Naked in Nuhaka: It's About Whanau
IT'S ABOUT WHANAU
By Leo Koziol
October 15, 2004
WE'RE ABOUT FIVE EPISODES FROM THE END, and Six Feet Under is finally starting to redeem itself. Nate and Brenda have reconverged back towards their destined trajectory of togetherness that was hinted at during one of Nate's post brain-op visions at the start of season three. In the vision, he and Bren were walking through the door with their baby son, hinting at either a lost life or a detoured destiny yet to arrive. Now Bren's all clucky for baby with her other new boyfriend, only to end up in bed with Nate staring philosophically at a semen filled condom.
Is this really prime time New Zealand television, circa 2004? A resounding "Yes"; with the closing episodes of Sex in the City publicly broadcast on the other channel, at the same time, to boot.
Ruth stumbles off the wrong path on a fossicking hike with her wrong new husband to find herself sobbing uncontrollably in her sister's arms, the theatrically fabulous Patricia Clarkson in full flourish (1). Who's with sister? None other than Kathy Bates. "Ruth, Where have you been all this time?", she exclaims, and one can't help but visualise what she's been up to in the time in-between (How about bounding and bouncing naked into a spa pool with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt?).
Meanwhile David's nursing a sore sense of self after being brutalised and held hostage by a crack addict, who took him on a wild ride on the streets of Los Angeles. He's still clinging for dear life to boyfriend Keith, who's finally come out to his rigid celebrity security guard co-workers after the Britney Aguilera hybrid he's protecting decides her egos wigging out and she needs to be adored by a bevy of "look don't touch" pretty boys at a local midwest gay bar. Whew.
"These midwest gay bars freak me out," says Keith's co-worker, without irony. Keith smiles back and agrees, irony intact. Keith proceeds to come out to aforementioned co-worker, to a reply "That's cool, dude." The co-worker hands him a note later in the episode: It's from "Heywood Jablomi." Geddit?
Meanwhile Frederico's chasing a chaste coupling with a buxom stripper. (Don't trust her, dude! Not for one second! Her brains as plastic as those breasts!) So the wifey finds out, and all hell breaks loose with staunch assistance from the evil sister. Frederico flies back to madame mother saline and ends his faux chastity in seconds.
Meanwhile Claire's having her tail chased off by American beauty Mena Suvari, and is going through the somewhat cliched sexual identity turmoil of the troubled artiste. "Part of me wants you," she confesses, "But I think the part of me that doesn't is just afraid." She faces her fear and does it anyway, and the tryst is done -- surprisingly offscreen.
So the show shocks and stimulates with its sex; but ultimately it succeeds by also being profoundly about the yin to that yang; about death, and the fear thereof: with all of its messy, random, unknowable, ironic nature - as Fiona Rae wisely writes on Public Address (2).
I've wallowed in addictively watching Six Feet Under since moving back home to Aotearoa's East Coast, both because of my shared experience of living in the show's American West Coast (3), but more because death seems to be such a fundamental part of life here.
Which got me thinking.
Nuhaka is a land that comes most alive for tangi.
I muse without irony on the notion of the Tangi Multiplier Effect; all those rich bling-endowed whanau spending their city and ozzie dollars in low-income Wairoa, the city folk in search of a decent coffee, our oz cousins cold on a 25 C day. All those family heirlooms pawned to bring a whanau member's body home intact from Australia and America and Europe, $25,000 a pop. All the work being done by the whanau who are here, cupboards emptied and supermarket trolleys filled literally within minutes of news breaking out.
We've just gone through the worst of the tangi season, the late winter toll of whanau members dying here from illness or accident and others being brought home from around the country and across the sea to be mourned and interred back into the soil from which their souls sprung. I think of whanau who moved back here, to be back among their Kahungunu and Rakaipaaka and Rongomaiwahine people at the ahi kaa, to perhaps recapture some of their youth at the sunset of their lives, to perhaps simply find a place of peace to die.
I've only been to four tangi since coming home three years ago, and I was deeply affected by each of them. Each gave me a strong sense of my own mortality, my own spirituality, some perspective of my place in the world, and, yes, my Maori-ness. In respect to the whanau involved, I won't go into details about who they were, but I think I can share some moments that touched me.
- Deep in thought making a presentation at a Maori organisation in Gisborne, only to be told they're doing a karakia for the gentleman who died in the elevator downstairs, "Could you please come and join us?" Distracted from that innately Pakeha imperative of "work". Saddened this man passed away in such a public way, heartened that the people he knew and loved are around him at this time of spirits flown. Later telling my Mum, holding her as she sobbed for an Uncle we hardly knew.
- At a tangi in Wairoa on a chill sunny day in Wairoa, the coffin brought out of the marae as the men do the haka and bring the spirits from heaven above to join us here. Reading the names of the whanau on the overgrown headstones all around. I wander over to one randomly to read it. "That's your Great Grandmother", someone with a kind heart tells me. I turn around to see the staunch wahine I knew and liked and talked with passionately about "the future of Wairoa" only days earlier, now being lowered into the ground, her future so tragically cut off, her children and grandchildren and cuzzies above singing sweetly through sobs "I know you're shining down from me in heaven... Like so many friends we lost along the way..."
- Same marae, the gray face of a young man cut down in his prime, his mother barely middle-aged, both victims of the messed up gang wars and P-fuelled meanspiritedness ravaging over this community. The matter-of-factness of the cup of tea afterwards. The korero and chatting continuing in the dining hall, as life gently goes onwards, marae politics continue and a brief moment of reflection is shared between thirty and fortysomething friends as we each weary a little more and find our lives fatefully slip forwards, burdens to be carried, but also to be shared.
- Lying in bed alone one night - my son staying in town that time - all alone with our friend - Uncle? - only just buried in the ground that day, now at rest across the street. Glad I'd attended the tangi, somewhat at unease, but mostly because I felt untroubled by that fact. All protocol was followed, he now is at peace. The small public graveyard by the Mormon Chapel. Where my grandma is, my Nanny. Where my grandpa is, my Pop. Across the road. Where my parents - and me, I guess - will one day rest. Awaking the next day, having slept strangely soundly. And not at all surprised.
Aotearoa New Zealand desperately needs its own version of Six Feet Under on public television screens.
We got halfway there with the recently screened Insiders Guide to Happiness, the whole plot of season one revolving around the untimely deaths of two of its main characters - a husband choking on a mushroom in a chic Courtenay Place restaurant, a young PI man hit inadvertently by the ambulance rushing the aforementioned husband to hospital. Roadkill victim Matthew spends the whole series wandering around in the land of limbo, chatting to a young Wanganui boy given the gift of sight by an inadvertent journey through a carwash cum spiritual portal (4), flipping time to come back to life again, only to have his gift of second chances taken away rudely in the final episode.
Another Insiders character we find early on is doomed to die - he madly pursues a half dozen life dreams, only to be brutally cut short halfway through the season, sans limbo. Other characters are fragile and on the verge of death's door; the sister of the deceased husband's wife suffering awfully from an uncontrollable bleeding disease, death diverted by a hair's breadth. A part in destiny perhaps to play out.
As well as death, Insiders was - like Six Feet Under - loaded with sex. Much like the Australian show The Secret Life of Us, recently canned in its fourth season across the ditch. Like Insiders, Secret Life focused on the entangled lives of a group of urban thirtysomethings. It shared our series' thoughtfulness and depth of characters. Both shows, like Six Feet Under, had characters that were often flawed, but did not fail to endear us to them.
This winter, I junked out on the entire first season of Secret Life of Us on bargain DVD. I especially loved the eternally optimistic Aboriginal woman played by Deborah Mailman (5) (Kelly in the show). The show had frank displays of (straight and gay) sex, copious casual drug uses (dope and ecstacy; but not P), and portrayed a group of young people at the peak of their lives and their potential. Pretty much like how many young urban Australians live their lives today. Only once in the show did death rear its head; a random road death of one of the main character's girlfriend. Tastefully done, but no tangi for sake of plot progress.
Any scriptwriter contemplating writing an Aotearoa Six Feet Under need look no further than our daily headlines for a sense of the dramatic potential; deathly and otherwise.
A regular reader of the Gisborne Herald, I've followed stories about a mysterious murder between friends at an East Coast pub, the tawdry story of the conviction of a couple in their 60s who lived incestuous lives with three of their children (yet left the other disbelieving two untouched), and the latest about an older gentleman taunting young Maori women into sex videos for industry "talent" certificates from sex expos in Florida - which he had not attended, as they did not exist. The older gentleman also owns one of the local pubs, of which racism allegations were laid after he refused to hire Maori staff ("I thought he was Mexican," he exclaimed at the time).
Or rip a story from the headlines (6) of an old kaumatua who died mid-speech on a marae up north:
"A Ngapuhi kaumatua [Tamihana (Tommy) Thompson, 74,] collapsed and died as he finished his whaikorero [speech] in support of [two] Queen's Service Medal recipients Lorraine Diamond and Kataraina and Andrew Sarich... When efforts by police to resuscitate Mr Thompson appeared to have no effect, the entire gathering rose spontaneously and broke into a hymn in Maori. Ngapuhi chairman Sonny Tau said the waiata sung by those gathered was "to awhi [support] Mr Thompson's wairua [spirit] on its way"....The investiture resumed, with the approval of the Sarich and Diamond whanau, after a brief pause."
Such drama can't be written, and it can't be made up. It can only be experienced, reflected upon, and then perhaps the screenwriter or filmmaker can try and recapture some element of the experience to share with other Maori, other New Zealanders, and the world. Delicately. So, yes, someone should try and make a big sweeping Maori drama, and, yes, it should be a little bit edgy like other tv shows we watch, like Six Feet Under and Insiders Guide. Perhaps our version could revolve around the lives of one family, one whanau? Though since its Maori, that would have to be one big, extended whanau. With, say, a half dozen different marae. Tangi, 21sts, weddings, divorces, intrigue, accident, pregnancies and, most of all, aroha. And perhaps the show would be called Whanau.
Yeah, why not? Because, after all, it's about whanau.
(1) See The Station Agent, All the Real Girls, Far From Heaven, for similar calibre performances.
(3) I lived in California for five years before moving back home three years ago.
(4) See: "In Search of the Seventh Spiritual Portal, http://www.ahikaa.com/naked/spiritportal.htm
(5) Ngati Porou to boot, cross-cultural Deborah Mailman also reminds me of the fabulous uber-green MP Metiria Turei.
(6) See: Ngapuhi kaumatua lived life 'at full throttle', NZ Herald, 13.08.2004: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/storydisplay.cfm?storyID=3584059
ABOUT NAKED IN NUHAKA Leo Koziol (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes essays on identity, culture, place, ecology and planning in Aotearoa NZ in the 21st Century. Nuhaka is located on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Leo is looking forward to getting the DVD-set of Six Feet Under for Christmas, will crack champagne when the Insiders Guide to Happiness DVD is released, and is looking for partners to submit his "Whanau" series proposal with to Te Mangai Paho.
ALL CONTENT (C) LEO KOZIOL & RAUTAKI GROUP 2004.