MURU Review – A Condemnation of Colonial Overreach That is Uncompromising and Powerful

Muru in Te reo Māori means a punishment or redress against the Māori community. Director Tearepa Kahi’s film does not use the title lightly, in fact the title is meant to be as incendiary as the piece itself, which stands as a harsh rebuke to colonialism in Aotearoa. Muru is a fictionalised account of the 2007 Tūhoe raids carried out by the New Zealand police force which led to the arrests of several people as suspected domestic terrorists. One of the men arrested, yet never convicted, was Tame Iti who plays himself in the film which offers a substantially different view of the nation-wide operation – one different enough that Kahi begins the film with the statement that the New Zealand police do not agree with nor endorse the perspective of the film.

Indeed, Muru is fiction and not a recreation of the events of 2007, yet through fiction Kahi delivers an uncomfortable truth; New Zealand has since its colonisation by the British over two-hundred years ago has waged many wars upon its indigenous people and their culture and the effects of repressing Māori’s have caused intergenerational trauma and untold loss.

Muru revolves around the viewpoint of Sergeant “Taffy” Tāwharau (Cliff Curtis) a Māori policeman who has recently returned to the Rūātoki region to care for his ailing father. As a police officer his main duties appear to be community outreach as opposed to upholding law and order. He drives local children to the primary school and Aunties to their medical check-ups at a mobile clinic. In tandem with another officer Blake (Ria Paki) his duty lays in caring for his community including Blake’s wayward nephew Rusty (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald) who has recently returned from juvenile detention and is in need of a method to reconnect with his home and family.

One of the methods Rusty tries is attendance at Camp Rama, essentially a fireside gathering overseen by Tame Iti. Tame tries to instil a sense of pride for the Māori people assembled but also warns that they must be ready to resist any form of oppression. For that reason Tame and his group have firearms, although there isn’t a strong sense that they plan to use them in any manner of aggression. Rusty’s anger at being locked away and forgotten by his family grows into an impassioned cry against the injustices carried out against the Māori people, including the events of 1916 which saw Māori spiritual leader and pacifist Rua Kenana arrested for sedition for encouraging tribal men not to join the fight in WWI. As Rusty rejects Pākehā rule he picks up a gun and shoots. That act is caught on film by police monitoring the camp and is the spark for them to launch their plan to arrest those they saw as agitators and terrorists who “credibly” wanted to assassinate sitting Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Taffy and Blake become aware of the level of the police operation spearheaded by Gallagher (Jay Ryan) of the Special Tactics Group who is aided by his 2IC Kimiora (Manu Bennett) and on the ground officers Maria (Simone Kessell) and Jarrod (Byron Cook). From a distance they are directed by a shadowy figure named Wilson (Colin Moy).

Taffy is under suspicion because of his friendly relationship with Tame and because he is the son of a former activist, now a frail man on dialysis. When he takes Rusty to a gathering at Camp Rama (the only time he has attended the gathering) he is recorded, and another local officer tries to get him involved in the arrests of Tame and his comrades. Taffy tries to broker some kind of peaceful resolution to the situation but is blindsided as it escalates into an armed blockade of the town trapping a bus filled with children in its midst.

Events spiral out of control as Rusty is used as a pawn in the conflict and the STG bring in military grade weapons as a means to subdue protest. Kahi moves the film into the action thriller genre while maintaining the strong sense of community resilience. Some members of the operation realise things are going too far including Maria and begin to question what they’ve signed up for when they see innocents in the line of fire. Others such as Manu Bennett’s Kimiora are so indoctrinated by the rule of law they exhibit zealotry.

As a piece of action cinema Muru is effective and crisp, but as a condemnation of colonial and police overreach the film is uncompromising and distinctly powerful. The events of 2007 were controversial at the time and have since required the New Zealand government to apologise for their actions, but apologies are meaningless unless they provide a guideline for such events never occurring again. Kahi and producer Tame Iti are unwilling to let years of racist persecution go unchecked and Muru is a volatile and formidable piece of cinema that forces the viewer to confront the continual injustices of white colonialism and face up to a dark history, which considering events were happening in the 21st century, is barely history at all but contemporary. Muru honours Māori culture and language just as it honours those who have refused to bend to unjust Pākehā dominance which has torn at the fabric of Aotearoa since white men first took a land for which, like Australia, sovereignty was never ceded.

Director: Tearepa Kahi

Cast: Cliff Curtis, Jay Ryan, Manu Bennett

Writers: Tearepa Kahi, Jason Nathan

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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