Witi Ihimaeri’s book of the same title gave rise to that best of recent family films, Whale Rider, and now, based on a Blightface incident in his young life, short novel Medicine Woman translates to film as powerful non-family White Lies/Tuariki Huna (literally, “Concealed Identity”). This 2014 Kiwi Oscar submission in the non-English-language category showcases a triangle of strong female performances, impressive cinematography and music (Alun Bollinger and John Psathas, respectively), and also delves into Maori tradition but for a darker view.
Appearing last fall in the 23rd annual African Diaspora International Film Festival and now in the ArtMattan Productions “Women Mini-Fest,” the hour thirty-six minutes fulfills its publicity of dealing with issues of “identity, the role of women, tension between Western and traditional Maori medicine, race relations, skin bleaching and abortion.” It unfolds on North Island New Zealand sandwiched around the turn of the twentieth century, but it is of any and all climes and times where a dominating race, nation, culture or language attempts to impose its “superior” ethos on the conquered. That director-scripter Dana Rotberg is Mexican but resident in New Zealand -- Whale Rider influenced her move half-way round the globe -- affords both an interested outsider view and, remembering the plight of her Jewish forbears and indigenes in her birthplace, something like insider understanding.
Last November and now, twinned as “Stories of Colorism” this feature is preceded by Marina Gonzales Palmier’s twenty-three-minute 2001 fiction, White Like the Moon, about class- and color-snobbery as drummed into poor Nita Gómez in 1956 San Antonio, Texas. The not infrequently dangerous and always emotionally harmful skin bleaching (and hair straightening) is not unique to North America but is found throughout the hemisphere and in many Asian and African countries, especially but not exclusively those that have suffered Western colonialism and cultural imperialism.
The pigment-lightening process in White Lies is not pictured until late or openly explained until quite near the end. The psychological damage it causes, the deceit and double lives, may have been sparked, as he says, by author Ihimaera’s early reading about Tasmanian-born mixed-race Merle Oberon as Emily Brontë’s “half-savage and hardy and free” Cathy and gypsy-like Heathcliff. The film’s final frames are undeniably bucolic and red-haired, perhaps indeed imaging “quiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth” another world away.
Beside that river that opens and closes the story, a Maori family unit is slaughtered by white (Pakeha) solder-vigilantes, leaving alive only the girl Paraiti (Te Ahurei Rakuraku), her left cheek scalded and scarred by an attacker’s torch.
Years and pounds later, with a snow-white pack horse and the dog Uti, medicine woman she (a début for noted singer Whirimako Black) limps the forested hills gathering herbs for her practice of traditional healing and midwifery, declared illegal by Wellington in 1907. The community around the Ruatahuna meeting house revere and depend on her for, to give an example, the laying on of hands on the pregnant belly of an unmarried teenager.
In town she is pointed out to lady’s maid Maraea (Rachel House), who seeks her services for snobby white mistress Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble). Although her features are native, the stiff servant insists on speaking only English, and both she and her deathly pale lady are aloof and insulting even while requesting that the healer use her skills to terminate the white’s visible pregnancy before her husband returns from extended business abroad.
Their attitude, the situation, the call to kill rather than heal, cause an instinctive refusal and departure. But, for reasons that are to come, a double death elsewhere amidst the callousness of a hospital matron (Elizabeth Hawthorne) and nursing nuns brings about a change of heart. Shabbily treated, Paraiti yet keeps her dignity and scores some points. Rebecca’s time draws near, and with it the revelation of reasons and secrets. Paradoxically, each of the three stubborn-willed women has her way, though with shattering results. Of, ingrained in, society, the fruits of racism are devastating to the individual and to the group. Not only acceptance but also openness is necessary for survival, health and growth.
(Released by ArtMatten Productions and rated "R" for violence and some sexuality.)