For this assignment, I had the pleasure to connect with, and interview New Zealand playwright, Riwia McKenzie Brown. Brown is the screenwriter/playwright of many plays and films, inclusive of the popular and award-winning, 1994 film adaption of Alan Duffs 1990 novel, Once Were Warriors – garnering Brown the Best Screenplay award at the 1994 New Zealand Film and TV Awards. This screenplay tells the story of a Maori family, the Hekes, and the problems of poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, that the families patriarch, Jake, inflicts on the family – or more specifically, the matriarch of the family, Beth. It’s a story of struggle and power, showing the female lead characters journey to regaining her power, after losing it to the male lead character.
This is particularly interesting when we take into account the 2015 Screen Australia Report, which outlined that: “Gender Bias Without Borders, a US–originated research report exploring the visibility and nature of female depictions in films worldwide, was published in 2014. The study analysed gender roles in the top 10 most popular domestic films across the 11 largest box office markets between 2010 and 2013… which evaluated every speaking or named character in the films... There were stark differences between how men and women were represented in these films from the perspectives of employment status, profession, cultural background and sexualisation of the characters; women tended to be objectified or marginalised (Australia, S., 2015)”. While Brown and I could both come to the agreement this was the case for the female lead in Once Were Warriors, with the film showing a rather marginalised woman, Brown see’s the story in an entirely different light; with Beth Heke being a beacon of light, and a film representation of a strong (maori) woman, who regains her strength and identity, after facing both this marginalisation for so long, but also after experiencing tragic loss through (spoiler alert) her daughter, Grace, at the climax of the film. For brown, telling this story was important both in a cultural sense, depicting the Maori on screen, and in the way that it empowered women, telling this story of the strong woman who overcomes – regardless of its overtly distressing scenes. Browns screenplay, while highlighting real socio-political issues, is still a drama, with performance writing at the basis of it. While many say the film depicted some of the most violent, confronting, scenes they’ve ever seen, Brown made a rather interesting point, that is that their film has no weapons. The weapon was the hands of Jake, insinuating that, us as humans, are fundamentally more violent than any weapon. These strong on screen depictions, comes back to this idea from Phelan, 1998 in Denzin, N.K., 2001 where they state: “Using the methods of narrative collage, performance writing shows, rather than tells. It is writing that speaks performatively, enacting what it describes. It is writing that does what it says it is doing, by doing it. Performative writing ‘is an inquiry into the limits and possibilities of the intersections between speech and writing . . . [it] evokes what it names’ (Phelan, 1998 in Denzin, N.K., 2001)”.
Talking to Brown, as a Maori screen and playwright was such an enlightening, and inspiring experience for me. “Women are directors of our film festivals and are graduating in droves from film schools—many of which are also headed by women. So why are women earning less than men and why do women make up only 29 per cent of producers of feature films, 20 per cent of writers and 16 per cent of directors? (French, L., 2015).” So, I felt a real sense of pride, speaking with one of the 20 per cent of female writers who made it – considering my status as a young, Australian/Maori, female, media student.
- Australia, S., 2015. Gender matters: Women in the Australian screen industry. Sydney, NSW, Australia: Screen Australia.
- Denzin, N.K., 2001. The reflexive interview and a performative social science. Qualitative research, 1(1), pp.23-46.
- French, L., 2015. ‘Does Gender Matter?’ Lumina: Australian Journal of Screen Arts and Business, pp. 139–153.