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Breaking the Mould – Writing Across Cultures

Breaking the Mould – Writing Across Cultures

The last Writer’s Room for 2006 featured four award winning film makers who have brought innovative cross-cultural stories onto our large and small screens.

Hosted by MC writer and cross-cultural cross-dresser Te Radar, Shuchi Kothari (A Taste of Place, Fleeting Beauty, Clean Linen), Roseanne Liang (Henchman, Rest Stop, Banana in a Nutshell), René Naufahu (The Market, Bloodlines, Stone Dogs), and Zia Mandviwalla (Eating Sausage) revealed that the experience of taking their stories to the world had not been without challenges.

Writing about a culture that is not your own poses unique issues. ‘You can get away with writing about cultures of which you are not a part,’ said René Naufahu, ‘but I think this is often done lazily. Effort must be made to approach someone genuine within that community for advice.’ Roseanne Liang felt it was important to be truthful. ‘Be true to yourself – people will respond to that even if there are repercussions within the community.’ While seeking funding for Eating Sausage, Zia Mandviwalla was asked repeatedly how she could successfully tell a story about a Korean family when she was not of their culture. ‘I wanted to write about isolation,’ she said. ‘I chose to write about Koreans, the new wave of immigrants at that time, because I felt their struggle to cope within a foreign culture typified the type of isolation I wanted to explore.

The film was accepted by the Pusan Film Festival and no one asked me that question there.’ Shuchi Kothari pointed out that you don’t have to be of the culture to write about it as long as you engage with it, adding that when writing is culturally specific, it often unlocks something universal.

Stereotypes such as the Polynesian security guard or the Indian dairy owner often appear in ethnic films. René Naufahu felt a specific challenge for him was to break down barriers to write ‘raw and genuine stories’ about Pacific people.

‘I want to see good quality stories,’ he said. ‘I’m sick and tired of seeing male Polynesians as thugs or lovable guys who never have sex. Once you have a story to tell, find a producer who shares your vision, someone who can absorb the knocks for you.’ Shuchi Kothari warned that a writer could also become ‘ghettoised’, citing herself as an example of an Indian writer who, it is perceived, can only write Indian stories. ‘It’s important to have the freedom to write something else.’

The requirement of funding bodies and festivals that films contain something that can be read as ‘distinctly New Zealand’ creates complex problems. René Naufahu described making films about minority communities as ‘a tough game, like trying to make foreign films within New Zealand’. ‘It’s the predicament of being a young country,’ said Zia Mandviwalla. ‘Most other countries are over this distinction and film makers just tell their stories.’ Shuchi Kothari concluded by saying, ‘Ultimately, it’s your level of engagement with the material that matters. We’re trying to play catch up in New Zealand. We’ve caught up demographically and socially but not in terms of film making.’

Roseanne Liang said a new response to the funding problem was ‘a wave of independent film makers who just find their own money’ and make their own films. She began her film Banana in a Nutshell by asking people to work for little or nothing and funding eventually came once the film was under way. Zia Mandviwalla added, ‘If you see funding as the reason to make your film then you shouldn’t be making it’.

‘I was extremely gratified to see such a large turnout for our last Writer’s Room of the year that featured writers whose scripts reflect the diversity of stories being told in the screen industry’ said Rebecca Kunin, Executive Director of Script to Screen. ‘It shows that there is a keen interest in cross-cultural storytelling, and I hope that Script to Screen is able to contribute to the ongoing debate about what kinds of stories we are seeing on our screens.’


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