Renae Maihi on making 'We Are Still Here'

Posted Tuesday 07 Feb 2023

Renae Maihi on making 'We Are Still Here'

We Are Still Here is out in cinemas now so catch it while you can! 

WIFT member Renae Maihi wrote and directed The Bull and the Ruru, a segment of the anthology film We Are Still Here, 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. 
WIFT NZ spoke to Renae about this major Indigenous feature film.

Click here to watch the trailer

How much directing have you done in your career so far?

I started directing in my very early 20's while still in drama school in the early 2000’s. The skills I acquired learning three years full time under incredible directors meant I had the confidence to jump in directing professionally pretty early after first finding my feet as a writer.  I was 28 when I directed my first work, a few years after my debut play Ngā Manurere. I have directed (and written) on two feature films Waru & We Are Still Here as well as three additional short films and two theatre plays, one of which was staged in Toronto.  

What drew you to We Are Still Here? What’s your particular segment about?

I had a story for many years that I wanted to tell and I felt the best place for it would be in an anthology in the company of other films that were about resistance. Ten months prior to the call for submissions to this project I had reached out to my Aboriginal filmmaking friends and celebrated Aboriginal activist Gary Foley and proposed the idea of an anthology film of this nature. They were very interested in collaborating but the next challenge would be to find the financing etc.  In the process of trying to figure out how to make that project happen the NZFC did their call out for this project which was of the exact same nature. The synchronicity of that was too uncanny for me to pass up and so I decided to put my film forward for that. Originally my film was about a young Māori man who goes to Australia to protest alongside Aboriginal people during the 1982 Commonwealth Games protest, however with the budget challenges I was asked to change it to an Aotearoa-based story (which I was fine with) and so The Bull and the Ruru, (as my film is called) came to be. My film is about a young Australian raised Māori man who comes to Aotearoa in search of his Māori father and finds an unlikely father in the heart of one of New Zealand’s most brutal protests, the 1981 Springbok Tour.

What did you find most challenging about the experience of directing We Are Still Here?

A couple of things: I was living real-life racism in Canada alongside my First Nations partner while quietly fighting another real-life racism court case over two years which eventuated in my High Court trial against Bob Jones. So there was no escape from the themes I was dealing with, hence the visceral emotion in my work. Furthermore, budget constraints meant the production couldn’t fly me to the Melbourne workshop with the other filmmakers so I missed that one, and unfortunately the last workshop in Aotearoa for this film was scheduled at exact the same time as my High Court trial so, sadly for me, I missed this too. I would say the sense of disconnection I felt from the wider project, team and process was the hardest part for me. I have an artist's sensibility and I’m very hands-on and connected to my work. I need to have strong agency over it so this was a very challenging project in that regard.

What did you love most about the experience?

The audiences. I make my work for the people. This career is one of sacrifice and slogging it out and indications that your work is resonating really does mean something. I also felt very proud to return to Toronto International Film Festival with a second feature film. While speaking with Jasmin McSweeney of the NZFC I realized that Waru and Human Traces were the last NZ feature films programmed in the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). To be a part of the last one and the return to TIFF was significant to me and to be the only Māori woman Director to have had two feature films programmed at TIFF, is an honour. Given my partner is Haudenosaunee, and TIFF is on her tribal lands we found that to be really special. 

What’s your dream film to direct (or write)? 

My dream films to direct are the films I am developing right now. You will have to wait and see!

I should also put it out there also that I am interested in reading screenplays too if anyone wants to send me one. Nau mai, haere mai, collaborate mai.  

What specific advice would you give to emerging women directors right now?

Girl, it’s a challenging career that can seem to take so damn long with many ups, downs and moments of feeling unseen but if you come at your storytelling from the heart, then in the moments you feel like giving up you can stop and remember the impact your work had upon your audiences and remind yourself that they are the reason you are here in the first place and you can’t give up on them. Kia kaha wāhine mā.