Proving that film can indeed have a life-changing effect, writer-director Dana Rotberg (Angel of Fire) was so captivated by Niki Caro's 2002 New Zealand-set drama Whale Rider that she moved from her hometown of Mexico to the South Pacific Island. This led to the gestation of White Lies (Tuakiri Huna), her fourth fiction feature film after a decade-long directorial hiatus and New Zealand's submission for the 2014 Academy Awards.
It’s about who we are and how we define ourselves
Set in colonial New Zealand and adapted from a short story by Whale Rider novelist Witi Ihimaera, White Lies focuses on Paraiti (played by singer Whirimako Black, in her acting debut), a facially scared Maori healer who's respected by her rural tribal community but disdained by local practitioners for her prohibited traditional healing methods. One day she is approached by Maraea (Rachel House, Whale Rider, Boy), the Maori housekeeper of white, wealthy, self-centred mistress Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble), who requires Paraiti's services to rid herself of an advanced pregnancy that would have shocking consequences if her husband were to find out. The ensuing scenario intensifies as cultural and moral viewpoints clash and the barriers between these supposedly different characters come crashing down following a devastating revelation.
“For me, it's about identity fundamentally, particularly in relation to motherhood and how that influences one's sense of self,” says Prebble. “It's about who we are and how we define ourselves. Is it our blood? Is it our relationships? How do we think of ourselves? What are those influencing factors and ultimately how essential is it to be true to who we are?”
On the small screen Prebble has played significant parts in programs like The Tribe, Power Ranges Mystic Force and Outrageous Fortune, but with intensely confronting scenes of emotional and physical torment, White Lies is by far her most challenging role to date. “I initially thought may be this wasn't for me and not something I'm ready for,” admits the 29-year-old actress. “I met with Dana and we went through the script very meticulously to see what it would entail. I did a lot of thinking about the challenges I would be facing and then I realised after doing this process in a whole-hearted way, I wanted it.”
One speculates that one of these challenges would be performing the pivotal birthing scene that takes place in a dingy basement, but surprisingly this wasn't the case. “I was nervous going into the film but never nervous about that,” says Prebble. “I did watch a lot of real life birth scenes and spoke to many mothers about their experiences but beyond that I just had a funny confidence. It was more the pressure on myself to do a good job. I felt so passionately about the story and her as a person as this was a fascinating conflict of an individual that deserves all the respect and dignity I can endow to her.”
Having a director with high standards like Dana Rotberg certainly helped the actress. “She knew the universe of this film and of the character so well and to such a deep extent that I was able to get so much from her,” says Prebble. “She knew what she wanted and made sure she got it by putting pressure on herself to do that – so I knew I was in safe hands.”
Another essential collaboration was building a bond between her two female co-stars, who were equally aware of the challenges they faced. “There was a lot riding on it as we knew were all in pretty vulnerable positions at various points in the film. If we didn't do a good job it would be really obvious. There wasn't much middle ground for error.”
Out of the three characters, Rebecca is revealed to be arguably the most tragic and complex, especially when the justification for her character's anxious state and initial prejudice toward the Paraiti character is unveiled. “She's grown up with this pristine outer shell but she's very hollow inside,” considers Prebble. “She's hiding a big secret and she goes through quite a profound transformation after she meets Paraiti.”
Delving deep into the human condition is something that New Zealand cinema appears eager to explore, as Prebble acknowledges. “I think we're very good at knowing who we are and embracing the darker parts of our society. Ultimately our films are quite dark and sombre in tone and are able to capture the unique melancholic and the humour that occurs in New Zealand simultaneously.”