On October 23, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok will premiere. As a fellow Kiwi, it has been fascinating to watch the world embrace Waititi. His talent is undeniable. I have already written a love letter to his second film Boy, where I go into more detail about his style and break down the film itself, which is still – if narrowly – my favourite work of his.
People have expressed concern that Hollywood might have messed with Waititi’s style, and that Ragnarok might be a disaster. Though I haven’t seen the film yet, I think these fears are unfounded: despite his insistence that “I don’t know who I am”, Waititi has a strong sense of what he wants to achieve through his art, and of why he is a filmmaker in the first place. In his revealing TEDx talk Waititi says: “I’m a filmmaker but it’s not my job; my job is to express myself.” This is a surprising sentiment from a director on a blockbuster film; it is an emotional motive that seems at odds with a mega-budget Marvel movie.
Yet Waititi has consistently expressed himself through humour and stories of “outsiders”, two elements that could align Ragnarok with the likes of Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Comedy can, in the right hands, be transposed to any situation; if Waititi can find humour in an absentee father coming back to his kids, he can make a superhero film funny.
In the pursuit of his “job to express [himself]”, Waititi began his career as an actor and his early appearances on film were promising. He created a full-bodied performance of Alex in the Sarkies’ comedy/thriller Scarfies (1999) and was a strong supporting actor in Gillian Ashurst’s Snakeskin. But by the time he found himself in a G-string on the set of television series The Strip, Waititi began wondering why he was “just helping other people realise their ideas” and began writing what would become Two Cars, One Night (2003).
Two Cars is the kind of debut short film that makes you jealous; it is so complete, so well realised, it is just crazy that this Oscar-nominated short was Waititi’s first foray into writing and directing. Interestingly, he has said that he doesn’t think you need to know a lot about film to be a director – just that you need to have a strong feeling. This speaks to some of the transposable skills Waititi has gained as an actor, comedian, and artist; each of these things requires an understanding of visual composition, timing, and human nature.
What he is very insistent on is the need to be creative and the value in trying to express yourself. This is clear in his response to criticism after he won the New Zealand 48hour Film Festival in 2004. Waititi and Loren Horsley (Lilly in Eagle vs. Shark) won the Wellington regionals of the competition with Heinous Crime, a mostly silly mess with little plot and an insane energy. He believes that people take the competition too seriously and miss the opportunities it provides: “you’ll get to screw things up and not get fired.”
One of the basic principles of comedy is putting someone in a place where they shouldn’t be – a principle not unlike Waititi’s feelings toward his own career. The vampires in What We Do in the Shadows, for example, face constant conflict with their modern surroundings.
But more often in Waititi’s work, the conflict is internal – the notion of the outsider isn’t necessarily that characters don’t belong in their surroundings, but that they have been made to feel that they don’t belong. For Waititi having a Māori father and a Pākehā (white New Zealander) mother of Jewish ancestry it is an issue he relates to personally, saying: “I come from a very mixed background and as a result I have had trouble deciding who I was.”
Boy’s Boy and Wilderpeople‘s Ricky Baker clearly struggle with identity in their respective films. Boy’s journey is from confidence in the image he had of his father and the aspiration to be like him, and Ricky’s is in embracing his “last chance” to reform before being condemned to a life of crime and institutions. Likewise, in Eagle vs. Shark, Lilly has to come into her own and have the confidence to stand up for herself.
In ‘Boy and the Postcolonial Taniwha’, Misha Kavka and Stephen Turner point out that Boy has few Pākehā characters, and although there are elements of social commentary in the gangs, drugs, rusty cars, and dilapidated buildings, there is no acknowledgement of the colonial responsibility of Pākehā in the film.
They believe this absence is Waititi’s trade-off to make a commercially successful and wide-reaching film. Instead, the Māori culture is often a basic fact of the character’s existence. This is most obvious in the casual use of Te Reo Māori, for example when Boy says that his Nan is at a “tangi” rather than a funeral, or a source of comfort, as in Waititi’s second short Tama Tu.
Despite his uncertainty in ‘deciding who he was’, Waititi’s representation of Māori culture on screen suggests that his ethnic identity isn’t a source of conflict for him – yet Kavka and Turner’s astute critique also raises the question of whether it is important for indigenous filmmakers to define themselves in relation to their colonialists.
It is as important to share and bring light to stories of oppression as it is to see stories like Boy – stories that certainly don’t erase the socioeconomic issues that colonialism has saddled various indigenous peoples with, but which don’t push these to the forefront of the characters’ identities.
It may be a subject for another article, but it is interesting to consider whether Waititi’s movement into the mainstream is a sign of change – for cinema as a whole. His is undoubtedly a new voice, and it would be incredibly exciting to see more diverse voices with blockbuster budgets. As for Waititi, I think we can safely assume the future is bright, though he looks to be spending a little more time in the darkness adapting What We Do in the Shadows for American television. The world is Taika’s.