The New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis has Māori roots, and so does his character, Sgt. "Taffy" Tawharau, in his intense and powerful new film, "Muru," receiving its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The role is quite far removed from the rich businessman Curtis played in "Murina" released a few months ago, though it does have an interesting connection to Curtis' work in "Avatar."
" When I first got opportunities to be in central roles exploring Māori themes that were central to the narrative, I realized there were so many stories that I wanted to tell about my culture."
Taffy is a community police sergeant in the Ruatoki valley, home to a close-knit population of Tūhoe, indigenous Māori people who speak Te Reo Māori. When the New Zealand police force, led by Gallagher (Jay Ryan) come to the Ruatoki valley with the goal of arresting Tame Iti (playing himself, and whose story the film is partly based on), Taffy tries to prevent tensions from escalating. Tame Iti is being investigated for "possible collusion;" the New Zealand police think his Rama (a boot camp) is operating a homegrown terrorist cell with plans to take down the Prime Minister. Other characters, such as the teenage Rusty (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald), a local troublemaker, are also under surveillance and considered suspect.
What emerges is an exciting cop story that depicts an egregious episode of racism based on several raids that have occurred in the Ruatoki valley against the Tūhoe people since 1916. "Muru" is "a response, not a reaction," to those raids, according to a title card in the film's opening credits.
Curtis talked with Salon about his new film and the Māori history it depicts.
I am glad to see you in a Māori film. Can you talk about the importance of indigenous cinema in New Zealand and the opportunities you have as a Māori actor?
It means a lot to me. I started off in cinema 30 years ago. My first film was "The Piano," and I was in the background of the main action. I had some great scenes that didn't make the cut. I was one of the men who carried the piano from the beach to the house. I often joke about that role, and a number of the roles I've played as Māori that have had that aspect [of being in the background]. When I first got opportunities to be in central roles exploring Māori themes that were central to the narrative, I realized there were so many stories that I wanted to tell about my culture, and where I am from. Contemporary things, historical things, comedy, drama, now action. It opened a whole world of possibility of stories that can reflect back to me and my own people who we are as opposed to being in the backdrop of someone else's story.
I first saw you in films such as "Desperate Remedies," and "Once Were Warriors," which introduced me to Māori culture.
"Desperate Remedies" brought me to a festival in New York, and "Once Were Warriors" went to Cannes. Those two films helped me see the world and the potential of cinema. At the beginning of my career, theater was my passion and obsession. When I discovered cinema through "The Piano," which was an incredible film, I started to see the humanity that was available in ways I had not thought were possible. It helped me discover arthouse movies. The first film I ever saw was Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon," which was amazing, so when I started working in films like "The Piano," arthouse movies, it was a whole world I didn't know about. "Desperate Remedies" was ahead of its time. It was beautifully realized. It didn't hold anything back. It was so outrageous and brave and unapologetic. It's a fantastic film.
I appreciate that you are playing a cop in a film that presents a history of incidents against the Māori that are probably little known in North America. Can you talk about the real-life stories and Tame Iti that inspired "Muru?"
In the early 1900s, our nation suffered a flu epidemic and tragically, the Tūhoe tribe didn't have confidence in the policies of government at the time and decided to self-isolate. The government didn't think that was a good idea and raided the Tūhoe tribe because they didn't like that they were taking their own course.
Authorities lead Tame Iti away in "Muru" (Jawbone Pictures, Wheke Group Limited)
The 2007 raid was based on 2001 and September 11, when there was a huge global concern about terrorism. They profiled Tame Iti, an artist. He's been involved in many theatrical, artistic pursuits but was also a political activist, and he was profiled as a domestic terrorist by the government and the police forces. It was really shameful and embarrassing. He went to jail because he had an unlicensed firearm.
"The name of the film is 'Muru,' which means 'forgive.'"
What is absurd is that they could have had a cup of tea and talked to him. A lot of the regional police are Māori and were not informed about what was happening in the area. They were not sought out for advice about how to proceed. It became very embarrassing for the government and everyone, but for the people of Tūhoe, it caused multigenerational trauma as a result. The police force and the government actually did make a very public apology. It was great for them to do that and come to their senses and take responsibility for the mess that they made, not just in 2007, but in the early 1900s.
The film is not a factual movie or trying to capture the actual events. It's fictionalized, and a more poetic approach to what I like to term as an allegorical story. It takes those events and turns it into an action thriller with heart. But it is a response to these things, not just the 2007 raids, but a response between the relationship between this tribe and the government and how that unfolds.
I took this as a story about racism and discrimination by the police. It can be analogous to the Black Lives Matter movement in America, or the way immigrants are treated in Europe.
"As Māori, getting instruction from the government to act upon our own people is a tough place to be."
It's easy to make those connections and I think it's meaningful to do that. It's not simply coincidental or opportunistic in any way. It's timely in that the film has arrived when we have language around these things and ways of discussing these things. The name of the film is "Muru," which means "forgive." The film is a response to those events and about forgiveness.
Culturally, for Māori, traditional values would say that stories are purposeful. When we tell a story it's important to consider the purpose and value of it. Why go back into a painful past when an apology has already been given and accepted? There is only one purpose that makes it worthwhile, which is to forgive. The film offers a challenge to that. Forgive who? Forgive what? And could you forgive so easily? It brings up those kinds of emotions which are very visceral.
I liked Taffy's integrity and ethics. He tries to maintain peace but is forced to act to save others. He tries to communicate with Gallagher and others, and they just refuse to listen. Can you talk about his character?
Taffy is short for Tawharau, which means, "to shelter" — he's a quintessential country cop. I talked to one of my cousins who is a police officer as well as policemen involved on both sides of the line to get a take on it. As Māori, getting instruction from the government to act upon our own people is a tough place to be. We take care of our people, and when the government or someone high up in the police force gets it wrong, they are really conflicted. I spoke to a number of regional police who were Māori and completely shut out. They were shocked by what happened. It was a precarious situation. When you are one country cop working with all of your cousins, aunties, uncles, etc. and the armed forced turn up and they look at you like, "What is happening?" You look like an absolute traitor.
I love that conflict and that he doesn't get it right. He's not a superhero, or smarter or stronger or faster than anyone else. He is just a guy trying to do right thing by everyone around him. At its heart, the film asks, what are we forgiving? I like that Taffy makes mistakes. He is trying to navigate this with all his integrity. It's messy and hard. He knows the [authorities] are getting it wrong and he tries to protect his community from an institution that is failing his people. That's a big conflict.
The Tūhoe community in the film seems very close-knit. Taffy is caring for his father, and he drive the kids to school, and looks out for Rusty, who gets into trouble. What can you say about how the Māori people are depicted in the film and the discrimination they face?
It's low-hanging fruit. If you want to hate a community or want a political punching bag, go find a community that is dispossessed and struggling. It's easy to do a takedown on people that are vulnerable. Our writer/director, Tearepa Kahi, could have told the story from any angle or character. Tame Iti would have been an amazing central figure. Rusty keeps finding himself at the center of things. Was he the cause of it? Youth are everything in a small community. Trying to save one kid is huge. For a community cop to help a friend's child, that's the job. It's not to get him in jail it's to save the next generation of indigenous children from going off the rails.
I appreciate that "Muru" becomes an action film only after we learn about and care for the characters.
Most movies, if you follow the Hollywood formula, have a single protagonist, a single antagonist, and are about good versus evil, and right versus wrong — here's the good guy, here's the bad guy. "Muru" tell the story about a community and the impact on generations. Tearepa wanted to make something generations would see. It's doing well back home. It is No. 1 at the box office. I'm getting messages from 15- to 70-year-olds. It's a huge win for us. We are speaking to a broad spectrum of an audience.
It's a slow burn, but it picks up pace. Having a more complex beginning means that when it started to get into the action sequences, you care about what happens. Otherwise, it's just action, and not everyone is satisfied by just action. There's an audience that loves that, but for a story with heart, it's about caring about what's happening to people we are portraying. It seems to be landing. People are having an emotional response to it.
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What observations do you have about your career and the roles you are offered? You have played an assortment of characters of different ethnicities and make both Hollywood blockbusters and independent films. But "Muru" is one of the rare films you have headlined. You are shifting from being a character actor to being a lead.
It's a treat to play characters and have more of a canvas to play on and do it over more scenes in the same time frame. I try to make all my characters have the same sense of life to them. I have done an array of different kinds of roles and in different films, independent films, Hollywood films, franchises, and when I get home, I get to do films that are meaningful to me. I always look for roles that give me an opportunity to have a more nuanced and complex journey, to touch on the humanity of the character.
I like making the link between "Muru" and "Avatar," which is coming up later in the year. Coincidentally, they are about the impact on Indigenous peoples, which is crazy when you think about the difference in scale of the movies. And there is the fun fact that both my characters are blue!