A friendship between an American-born Kiwi and the Hetet whānau represents a message of a hopeful future for Toi Māori (Māori Art) in Wellington.
Robin Greenberg’s latest film, ‘MO TE IWI: Carving for the People’ is a rare in-depth view into his world of Whakairo - Māori carving. Profiling renowned Wellingtonian, Rangi Hetet, her documentary explores the amazing range of his work and craft as a tohunga whakairo (master carver) and celebrates his dedication to keeping these traditions alive.
But beneath the surface, there is more to this New Zealand International Film Festival Film and the relationships involved than just the traditional dynamic of filmmaker and subject. Greenberg and the Hetet whānau have collaborated over more than 20 years, starting with her first documentary ‘TU TANGATA: Weaving for the People’ (NZIFF 2000).
‘MO TE IWI’ is the result of an adventurous woman who came to New Zealand in the late 1980’s, made it her home and has, amongst other work, dedicated her life to telling stories about the traditions of one whānau who have become intrinsically connected to her work. It also is a story about looking around us, appreciating the rich world of Whakairo which is right under our noses in Wellington.
We met at the Embassy theatre in Courtenay Place so I could better understand what motivated her to tell the stories of this Wellington whānau and why we need films like ‘MO TE IWI’ to help preserve the past and give hope for the future.
Robin was born in Philadelphia where she grew up with a love of languages, particularly Latin, and the arts. “I’ve always had an interest in indigenous cultures and languages, and thanks to my father’s work as an Endocrinologist I was very fortunate to have opportunities to travel overseas as a child” Robin says.
Robin was initially pre-med at Stanford University. However, she felt drawn to combine all her interests together into an independent major instead. “Arts, film, psychology and anthropology,” Robin explains. “But I always had a sense that what I wanted to learn couldn’t be learnt at school.” Thanks to internships and summer courses, Robin was able to complete her degree unusually quickly. When I ask Robin about her love of film, she admits University crystallized her decision to become a filmmaker: “I’ve been fascinated by film as long as I can remember thanks to my father’s Super-8 film camera. During my time at Stanford there were no film production classes available, and I knew I needed to get out and pursue that.”
After graduating, Robin got involved in film production, starting from the bottom up. She swept floors and worked behind the scenes in production just to get experiences in Boston and New York. “The first volunteering job I worked on was with film legend Vanessa Redgrave - all about the Salem witch trials - called Three Sovereigns for Sarah” she explains.
Soon, however, Robin was pulled towards her love of travel. “I was able to join an Earthwatch programme out of Boston and could extend my knowledge and training in sound recording experience on this trip. We went to Bali to record the making of traditional musical instruments for a programme with an ethnomusicologist. That was my ticket to explore this side of the world.”
After the film project in Indonesia, Robin decided to also go to Australia to rediscover some of her father’s side of the family. New Zealand was a free add-on to the plane ticket so she relished the extra adventure. On that trip, she met a Kiwi in Christchurch whom she returned to be with a year later (“Still a great friend” Robin says warmly).
Robin’s life in Christchurch revolved around the Arts Centre. Her interest in indigenous cultures led her to quickly enroll in a course in Te Reo Māori and volunteer with the Canterbury Māori Studies Association. “I always had that strong interest and I wanted to learn from the beginning,” she says.
Collaboration and Filmmaking
Robin continued to move between Philadelphia, New York City, New Mexico and New Zealand for the next few years, and after a change in family circumstances was encouraged by friends to move to Wellington. A week later, she met Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, the late master weaver (Erenora and husband Rangi were key participants in the groundbreaking Te Māori exhibition which toured the USA in 1984 before coming home to change the way in which Toi Māori was viewed in New Zealand). Erenora asked Robin to make a video to accompany an upcoming retrospective exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum on her work - which 5 years later became ‘TU TANGATA’. Erenoa was first a mentor, and then later became a special friend to this filmmaker.
Over several years, Robin and Erenora collaborated on another creative film project together, ‘He Waka Hono Tangata / A Canoe that Unites the People’ (NZIFF 2005), for which Erenora and Rangi were her co-producers. Just before Robin’s son was born, Erenora sadly passed away prematurely. However, she’s continued to influence Robin’s work.
Robin has also been influenced by her film mentor in USA, Godfrey Reggio, particularly during her time working in New Mexico and New York City. “His film ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ was a groundbreaking movie which masterfully uses just music and film. I try and see him when I return to the United States. I feel like Erenoa and Godfrey have overlapping approaches and have taught me so much about the importance of the intuitive and organic nature of creative processes. That film is also on this year at the New Zealand International Film Festival under the Retro section.” Collaboration is clearly at the heart of what sustains Robin and continues to drive her.
Robin’s new film ‘MO TE IWI’ is produced in collaboration with the Hetet whānau, with Lillian Hetet Owen as co-producer. “I was approached by the eldest daughter, Lillian. While I had gotten to know Erenora and Rangi’s children over the years, it was only after Erenora passed away that I got to know Lillian well, and she’s become a sister to me. I knew Erenora had other film projects in mind for us to collaborate on together, but unfortunately I didn’t yet know what... So when Lillian rang me about this project idea I knew it was meant to be,” says Robin. The film also follows Rangi’s children as they prepare for a new major exhibition of their parents artwork held at the Dowse.
‘MO TE IWI’ highlights how Māori carving is all around us. What it represents and the artistic excellence that goes into its creation is often ignored by the public as we walk around the city. “If you look, you’ll find pieces all around Wellington – the pou by the Embassy Theatre or Mount Victoria for example. I hope this film will contribute to a wider appreciation of these inspiring art-forms.”
A Community Effort
Financing a film like Robin’s is challenging at times. “I’ve never had a lot of funding, so I have learnt to be economical in my approach to filmmaking. For our previous collaborative film ‘He Waka Hono Tangata’, we did all our interviewing in one day, and interwove this with Rangi’s own footage of the making of the waka. Whereas for our new film ‘MO TE IWI’, we filmed over several years and had a treasure trove of archival footage from our earlier two films. But this also made cutting the film tricky, deciding what was essential to the story and what to leave out” says Robin. “It was a creative challenge, but we wanted to bring the film together at a time where Rangi could still be with us to give it his blessing, so there was a sense of urgency to making this project” says Robin. “We did consider putting it on hold, but if we did that, when would we have ever come back to it? So with sacrifice, we went ahead. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to play a part in sharing Rangi’s tale ” she explains. Robin supports her filmmaking with work in dispute resolution.
Robin notes that a project like ‘MO TE IWI’ also has a huge amount of community engagement that helps it come to life. “I can’t try to thank everyone here, because there are so many people it would be impossible. Our initial support came from Creative New Zealand as they saw it was a true collaboration, and then Lillian led our Kickstarter campaign that enabled us to start editing. Fortunately, the NZ Film Commission came on board at the 11th hour to help us complete the film just in time for its World Premiere at NZIFF.”
“A rare glimpse into this rare world”
This film is for everyone, Robin says. “It’s an opportunity for a rare glimpse into the fascinating world of Māori carving. I hope the film will inspire both those who already know about whakairo and those for whom it may never have crossed their path but are keen to know more.” As much as the film looks back into the past, telling stories about historical instances and shedding light on personal experiences, it also looks into the future. “If we gauge the wellness of society by the arts, this film says things are looking good. Here are role models we can all look up to.”
Wellington is home for Robin. “It’s the only place I could live in New Zealand and where my son was born. Erenora, Rangi, Lillian and whānau have always given me a sense of home here. Just looking over the harbour to the hills of Waiwhetū, Hutt Valley gives me a sense of grounding and inspiration,” she says.