Friday, December 8, 2023

Muru: ‘This Is Not A Horror Film – This Is Something That Actually Happened’

The new film Muru starts screening across Aotearoa this week, telling the important story about two raids that targeted the Tūhoe community – most recently, the 2007 ‘Anti-terrorism’ raids where special forces descended onto a remote Māori township. Capsule speaks to Muru actor Roimata Fox, whose own siblings were caught up in the 2007 raid, about portraying the incident on screen, working in comedy and drama and why an acting career was perfect for someone who grew up ‘a little bit extra’.

Sitting in the Whakatāne screening of Muru, with members of the Tūhoe community around her, Roimata Fox says she could feel those who had experienced the damaging 2007 raids – including her own siblings – reliving those terrifying few hours. “There were little elements of Tūhoe humour, you could hear them laugh and say, ‘Oh, that’s what uncle used to say,’” she says of the audience.

“But in the more tense moments, you could hear their jaws clenching, because they were feeling all those same things they felt on the day. My sister grabbed my hand at one point – she was heavy breathing – and she said, ‘This is something I’m so happy is made, because a lot of people still don’t know what actually happened.’”

Muru is based on two raids that targeted this area, including 2007 ‘Anti-terrorism’ raid, where the New Zealand Government’s elite Special Tactics Group descended on a remote Māori township and made multiple arrests. The film has been given strong reviews and will be featured at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, this month.

“For me, Muru isn’t about black or white, them or us. It’s about understanding one another and also all of the things that could be avoided if we sat down and had a conversation, rather than make assumptions.”

Roimata describes being part of the film as one of the highlights of her career, because it gives context to what those raids did to a small, close-knit community and portrays how terrifying they were for everyone. It’s one thing to read about ‘the Tūhoe raids’ and another thing to see, viscerally, how violent it is to have teams of armed men break their way into people’s homes.

“What really got me was the equipment that the special forces had, and for a child growing up in the Ureweras to see a man, all covered in black, with these big black guns and black masks, coming toward them,” Roimata says. “There’s a line in the movie where one child says, ‘Hey, Ninja!’ because for a child who grew up in that valley, to suddenly see this, to see helicopters landing… to see their uncle, aunty, koro, nanny, being forced to the ground.”

“The trauma there, that will probably never go away. It was such a horrific ordeal and it wasn’t until watching the film that you see it all. It’s still wild to think this actually happened – and in 2007.”

 “My son was sitting with me in the theatre and someone came up to me at the premiere and said, ‘Oh, you’re very brave bringing your boy to such a film,’ and I said, ‘It’s part of his history.’ And the thing is, this is not a horror film – this is something that actually happened. And I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to share his history with him.”

Muru actor Roimata Fox with her son, Te Mahia Fox
Roimata Fox with her son, Te Mahia Fox

One of the key figures of the raids was activist, artist and poet Tame Iti, who plays himself in the film. Working with an iconic figure was initially intimidating, Roimata says. “Day one, I was nervous as hell! My father would take me around to a lot of hui when I was growing up and Tame would always be there,” she recalls. “Watching the way he could command a room, not by yelling, but the pure presence of the man made people listen. I remember seeing that as a young girl and so now, in my adulthood, stepping onto set with him, helping to tell his and his people’s story, I was so nervous. But after meeting him, all of that washed away.”

Roimata says Tame would rock up on his quad bike every day, announcing “I’ve got some kai in the back here,” she laughs. “Everything he did, he did with such love. He was incredible to be around.”

Growing up in Ruatōria, just out of Gisborne, Roimata describes herself as “always being a little bit extra” in her small community. It was her parents who first mentioned acting and she started travelling between Auckland and Gisborne, kick-starting a career that has now spanned over a decade and has seen her take part in stage and screen, comedy and drama.

Roimata credits learning to love the thrill of live theatre to growing up doing kapa haka. “We’re story-tellers in that world as well, it’s just about applying it in a different way,” she says. “Watching other actors and learning from them, I let down all those walls and learned to embrace all my little weird traits, rather than hide them in the cupboard for a long time!”

She says she also honed her comedic timing on the pā, because she grew up around the best comedians on this earth – “my uncles and aunties – their timing is like no other,” she laughs. “I love sharing my whānau’s humour with the industry; I think, for Māori, tapping into humour feels very natural for us.”

One of the roles that she’s currently filming combines drama and comedy perfectly, in Aotearoa’s favourite black-humour detective show: The Brokenwood Mysteries. Roimata says her whānau are such huge fans of the show, their final-bit of advice as she left for filming was “’Don’t mess it up, be good! And tell Trudy I love her!’” she jokes, of the beloved character played by Tracy Lee Gray.

Up until this year, Roimata and her son Te Mahia Fox were based in Gisborne, with Roimata often commuting the six-hour drive there and back for work. Now based in Auckland for Te Mahia’s kura, Roimata says it was a hard shift to move away from their close-knit community – and to leave the relaxed pace of Gisborne life – but Roimata says she very appreciative of how close her work opportunities now are.

And the opportunities themselves are also improving, she says. “Just speaking for myself, in being a New Zealand actor, I am grateful to work,” she says of what kind of project she wants to say yes to. “But I know what I wouldn’t do – I have a long list of things you would never catch me doing, so I’m always reading through the script for those signs, but if they’re not in there, then I’ll take the job.”

It comes back to the delicate balance that SIS creator Hanelle Harris discussed with Capsule – when you are a Māori or Pasifika creative, you may be offered many a role that would further your pay check but require compromising how your community is portrayed.

“I’ve played Māori characters all of my career, so I look for cultural misappropriation,” Roimata says. “Also in terms of how women are treated, as well. We can’t go doing things we used to do back in the 80s and 90s… looking back at some films, you’re like ‘Woah…’ and that wasn’t that long ago! But the world is changing and we’re all starting to wise up about our actions and what we do. It’s still very much out there, but I feel a change.”

Muru is currently screening across Aotearoa and you can catch Roimata on The Brokenwood Mysteries on Sunday 4 September, on TVNZ 1.

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