Renae Maihi (Ngāpuhi and Te Arawa) is one of the writers and directors of the powerful New Zealand/Australian coproduction We Are Still Here.
Drawing together filmmakers from both countries, We Are Still Here is a unique Indigenous film that interweaves eight tales to tell a sweeping story of hope and survival. The film traverses 1000 years from past, present, and future to explore stories of kinship, loss, grief, and resilience.
We talked to Renae about how and why she does what she does.
WIFTNZ: How and why did you get into the screen industry?
RM: Storytelling through writing and performance were a big part of my life growing up. As a Ngāpuhi and Te Arawa, it felt as though expressing myself creatively was in my blood memory.
I remember my first industry experience at 15 years old, my drama teacher at Epsom Girls hooked me up with an audition for a feature film with the late, great Don Selwyn. I didn’t get the role but being introduced into the industry by a kind kaumatua who felt like whanau was a really good start for me.
At 18 I became pregnant with my son. By the time I was 19 I was a solo mother household feeling lost and unable to find my spark in life. As fate would have it, my neighbour, a young single mother artist herself, recognised something in me and asked the best question anyone could have at that time “Renae what have you always loved?” I told her that I loved drama and performing and the very next day she took me to Te Wananga O Aotearoa and signed me up for drama school. This would become my life for three years.
In my second year of drama school, the head of South Pacific Pictures saw me acting in a production and offered to connect me in with some industry experience and I got my first official job in screen as a runner and production assistant at SPP for Kura Productions.
When I finished my degree and began acting in professional theatre there were no Māori theatre productions in Auckland so, encouraged by a friend who worked with Playmarket, I wrote my debut play Ngā Manurere about a group of solo Māori mothers. The amazing Katie Wolfe directed and audiences packed out the theatre night after night to see Keisha Castle- Hughes in her theatre debut.
The impact this story had on the audiences and the healing exchange that came with the laughter and tears was so powerful that it served as the beginning of a lifetime dedication to narrative storytelling and a career that quickly morphed into writing and directing in the realm of my first true love – cinema.
WIFT NZ: What kind of things could you be doing day-to-day in your current role?
RM: I’m presently in a writing phase trying to break in an early screenplay so you’ll find me banging my head against a wall wondering if I’ll ever find my way out of the damn maze. The next day you’ll find me assembling the patterns of the story and trying to distil the protagonist’s journey down to the simplest of objectives, even if that means drawing a picture so I can get clarity (a Dame Gaylene Preston hack).
Then I’ll think I’ve got it and have a period of frantic writing because I’ve dislodged the block only to find I’ll inevitably hit one again, crumble in self-doubt and have to call in my story mentor Karel Segers in Australia for support. Karel and I will then have a two-hour Zoom and I’ll work through it – click in my brain, hang up and get back to writing again. It’s a highly emotional process that involves murmurs, tears, laughter, confusion and being on the edge of brilliance and failure every day – but like they say, nothing good ever comes easy!
If I’m in a director’s prep phase that process is pure joy because it’s my favourite part. I will be obsessively sourcing visual references for the film to communicate the cinematic aesthetic, thinking about the right HODs to collaborate with as well as watching actors’ performances and scouring the agents’ books to figure out potential casting ensembles.
WIFT NZ: What strengths do you need to do your role?
RM: As a writer, you need kaupapa, a genuine love for your characters, a deep understanding of their perspective and world they come from as well as sheer determination to keep going. As a director you need vision, craft, leadership, flexibility and a great producer to partner with.
WIFT NZ: What’s the highlight of your career so far?
RM: I’ve had so many highlights over the years but the first that comes to mind is the generosity I’ve received from my audiences and supporters the world over who have donated their time, money, resources, knowledge and skills to the stories I have told.
It’s been a ride that’s taken me all over the world to places that a young Māori solo mother never dreamed of, and the ride just keeps going and so in answer to this question, I’ll say with absolute certainty and gratitude that the biggest highlight of my career so far, is that I’m still bloody here! Wooohooo!
We Are Still Here is playing a the New Zealand International Film Festival. It's due for general release New Zealand in October.