“Cousins” Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith on Exploring Indigenous Identity and Resilience

Ainsley Gardiner (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Awa, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Whakatōhea), has produced more than a dozen short and feature films, documentaries, and television drama series. Her first short film, “Mokopuna” won Gold at the Dreamspeakers Indigenous Film Festival. In 2015 Gardiner founded Miss Conception Films with Georgina Conder. The production company is focused on female-led character driven projects with female key creatives, including the feature film “The Breaker Upperers,” documentary “She Shears,” and the thriller “Reunion.” In 2017, Gardiner joined a team of women directors and writers to create the critically acclaimed feature film “Waru.” In 2018, she was named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to her work in film and television, and in 2019 Gardiner received the Sundance Institute Merata Mita Fellowship with Briar Grace-Smith.

Briar Grace-Smith (Ngåti Hau, Ngāpuhi), is an award-winning director and screenwriter for the page, stage, and screen. Her screenwriting credits for film include “Fresh Meat” and “The Strength of Water,” which earned her Best Feature Film Script at the NZ Scriptwriters Awards. Her plays have toured both nationally and internationally and her television writing credits include “The Big Chair,” “Taumata,” “Mataku,” and “Fishskin Suit.” Grace-Smith has director credits on two feature films: the critically acclaimed “Waru” and “Krystal.” In 2018, she was recognized for her services to theater, film, and television, and was appointed Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2019, Grace- Smith won the Sundance Institute Merata Mita Fellowship with fellow filmmaker Ainsley Gardiner.

“Cousins” is now available on Netflix.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

AG: At its heart it is a story about family, belonging, and connection. It’s also the story of colonization and its impacts. “Cousins” is essentially a story about everything that we’ve lost but also everything we’ve retained. It tells the story of three cousins, and the paths they follow when one is taken away from the family by her white father and then the state. It follows each of the women through their lives spanning five decades as they negotiate the lives they are expected to live and the paths they ultimately choose.

BGS: When Mata, one of three young cousins, is stolen and placed in an orphanage, her loss impacts the other two girls and their families for decades. After living for many years on the street, Mata — who has suffered greatly — is found and returned to her land and people. With her return comes that feeling that although much has been lost, the strength and resilience that comes with identity and connection will ultimately prevail. “Cousins” is a story that explores the importance of whānau (family) and community. 

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AG: When Patricia Grace’s novel was published it was the first time I had read a book with not just one Māori woman at its center but many. It was so evocative, incredibly cinematic, though I didn’t think of that at the time, and it really moved me in a way that was more profound because it captured the sense of what it is to grow up isolated from whānau, land, and culture. It reflected my experience of being Māori.

BGS: The author was my then mother-in-law, and when the book was first launched in the meeting house, it was passed around a large circle of hands, alongside my newborn son, who was also passed around the circle and held. Because of that night, the book has always held special significance to me. “Cousins” is an epic story that traverses a long period of time and is inhabited by many characters, the main ones being Māori women. The narrative of the book — and also the screenplay — embraces non-linear or spiral story telling, which is a form of storytelling particularly relevant to Indigenous cultures. All of these elements were compelling to me.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

AG: I would love people to see our people the way that we do: strong, loving, resilient, loyal, committed, hardworking, intelligent. Globally, I would like people to extend that sense of admiration for their own people or the Indigenous cultures or POC around them. We have such devastating histories in terms of what we have lived through but the strength and beauty that endures despite that should be celebrated.

BGS: “Cousins” is a film that evokes memories of childhood, of family, and of home — no matter where you are from. I would be very happy if the audience left the cinema thinking about the importance of belonging and connection, even on a personal scale. Those feelings are good for everyone.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AG: Many of the biggest challenges occurred before Briar and I came to make the film. Our mentor Merata Mita, along with other senior female filmmakers in the NZ industry, had tried to make it in the 18 years prior but faced resistance from an industry with institutionalized racism and bias, who couldn’t see an audience for a film about Māori women, couldn’t understand the subtleties of the Māori perspective in storytelling, and many other reasons. As times have changed, having culturally specific voices has “become” a currency, and while there is a way to go to break up the rigidity of expectation around the Hollywood — ergo white, male, patriarchal — storytelling structure, it meant Briar was able to craft a film script that was truly Māori in its structure without resistance. Briar and I are both senior practitioners in our fields so we had the clout to create the environment we thought “Cousins” needed, including two directors.

BGS: Many of the challenges we faced during the making of this film were only challenges because we wanted to follow a working process that was different [from the usual]. One of these things was having a flat hierarchy on set — this echoes the way Māori work on the marae (tribal grounds), in collaboration to fulfill a common vision. It meant that although everyone on our crew had a specific role, no one was more, or less, important. There was no fear as such on set because of that; it felt like everyone had a genuine investment in the film that we were making. It was our film.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

AG: In New Zealand there are some fairly straightforward ways to get local films made. We have the New Zealand Film Commission, who loan a majority of the film’s budget along with the government funding TV broadcasting funder, put together with post-production and facilities investments; a license fee from a local broadcaster; and private funding, of which there needs to be at least 10 percent of the budget.

We were fortunate to get our private funding from a tribal organization that I am a descendant of. In exchange for their contribution we shot in their local territory, had internships for tribal members, as well as multiple opportunities to hire tribal members behind and in front of the camera. The community scenes are full of that tribe’s descendants so the film is really grounded in a specific place and people.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

AG: Escapism. I found myself in films from the time I was around five. I was amazed at how I could identify with the characters and worlds of films that were really nothing like me or my life. Whether they were German with subtitles, teenage romps from the U.S., or Japanese animations, I found a greater sense of belonging in film than I did in the real world. When I dropped out of university — following the expectations of my parents, or my expectations of their expectations more accurately — I did a film course where I had the opportunity to intern with New Zealand’s most experienced Māori producer, Larry Parr. He just started me in producing almost straightaway, and through him I learned about scripts and developed my own sense of what makes a good film.

BGS: I was writing from a young age, and making up stories. When I was six-years-old my mother took me to a play and I learned that the actors were repeating the words that someone had written, so I began to write small skits for my mates to perform. It made me feel like I had a voice, especially because I was shy. At 17 I left school to work with a full-time Indigenous theater company as an actor and later, playwright. But I fell in love with film because I was seduced by the power of visual storytelling. I think it was [“Midnight Cowboy” screenwriter] Waldo Salt who said that the closest medium to film is poetry. I think that’s to do with intimacy. Film has the same ability to come in on something tiny and make it feel so incredibly huge.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

AG: Best advice: Feed people well, no matter what the budget. Also, your success will silence the critics.

There is no bad advice — bad choices lead to great lessons. I can’t think of a piece of advice I’ve been given that I would call bad. I’ve made many bad decisions though, too many to count!

BGS: The best advice I received was “to listen to your puku (stomach).” As a director, there’s always pressure on you to make decisions quickly and there are those times when you have a new idea or are feeling to try something different — but time is ticking and the pressure to do the obvious or easier thing takes over. I’ve never regretted the times I’ve followed what my puku was telling me, and I’m also grateful for the support I’ve had to do this. 

The worst advice I’ve ever received — and this is nothing to do with film — was being told that the first day at a conference I was attending in Taiwan was going to involve hiking. The giver of the bad advice also told me to dress very casually. I got out of the lift that morning in my shorts and trainers and entered a sea of people dressed in black suits, dresses, and pearls. A nice lady felt sorry for me and wrapped a long scarf around my body to cover me up for the group photograph. 

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

AG: Collaborate. We’ve been deceived by Hollywood into thinking that writing, directing, even producing are solitary pursuits, the hero’s journey where we must conquer obstacles — and others — on our way to the top. Fuck that. Find your tribe of women — or whatever tribe it is you are drawn to in your bones — and lift each other up. Writers: storytelling should not be done in isolation. Write together, share your work, sit in a room with other women writing, and take time in each other’s company. It will result in better work.

BGS: Mine is the same as Ainsley’s advice. Work together, support each other, hold each other high. Surround yourselves with people who are there to support your vision and not bring you down.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AG: Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging” was one of the first films I saw that embodied the female gaze. I didn’t know that at the time, but it resonated with me in such a different way than the male-directed films I was watching at the time. Jane Campion’s “Sweetie ” gave me a similar experience. And, of course, Merata Mita’s films. Her documentaries “Patu!” and “Bastion Point: Day 507” and her narrative feature “Mauri” exposed me to the Māori gaze, which essentially captured my own POV which had been so colonized I didn’t even know I had lost my ability to see with my own eyes!

BGS: There are many, but I love “Sami Blood” by Amanda Kernell. It’s the story of a young Sami girl who, frustrated with the limited academic opportunities offered to her and other Sami children, leaves her village and travels to Sweden where she changes her identity, posing as Swedish. The themes the film addresses resonate strongly with the Māori experience of colonization, but it is also so very specific to its own place. I found it poetic, moving, and sad but ultimately empowering. 

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

AG: We are lucky in NZ to have been able to, for the most part, continue as usual. The importance of being in a room together has elevated to the next level. though. I value that opportunity even more than I did before COVID-19.

BGS: NZ hasn’t experienced long periods of lockdown — so unlike the situation in many other countries, for many creatives here, the time spent at home was positive. It took away distraction and was a chance to complete projects that had been sitting on the back burner for a long time. I was in a bubble with my two daughters and most days for me were spent writing, and for them, making art. Ainsley and I were also able to get another month with the editor of “Cousins,” working remotely. The structure of the film was always going to be challenging in the edit and COVID gave us a chance to explore a little more.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

AG: I grow more and more cynical about any organization or industry being able to take significant enough action to reverse decades and centuries of oppression. Women of color, Indigenous women, allied women, and in fact any group of so-called “other” collectively can do some massive damage. If we all take a single step together in the direction of our choosing, we could tilt the world off its axis! I think we have to find ways to work together within, but more importantly, without the system. This is why working with Ava [DuVernay and her social impact collective] Array is so important. She is leading the way for uplifting and amplifying these voices.

BGS: In the past I’ve been in situations where I was the only Maori presence at a story table for series that are about Māori. This means that ultimately you are never going to be able to control how the story plays out and how people are represented; you are there to tick a box and it’s soul destroying.

While I am pleased to see more productions taking place in NZ with people of color and other underrepresented groups populating storytelling and production, it’s still common enough, with Indigenous stories, for the key players to be non-Indigenous. Funding bodies still need to get tougher regarding who is really in control and, yes, we have to pull together, in or out of that forum and tell our own stories, in our own way.

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