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  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Through the Proscenium Arch

Winter 2019 | NZTecho - The Screen Industry Guild Aotearoa New Zealand quarterly

Waka Attewell is taken by The UnderTow in this NZTecho article.


That well-worn cliché goes something like ‘it’s not so much the destination but the journey.’ Are we nearly there yet? This journey started about 1974 and The Undertow project is the next step on this infinite voyage of discovering why New Zealand is like it is.

I could start with an opening line ‘we shot a feature film in two days’, though I would have to mention that the rehearsal took the best part of eight months and the writing close to twenty years (but actually probably closer to fifty).

Three years ago The Undertow was already a fully formed theatrical production still working in a rehearsal space – it is a production of Te Rākau Hua O Te Wao Tapu Trust Theatre Company – they are one of the original Māori theatre entities from the 80’s and Artistic Director-Actor Jim Moriarty is still firmly ensconced at the helm.

Jim and I go way back, together on our first ever feature film (The Lie of the Land, 1983). It was about colonial land issues, set at the end of WW1, in a time when returning Māori soldiers were treated differently to their Pakeha colleagues.

There was a scene where his character jumps through a window into a farm kitchen. Jim does his own stunt. There’s an explosion of shattered glass, he holds a shotgun, his eyes are wild and the performance riveting and passionate. He spits the dialogue out between gasps; he doesn’t blink.

I’m looking through the camera and the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. We’re both now in our sixties and here I am again looking through a camera at those unblinking eyes and the passion and commitment hasn’t diminished.

Land issues, colonialism, theft, the crown, the treaty…

I’ve been invited into a small room in Massey University to watch a rehearsal run; a room designed to accommodate perhaps about thirty people and there are at least fifty in here already and still more are coming.

Outside the nor’easter moans across Wellington. It’s hot and I’m now jammed onto a windowsill with four scripts balanced across my knees.

Then, from somewhere suspended in time, ethereal haunting music starts and the rehearsal is underway and that transformation into that special world begins as an ensemble cast of thirty-seven weave themselves through the complexities of a quartet of plays.

A pioneer looking for a new start in a new land on a small kāinga on the Owhiro Coastline and the New Zealand company concocting devious land purchases, then a jump forwards thirty years…

There’s a love story, an extended family of second generation settlers, the church, the crown, two brothers, war, colonial politics, a land grab, Pakeha and Māori…

Then we are in WW1, somewhere in no-man’s land, in the mud, amongst the horror of Passchendaele, a war hospital is revealed at the core to this story.

Characters jump time and place; there is no past or present, just time, perhaps we dwell in the future?

It’s a mixture of song and dance but not a musical. It’s prose and poetry but not purely theatre nor opera. The narrative is complex but simple in its emotional journey. The balance is perfect.

The rehearsal run takes all afternoon and into the evening, five hours and forty-three minutes of intense drama. I’m fried by the emotional experience.

My head is full of possibilities — and what about that sob that erupted from my chest a few hours back? My mind is racing, I’m looking for a reason to run away from any involvement… it’s too big, too passionate, the stakes are too high.

If there is ever mention of New Zealand history in the 1840s, most of us have a fairly good picture of events.

That list would probably include the Treaty of Waitangi, early missionaries, early settlers, New Zealand Company and perhaps Hobson?

Yet mention of 1869 might offer a few moments of thought — and, then, if the Second Taranaki Land War was mentioned it might beg the question ‘there were two Taranaki Wars? When was the first?’

Dig deeper and you will discover both wars were about the land.

The real keepers of the history are hidden under the silence of the vanquished.

The invaders who conquered will publish accounts that have a certain skew; education may hide the facts in amongst their need to claim victories – exaggeration and falsehoods remain unchallenged - today you might call this unconscious bias or simply just history…

No matter what it is we call it, we can’t keep addressing our colonial past as a one sided story. Te Rākau are addressing this through their work and are on a quest to balance the books.

Over the next few weeks, and after a second rehearsal to explore further possibilities, I already know that mere coverage of the drama wouldn’t do the plays justice.

Perhaps something like reaching through the proscenium and looking for the movie within the material? But what is the best way to capturing the momentum of live performance?

There’s nothing already existing that I can find to support this approach, so I might have to admit to myself that this could be a risky venture, possibly experimental?

At the last minute enough cash to shoot the dress rehearsal and shoot a pickup day (after the one month season) is secured, meaning the project was at least in the can. Fifty or so hours of images across nine cameras and sixteen audio tracks.

Professor Paul Spoonley, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey, knew of Helen Pearse-Otene’s work and liked the concept and the epic proportions of The UNDERTOW, therefore they helped us through the ‘proof of concept’ phase as we wrestled with the material into a likely way forwards.

After nearly two years I can now sit with colleagues as they watch the offline edit for the first time and proclaim that this is some of the best writing they have been witness to. They tell me that Helen Pearse-Otene is an inspiration and New Zealand history needs her to keep writing.

At the beginning of the long involved post-production process I was asked ‘What the story was about?’ That logline thing, you know, boil it down into a simple few lines.

I found that the mention of props from 1840 becoming artefacts in 2019 helped, a willow tree planted in 1869 becomes a property issue in 2019 when a developer wants to remove it.

An ensemble cast with an ancestral line to hang the structure upon seemed like a fitting way to describe the passage of time, a story not so much about whom we have become but why we have become who we are as a nation.

This, in short, is historical drama told on an epic scale. The Ragged, Dog and Bone, Publicworks and Landeaters are the four plays that make up The Undertow quartet. They ran as a one month season at Te Papa in January 2017.

From the footage gained during the theatrical run and the two day shooting period, this has created a feature film and a four part TV series for release at the end of 2019.

The movie will travel with the Tuia Encounters 250 event (a Culture and Heritage initiative) during October, November and December, when the replica of the Endeavour will tour the coastline of New Zealand. Colonialism began with Captain Cook’s arrival 250 years ago.

The NZTecho magazine is available online for members. Find out more on The Screen Industry Guild Aotearoa New Zealand's website.

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