The Woman Behind the Words: Getting to Know Riwia McKenzie Brown
REFLECTION (WORD COUNT – 1805):
Unfortunately, to this day, there exists an unfair balance between males and females within the film industry. “While women represent just over 50 per cent of the population, are well represented in higher education and makeup 46 per cent of the workforce, they are still under-represented in senior levels of management across most industries in Australia… Looking at women’s involvement in the Australian production industry overall, the picture is also discouraging. According to the latest census, in 2011 women comprised 36 per cent of people employed in the film and video production sector and 29 per cent in the post-production sector (Australia, S., 2018).” For this reason, it’s of particular importance to encourage women of all ages to enter the film industry, should they feel the ambition to do so.
I had the opportunity to interview screenplay writer, Riwia McKenzie Brown. Brown has worked in the film industry for an approximate 30 years, and was responsible for the award-winning film adaption of Alan Duff’s novel, Once Were Warriors, that was released in 1994 – which highlights the story, and unfortunately tragic reality for many women, of domestic violence in a family home. When it comes to discussing the struggles of women in the industry, there is no woman, or film, more appropriate for the job than Brown & her and Lee Tamahori’s screen adaption of Once Were Warriors.
Brown and I spoke on a Zoom call for about 40 minutes in total, while I picked her brain on the struggles of making it in the industry as an Indigenous woman. This topic, being particularly important to me, as an Indigenous woman, who is attempting to pursue a career in the film industry myself. Brown was honest about it, which was both enlightening and somewhat scary at the same time. We discussed her journey to where she is today, her family life, her work she has done in the time, and all of the repercussions that came with the work she achieved.
While Brown noted there was probably some sexism in the industry at the time, she hadn’t noticed, due to the overwhelming amount of racism directed towards the Maori people at the time. There was a bigger issue to be tackled for Brown, and she felt it was of utmost importance to focus on this. Luckily for her, she had the support of her loving, creative, family to help get her through it all. Brown told me of her brothers, who were both incredibly creative, talented people. One of her brothers, Rangimoana Taylor, who is an actor, theatre director and storyteller with over 35 years in the industry, started the group Toi Whakaari, which is young Maori in performance & was only the second ever Maori person to go to drama school in New Zealand. Her other brother, Apirana Taylor, is a poet, novelist, performer, storyteller, musician and painter. Brown was honest in crediting both these men, as well as her parents, for nurturing her creative talents and encouraging her to pursue them. Brown discussed her love for being involved with creative people, who were Maori aswell, and the process of taking back what was taken from them during the process of colonialization – inclusive of their native tongue, since her mother came from an era in New Zealand’s colonised issues such as the Maori being banned from speaking in Maori, and being caned in school by teachers, should they do so. This was something that hit incredibly close to home, as this same thing happened to my grandparents when they were young. This sad truth, was something we were able to reflect on together, and resulted in the pair of us sharing a rather special connection. Brown expressed that now, she loves nothing more than to do the same thing in return to the next generations to come, and help to guide and nurture young Maori creatives, so they can continue the process of taking back our culture through the arts – that they, among many others, started to do about 50 years ago.
It seems it’s a bittersweet process, making a film that highlights the dark realities that some people face. Brown told me of the kind of repercussions she faced, taking on the role of the writing the screen adaption of Once Were Warriors, and they weren’t positive to begin with. Many elders among the Maori community found the story to be a blight on the Maori race, or an airing of the dirty laundry of sorts – with the storyline depicting alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault, gangster life and violence. Brown explained that at the time, the media already painted the entire Maori community as all of these negative things, that were outlined in the film. So, for the elders in the Maori community, that felt shame and sadness about these portrayals already, they truly thought that the world would see the film & have the story reiterate and confirm all of these ideas that they had about the Maori to be true. Brown spoke of the press release and the premiere of the film, which heightened these fears. The press release was complete silence, with no questions or applause for both herself and the director of the film, Lee Tamahori, they all just left moments after the ending credits began to roll. It was the same at the premiere, which showed over five screens, and over 1000 people in attendance, in Auckland, New Zealand. Brown stated she went to the bathroom, after the theatre fell to total silence again, and found hoards of women just crying their eyes out. Brown and Tamahori were shocked. Much to both Brown and Tamahori’s surprise, the reviews and ratings they had was quiet the opposite of what they were expecting. They found that the world saw the story, for the story it was, and not as an attack on the Maori people. Not only this, but they found that there was a lot of pride felt among the youth in the Maori community – with a resurgence among them, in things like drama school, due to the outstanding performances of the Maori cast in both Once Were Warriors (1994), but other Maori films that were released around the same time, such as Niki Caro’s 2002 film Whale Rider. Brown discussed the importance of being able to see these images on screen, to young, impressionable, Maori, who may not have felt there was hope for them to be a creative in the same colonised world that we are raised in. Brown’s words were so inspiring, and emotional, and we shared many laughs and tears together during the weeks leading up to the recording of the interview; which continued post recording. I feel lucky to be able to have such an honest and real discussion with Brown about these subjects, and to be able to stay in contact with her via email and facetime. I feel a sense that she may become a strong ally in the years to come, as I continue my journey as a young, Maori, creative.
While the interview itself was rich in content, the real struggle came during the editing process. Brown gave me an incredible amount of footage to work with, despite a lot of it being just interview content. While she was happy to handover personal footage of both herself, and the film, she mentioned that it was all from the pre-digital era, and was being stored in the appropriate storage to keep the physical film in-tact in Wellington – which is not where she currently resides. As well as this, I was limited to the footage from Zoom as Brown resides in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, and I am here in Melbourne, Australia. Because of this, I had to find a workaround to make the film feel and look more dynamic. I began the editing process by cutting down the footage of Brown from our chat, into a short-form film length, from the 40 minutes it was sitting at. I was then able to export the audio from my Adobe Premiere Pro timeline into an Adobe Audition one, so I could take the audio and use it separately from the whole interview. Being inspired by the likes of Mac Miller with his post-humorous music video of his song Good News, which utilised animated versions of the artist to fill the music video as he unfortunately passed – I made the executive decision to work with animation instead your traditional b-roll cuts. I went with the paid program called VideoScribe, which had a lot of images to work with and allowed me to upload other images into it so long as I transferred them to VSG or GIF files. Most was easy to find in the gallery, but there were some niche things that I had to either draw up myself or outsource from the programme… These were mostly the things to do with the Maori culture. I used the audio that I separated from the rest of the film in this application, and created a majority of the amination in there. After animating some pieces of the film in this program, I was then able to export it and lay it over the interview footage in my Premiere Pro timeline. The only thing that I couldn’t find animated, was an image of Brown herself – which meant that I had to do this one by hand. I used an application on my iPad called Procreate, with my Apple Pencil, and drew her up myself. Procreate allows you to export a time-lapse of this process, which I utilised at the beginning of the film. I then used a free trial of AudioNetwork, which allowed me to download some paid music for free. Once I had laid the music in, I was able to add subtitles where needed to translate anything in Maori to English for the English-speaking audience, and add credits in the end that would credit any programmes and music I used, as well as thanking Brown for her time and efforts.
If I could create this piece of work again, the only thing I’d do differently is try work with Brown to collect those said pieces of archival footage and have them transferred over to the digital so I would be able to utilise it. I would also love to be able to make a full-length version and use all of the wonderful things she said. I feel like there was so much more that I could have used if there were no time limits.
All in all, I am happy with the final result, however – and couldn’t thank Brown enough for her efforts in helping me produce a wonderful short film, with providing me with a rather beautiful and touching story to be told and shown to the world.
- Australia, S., 2018. Gender matters: women in the Australian screen industry. 2015.