Paraiti (singer Whirimako Black) carries a scar on her face and not a little bitterness in her heart. On the day her people were killed by white colonials she copped a fiery torch to the face and side of the head. By the time she returned to consciousness the settlement was burnt out. Paraiti was only a kid but she didn’t cry. She plunged herself into the bay nearby to seal the wound.
a movie of schemes, and subtle personal manoeuvrings
All of which is to say that Paraiti grew up to be tough and stoic. As the main action of the film begins it is the 1920s and Paraiti is now on the other side of middle age. A midwife and herbalist, Paraiti is a big woman, a healer in her Maori community. She moves at own her speed and only seems to speak when she has something important to say. She’s defiant too. In 1907 the New Zealand government tried to displace the role of Maori leaders and the order they help to maintain by establishing a law that prohibited the practice of indigenous medicine. Paraiti has carried on just the same.
This explains her surprise (and suspicion) when a Maori servant called Maraea (Rachel House) approaches her – all whispers and furtive glances – with a proposition. Her mistress is Rebecca (Antonia Prebble), a wealthy young white woman. Her husband is away, but due to return and Rebecca is pregnant. She needs Paraiti – and her unique gifts – to get rid of the baby. Paraiti refuses. Maraea pursues the point. Eventually Paraiti agrees. This is a movie of schemes, and subtle personal manoeuvrings, so it would be wrong to reveal too much of the plot’s intricacies except to say it attacks racism head-on in a story about motherhood. The thing to understand in this: Paraiti, a childless orphan, eventually agrees to help out Rebecca, who by the way does nothing to her hide her disdain, (bordering on hatred) for the Maori. A deal is made and the terms favour Paraiti. She enters Rebecca’s magisterial home, as a force to be reckoned with, a nagging conscience that won’t be, can’t be ignored. Which is to say that Paraiti takes on the secrets of Rebecca’s life – and that of Maraea’s – as a way of healing her own scars.
Still, the first thing to note about White Lies (Tuakiri Huna) a low budget New Zealand picture from expat Mexican writer director Dana Rotberg isn’t the neatness of the plotting and its easy-to-pick story surprises or its respectful, fascinated interest in the intricacies of Maori culture, or even the lack of urgency in the story’s pacing (the unkind might call it glacial) but its odd ambience, that’s more than just a thing of tone and mood.
A lot of it has to do with the look. It was shot by the great cinematographer Alun Bollinger (Heavenly Creatures, Oyster Farmer), in a light that makes everything it touches gorgeous, yet there’s something off-key here. The exteriors of bush and valley are a lush expanse of earthy green but idealised, like we’re experiencing a memory of a better time. The interiors have the bleak cool ambience of a particularly stuffy museum; large under furnished rooms of antiseptic white where sun never seems to intrude.
As the film progresses and Paraiti’s rituals take over the characters (and the story) any notion of conventional realism is chased away by Rotberg’s taste for shooting long dialogue scenes as virtual still-life moments and painterly set-pieces: a scene of a mother in labour is like watching a live action religious icon; a bathroom is framed, and lit with all the stark minimalist formality of the mid-20th century photo-realist school.
Thus the film is a kind of moral fairytale and watching it one can’t escape the feeling it's out to teach a lesson (a function no doubt of Paraiti’s dominating character and missionary zeal.) It derives from a novella written by Witi Ihimaera, famous for Whale Rider and a lot of the dialogue is richly over-ripe, and strung tight with too many points and too much 'character’. 'This horrid little town is greedy for gossip," Rebecca tells Paraiti at one point, which has the unfortunate, unforeseen and one hopes un-anticipated by-product of sounding like a Monty Python parody. Its fortunate that the actors find a dignity and gravitas here that can get past Rotberg’s mannerisms and a script that hammers out an important theme without burdening the viewer without anything like ambiguity or too much complexity.
Happily, a large portion of the dialogue is in Maori and it translates into credible English subtitles. This is not a trivial point: if it isn’t obvious already a large part of the story has to do with the importance of preserving culture through practice (which naturally has a timely contemporary relevance). One of the quarrels Paraiti has with Maraea is that the latter refuses to speak her native tongue. It’s one of the film's better dramatic ideas: language determines who is controlling the conversation.
Indeed, White Lies isn’t short of ideas. Or conflict. Yet Rotberg’s style distances. It doesn’t really move, its a thing to admire and it’s hard to like much.