonderful passion, and while she remained respectful of the source material, she makes no excuses for altering Ihimaera’s work to suit her own vision. Despite the film’s faults, White Lies takes more risks and offers deeper perspective than most NZ films of late.