Aotearoa’s first Māori virtual reality film premieres

A digital image of Māori on a waka
Aotearoa’s first immersive Māori virtual reality (VR) film—produced and directed by staff and alumni of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington—will premiere this month at the Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki.

Whakakitenga follows Ngāti Toa Rangatira leader and warrior Te Rangihaeata as he realises the full implications of British colonial intentions around land. The film is set in 1846 and captures a vision of the future delivered by Ngāti Toa kaitiaki Kopa, who appears in the form of a white owl.

The VR experience is written and co-directed by University alumnus Wiremu Grace (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Atiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Porou), alongside senior lecturer Dr Miriam Ross and Associate Professor Paul Wolffram from the Film programme at the University. The trio worked together closely over 12 months developing the story and experience.

Associate Professor Wolffram says, “Working in VR to re-create an immersive experience of an environment that no longer exists has been an exciting challenge. The opportunity to collaborate with Wiremu Grace as a co-director, along with Ngāti Toa actors and performers, has enabled us to build an experience of a time, place, and ethos that not many people have a connection to or understanding of.”

Whakakitenga provides a way for audiences to reimagine the colonial encounter, using a Māori narrative in the Māori language and VR technology to bring traditional knowledge and a Māori worldview to a wide audience. Ngāti Toa’s most famous haka, Ka Mate, is also woven into the story.

Mr Grace says, “These new mediums of storytelling are not only engaging for the younger generation but can also bring the oral traditions, values and ways of being to life in an exciting experience that transcends the limitations that constrict other types of media.”

The film is set on the eve of Te Rangihaeata’s expulsion from his home on Mana Island, and his chief Te Rauparaha’s capture and imprisonment without trial.

“Cutting-edge visual graphics and special audio, along with the rich traditions of Māori storytelling, leave audiences with an understanding of the intense adversity, but also determination and hope that reverberates well into the future,” says Dr Ross.

For co-director Dr Ross, VR provides the feeling of being inside a new world in a way no other media can. “This becomes a powerful tool to explore the past, and a political tool to think about how new futures can be created.”

Whakakitenga is the only New Zealand-made VR work being showcased at the Māoriland Film Festival, which is the largest indigenous film festival in the Southern Hemisphere and runs in Ōtaki from 18–22 March. You can view the film for free in the VR room on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the festival.