- The Dead Lands dir. by Toa Fraser
As a Māori I was taught that the kōrero (stories) of my tupuna (ancestors) can serve to guide my understanding of the world around me, just as the currents of te moana (the ocean) guide the ocean vessel. Even so, whereas the ocean currents assist us inconspicuously, that is, without necessarily being seen, our tupuna also guide us from a place just beyond our ability to see yet not beyond our ability to communicate. With regard to Toa Fraser’s Dead Lands, an understanding of the relationship between the past and the present in this way is vital to identifying the values of Māori culture that steer the film’s story.
Set in a small village in precontact Aotearoa (New Zealand), The Dead Lands is an original story that follows the journey of a young Māori boy named Hongi in his quest to avenge the death of his father, the chief of the village. Knowing that his father was killed unjustly, Hongi resolves to go after Wirepa, the warrior who murdered his father. Young and untrained as a fighter and knowing he would be no match against Wirepa alone, Hongi seeks the aid of an entity referred to only as the Warrior: the guardian of the infamous Dead Lands. Once he finds the Warrior, through a series of intense battles they track down Wirepa and his men and kill them. By the end of the film the Warrior is also killed, Wirepa’s life is spared, and Hongi leaves the Dead Lands successful in his bid to avenge the death of his father.
Although other reviews of The Dead Lands might predictably focus on the warring aspect of the film, the most compelling facet of the film is the representation of Māori culture and values that circulates beneath the surface of machismo created by the film’s gore. Here, at last, is a film where warring is not rooted in colonization: money, greed, jealousy, envy, and the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples of the land. The desire for revenge here is spawned by injustice, not exploitation. Absent from Hongi’s vengeful pursuit is the acquisition of lands, plundering, misogyny, and the sexual exploitation of women, which are all themes the typical viewer has come to associate with vengeance-driven tirades.
In fact, the role of women in the film is one of its driving forces. In the wake of the murder of his father and the rest of the men in his tribe, Hongi [End Page 138] comes across one of the women of the tribe who blames him for the tragedy that has befallen them. After all, it was Hongi’s testimony about witnessing Wirepa defile his own ancestor’s remains that ultimately causes the war. But it is not the accusation of the woman, and thus the defense of his pride, that moves Hongi to seek revenge on Wirepa. Rather, the accusation of the woman appears to simply reinforce the need for Hongi to restore glory to the tribe—not that, as a woman, she is incapable of exacting revenge herself, but that the responsibility is not hers to begin with.
In addition to this encounter, Hongi comes across a young girl who, while not accusing him as the woman did, expresses her willingness to kill Wirepa if she could. Given the girl’s young age and petite stature, viewers gather these are the reasons she is citing as her inability to kill Wirepa. Certainly the mana (power) in the girl’s spirit, evident in her words, is an indication to Hongi that she would indeed kill Wirepa if she was physically able to. The burden of the woman’s accusation, then, coupled with the girl’s willingness to kill Wirepa if she could, serves to reinforce to Hongi the notion that as the son of the chief, the responsibility for restoring honor to the tribe is his own, and he must accept the challenge.
Speaking to honor...