“Lacking access to our own culture”

an interview with Chelsea Winstanley

Guilt (Issue II/2019)


Chelsea Winstanley arrives for the Academy Awards in 2020. Photo: Kurt Krieger / Corbis via Getty Images

You grew up in a mixed family of Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders). Did this heritage influence your filmmaking? 

I live in a country that has been colonized. I am part Maori and Pakeha, thus I have the guilt and the non-guilt side inside of me. Guilt is a driving emotion. That’s a good starting point for political and social filmmaking.          

How did you address the topic of guilt in your films?    

I just adored my grandma, from my Maori side of the family. When I make films, I think about her. She was a heavy smoker; Maori women are actually the group with the highest number of cigarette smokers in whole New Zealand! I centred a documentary on that. In psychotherapy, smoking is often associated with grief. I think that is very interesting because the process of colonization caused a lot of grief and a lot of intergenerational trauma. All the socio-economic factors that Maoris are still disadvantaged by – for example, terrible health statistics, difficulties in finding housing, the high numbers of Maoris in prison, poverty. It doesn’t matter where you look: Maoris are always the lower rank. That causes grief and shame and sadness. So it was a really interesting metaphor to use the smoking as access point to my grandma’s lived reality.

How far can film be the medium to address the colonial past and its impact?

The process of colonization didn’t just happened in a week and therefore it would take us only a week to get over it! It was generations. I think we need time to come out of that phase of darkness. The famous Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, on whose life my latest film is based on, identified different stages of mature filmmaking in a colonial context. So the first stage means to talk to ourselves as Maoris. We have to explain why we are in such a state, what the process of colonization is and what it has done to us. We have to understand why we have such high rates of mental illness, for example the high suicide rates amongst young Maori men. We can’t just pretend that those things don’t exist. The second phase would be to talk to the colonizers and educate them about what has happened. Maybe that is the phase that we are just coming out of. The next phase should be to celebrate all the good things about our culture and try to get over the grief. We can start to celebrate our stories. Maori people are actually very funny!

You took part in dubbing the Disney-movie “Moana” into the language te reo Maori. How important was it to spread the use of the language?

Language cannot be separated from culture. If you don’t have your language, you do not have full access to your culture. That’s one of the saddest things, because te reo Maori was almost annihilated by the colonial history. It wasn’t until the 1980s that te reo Maori was even considered as a language. My grandmother was stripped and hit when she spoke her language at school. So she never taught my mother. You have this entire generation of people who can’t speak it like my mother. On top of that, now they feel guilty for not having been able to pass it on to us, to teach the next generation. Luckily, things are slowly changing and pupils can learn it in school nowadays. Language gives you access to your identity.

Your latest film “Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen” was shown at the Berlinale. How do we decolonize the screen?

Colonization in itself means basically to assimilate. Get a culture to assimilate into one kind of language and annihilate the pre-existing language. In order to decolonize the screen, you need to re-insert yourself in a space where you once existed. Since Merata made her famous film “Maori” 30 years ago, there hasn’t been a single narrative feature film made by just one Maori woman. And that’s shocking! So you need to ask: Why is that? Who has the resources to fund stories? Which stories are they funding? To decolonize the screen is also about claiming the space for yourself and maybe upsetting a few people by giving us the right to make films about indigenous people first. That’s why it is so important to build up capacity amongst young Maori filmmakers: To ensure that the stories would be told from their perspective, from a Maori point of view.

an interview by Gundula Haage

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