Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cultural exploitation or celebration?

A new Hollywood feel-good movie with high school rugby as its focus is to be released in a few months. Based on true events, “Forever Strong” tells the story of an American youth going off the rails until he’s sent to the Highland Rugby programme at a high school in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The real-life coach of the team, Larry Gelwix, says his first rugby coach at university was from New Zealand and brought the haka, which he taught to the players. Now Gelwix teaches it to his team, and they perform it before certain matches. The cast performs the haka on the splash screen for the movie’s site.

To his credit, Gelwix apparently understands the nature and importance of the haka. In the film’s media kit, he’s quoted as saying, “The Haka is specifically a New Zealand, Maori tradition… What people have to understand is that it’s not just a cute dance. We don’t do it for the sake of entertainment. There is a message associated with the Haka, I believe in the message of the Haka and our players believe in the message of the Haka.”

After doing a pretty good job of explaining the cultural significance of the haka, the press kit quotes him as saying that they only perform it before certain matches, important ones: “We do that out of respect, so it does not become commonplace. We hold it sacred and it’s deeply meaningful to the boys.” The press kit also includes the words of the best-known haka, “Ka Mate”.

This is the sort of respectful use of the haka by non-Maori (and non-New Zealanders) that most, though certainly not all, Maori accept. Contrast this with some other US high schools that perform it with no understanding of the meaning or significance, and also with the US media who consistently and somewhat dismissively refer to it as a mere “war dance”.

What concerns me, though, is how the haka is used in the film, and whether all that cultural significance and respect can survive the Hollywood touch. The film credits include everything you’d expect, plus a “Rugby Technical Adviser”—but no “Maori Cultural Adviser” or similar as would have been appropriate when moving the haka from a respectful use by one high school to a Hollywood film. Will it still be used respectfully and its cultural significance explained, or will it merely be a colourful curiosity to popcorn munching movie watchers who’ve never seen it before?

As an American-born New Zealander of European ancestry, what I care about is how New Zealand is portrayed overseas because this is my home now. I also care if the cultural toanga of the tangata whenua are stolen or misused, because they’re the first people of this land where I live. And I also care whether my homeland appropriates things from other cultures without giving due respect because the stereotype is that we do that all the time.

I have no idea whether this film will be released in New Zealand, but with a story centring on rugby, it probably will be. I just hope that Kiwi audiences won’t be disappointed in what they see.

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