This Maori dance film is the best flick you didn't see in 2015

Kiwi filmmaker Tammy Davis steps up with Born To Dance: a fresh take on the dance movie genre.

Odds are, you probably didn't see Born To Dance this year.

It was released in Australia with a cough and a whimper, running in limited release throughout the country for little more than a week.

Meanwhile, across the Tasman the Maori dance movie was breaking box-office records and raking in more than a million in ticket sales within its first month of release.

In Canada, it received a standing ovation when it had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

It also got kudos from industry bible Variety who said it was "proof that Maori dancers can bust a move with the best of them."

For first-time Maori director Tammy Davis, it wasn’t a case of breaking the mould, but rather updating it.

“We’re not doing anything new:  we’re just adding a Kiwi flavour and putting brown faces on the screen,” he says.

Better known for his roles in front of the camera rather than those behind it, the Outrageous

Fortune, Whale Rider and Black Sheep actor says he knew they had a potential hit on their hands.

“We predicted that it would do well, but you don’t really know who is going to see it – who is going to pay to see it – and who is going to watch it and be affected by it.

“That’s the telling tale, I think.

“You have people going to see the same sort of films over and over with American actors in it that they don’t connect with.”

Born To Dance follows the story of Tu (Tia Maipi), a talented dancer trying to break out from the confines of growing up in a poor outer-suburb of Auckland, New Zealand.

Battling with the simultaneous pressures of his father urging him to join the military and his best friend Benjy (Stan Walker) who’s turning to a life of minor crime, Tu finds takes his chance by auditioning for a world renowned dance troupe.

Shot in just six weeks, Davis plucked newcomer Maipi for the lead role out of hundreds of people who auditioned for the movie.

“We hired all dancers, instead of casting actors and teaching them dance.

“You just don’t have the budget. Before the Wasckowskis shot The Matrix they had Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves waking up every day and just doing kung fu for six months with these Chinese masters.

“There was no way that was going to happen for us. Everyone was so new to the system of making a film and inhabiting characters.

“We’re not doing anything new:  we’re just adding a Kiwi flavour and putting brown faces on the screen.”

 

“It was a lot of ‘Aw yeah, you’re Maori right? Okay cool. You Samoan? Sweet – you’re in’.”

Davis tasked renowned Kiwi choreographer Parris Goebel – who has worked with everyone from Janet Jackson and Beyonce, to having her crew be the star of Justin Bieber’s Sorry video clip – with culling the ranks to find the characters that matched his script.  

“Parris went through about four, five hundred kids,” he chuckles.

“It was hard for her because she hates cutting people and I only wanted to see fifty: fifty of the best.”

One of the standouts is Australian Idol alumni Walker, who’s making a more than decent transition from singer to movie star with a performance Davis describes as “humbling” in the flick.

He's also set to star in Taika Waititi's (What We Do In The Shadows, Boy) next film Hunt For Wilderpeople with Sam Neill - which is premiering at Sundance next month.  

Profiled by Variety, Walker’s tough origins and journey to celebrity embodies the key theme of Born To Dance: “You are your own shot”.

Not dissimilar to another small dance film that gained momentum on the international film festival circuit and garnered critical acclaim – 2007’s How She Move – Davis keep his own set a tight affair, employing former colleagues and friends in the production: such as his Once Were Warriors co-star Taungaroa Emile (Boogie) who rolled as PA on set.

Davis is the first to admit that Maori filmmaking isn’t usually "all ages", with the body of films tending to lend towards hard dramatic fair with adult themes.

Yet one of the highlights of Born To Dance’s success is – he says – that it’s a film for everyone.

“The best feeling is when you see kids’ faces when they leave the theatre: that’s cool.

“We haven’t made a film for them in a long time so I’m stoked, I’m really stoked.”

Beyond the refreshing racial diversity Born To Dance offers audiences – and the shaking up of genre stereotypes – it also embraces sexual diversity, featuring openly gay characters in major supporting roles.

Passing the Bechdel test and then some with a binder full of strong, vocal women, Davis says incorporating a realistic representation of everyday life and culture was a “no brainer”.

As for what's next for Davis - besides "becoming the next Clint Eastwood" - the 39-year-old is quite happy taking a breather for the moment and enjoying the influx of films coming from New Zealand's indigenous filmmakers.

"There's lots more coming out as well," he says, a massive grin spreading across his face.

"I mean, Lee Tamahori just came home and shot Mahana which should be coming out shortly.

"Leanne Pooley's animated film (25) on the first World War is soon and Toa Fraser (The Dead Lands, 6 Days) has been working hard.

"And Taika's Hunt For Wilderpeople finished up - which looks like a lot of fun. I've seen some rushes and wow.

"There's lots going on and the industry of course is being bumped up by a lot of American productions coming to shoot here.

"There's a lot of work for people, which can only be a good thing."

 

 

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