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The APAHM Project Day 14: Cousins


Film: Cousins

Directed By: Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith

Release: 2021

Where to Watch: Netflix

Wanna Skip? Pick a Movie from APAHM Project 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020


Why It Made The List:

"Cousins" was actually originally slated for the 2023 APAHM Project, but due to an error on my part, a title had to be removed. With not having any ties to America, "Cousins" was unfortunately on the cutting room floor. This year, we give "Cousins" the attention it deserves. Winner of the audience award at New Zealand’s Maoriland Film Festival, "Cousins" went on to make $1,000,000 NZ in its first three-weeks in New Zealand. ARRAY by Ava DuVernay distributed the film for a wider release on Netflix.


My Thoughts:

"Cousins" is based on a 1992 novel by the same name written by Patricia Grace, who is the mother-in-law of co-director Briar Grace-Smith. Briar wrote the screenplay almost immediately after the novel's release and tried to get the film made. However, at that time, no one with funding was willing to produce a movie that starred one Maori woman, let alone 9.


"Cousins" follows Mata Pairama, a Maori girl who is led to believe that she was abandoned by her mother. Her European father takes her away to an orphanage and leaves Ms. Parker as Mata's legal guardian. Ms. Parker renames Mata to May (although that doesn't make her any "fairer" skinned) and tells her her mother is dead. May is given a bowl haircut and left with unruly hair due to improper care for coarse hair. Ms. Parker raises May to be Christian and to never have contact with her Maori family. May learns to look down on Black people, including other Maori people and even calls herself ugly.


A Maori groundskeeper recognizes Mata and contacts her family of her whereabouts. They request Mata to come and stay with them over the holidays where she meets her two cousins, Missy and Makareta. Missy is tough and bossy, while Makareta is described as being spoiled. She is the oldest and has her own room and nice clothes. Mata is so detached from her Maori roots that she feels uncomfortable around her new family. Eventually she forms a bond and even learns that her mother didn't abandon her, but had just died the year prior, still waiting to reunite with her daughter. Desperate to have Mata join their family, Makareta and Missy promise to find a way to bring Mata home.

As Mata grows up, she is still an obedient daughter to Ms. Parker. She meets Sonny, a fellow Maori, and eventually marries, leaving the orphanage behind. Meanwhile, Makareta is getting ready for a big birthday party in her honor while Missy is ordered to do chores to prepare for the party. However, minutes before the party is to begin, Makareta tells Missy she is running away. The party was not for her birthday but for an arranged marriage. The Pairama's land is being threatened of being taken over by property developers and a marriage between the two clans will save it. Missy says goodbye and she and her mother, Gloria, must now tell the matriarch of the family, Grandma Keita, that Makareta has left. The other women in the family blame Keita for Makareta's leave, using the fact that both her daughters did not marry appropriate men. They also say that Keita cares more about the land than their people. Missy, hearing this, volunteers to be the one to not only marry this man, but also lead her clan and protect the land. In an interview with Shondland, Ainsley expresses that there is often a connotation that an arranged marriage is bad. But in Maori culture, stepping up as Missy did is not a bad thing to do. She says "It’s not like giving up everything and getting married. She takes on the mantle of responsibility for her people and for the land....What it shows is how important land and community and family are above self and the notion of romantic love. That for her is both an expression of her love and commitment for her community, and for her community it’s a chance for them to see how strong and powerful and overlooked she has been."


Mata and Sonny's marriage fails due to Mata's lack of intimacy. She expresses she wants children but she is not intimate with Sonny. Jean, Mata's only friend from the orphanage shows up unexpectedly. She asks Mata to watch her son while she's on holiday. Mata and the son bond and Jean suddenly comes back later than expected (as in she's pregnant) and takes her son away abruptly. This leaves Mata in tears and she hears voices of her past, including those of her cousins. Packing up a few belongings, she leaves her home and tries to find her way home. Throughout Mata's life, we see her counting and taking her shoes off to cross the street, etc. These are all safety mechanisms to help with what appears to be her mental health. She's experienced a lot of trauma and abandonment in her life. However, the directors state this is not necessarily mental health but actually matakite or "seer of spirits" which is "a gift, it’s something special, and if she’d grown up in her culture and community, it would have manifested in a really different way." Mata is constantly seeing her mother, braids that remind her of her mother. She sees her Nan when *spoiler* Makareta dies *end spoiler*. She hears her cousins voices and even sees the water spirit.


Makareta goes to Wellington to study law and defends her thesis on the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand's founding document.


Signed by our ancestors and British Crown in 1840, it gave Maori enduring authority

over our world, our lands and our ways of being. Breaches of the Accord soon led to

conflict between our peoples. Thereafter the balance of power increasingly shifted to

the government, aiding the erosion of the Maori world. For the Crown, but certainly not

for Maori, the treaty became mostly irrelevant. But the Agreement is the source of our

rights, and It must be honored in our society, or how will we ensure the return to Maori

of those precious things that have been all but lost.


At the very beginning of the movie, an older Missy is concerned about developers taking over their land. Protecting the land is the thing she so bravely volunteered to do. When Makareta finally finds Mata, she explains that she plans on taking her home, back to their land, where the winds will heal her. When Mata was a child and visited her land for the first time, she was changed forever. The connection Indigenous people have to their land is an incomparable bond.


The film touches on themes of matriarchy, land, community and family. It is not afraid to point out that much of the Maori and Indigenous lands were stolen. Even Makareta accuses Ms. Parker of stealing Mata. Robbing her of her family and culture. White-washing her. Ainsley states "[I]n general, the portrayal of Māori often lacks a balanced perspective of all of the other great parts of what it means to be Māori — like our sense of community, women being funny and independent, well-loved, strong, capable, and vulnerable, women being at the head of families, women making decisions, and, to the same token, men being gentle, supportive parties to that kind of leadership. Cousins, for me, was always a film about women stepping into power despite the expectations of community or family or the times."


A film like "Cousins" that so authentically displays all of these qualities listed of Maori women, is a feat in itself. To have a story so intricately and beautifully told, to show that Maori women can be so many different things, is hopefully the catalyst to tell even more stories of this kind.


In Conclusion:

Ainsley and Briar believed in their project, but also in themselves. They state that one of their role models is Merata Mita, the first Indigenous woman to write and direct a feature film. But that was in 1988 and there was 30 years of no role models. When you don't see anyone who looks like you being successful at your dreams, how can you be certain you will not fail in your pursuits? Ainsely and Briar took a chance on themselves and also waited for the right timing to make "Cousin" and it definitely paid off.


I want to applaud all the actors in this film, as well as the excellent casting. I like how Ainsely and Briar noted that when matching up the three actresses playing each woman, they weren't looking so much at appearances but how the actresses were connected spiritually. I think that is such a beautiful approach and it showed in each performance. The way they all seamlessly transitioned throughout time enhanced the storytelling.


There is something so special about watching this movie. "Cousins" wasn't trying to make a movie that would make money, but a movie that properly and respectfully told its story. You can tell each scene, each shot, each line has so much care poured into it. Such a simple logline "Separated as children, three cousins with an unshakeable bond confront their painful pasts and embark on an emotional journey to find each other" unfolds into such a beautiful story.


Shout Out!

Today's shout out goes to Feniu, a Tongan-owned hair and skincare line. Founded by Mele Feniu Olivetti, Feniu uses organic ingredients while also sharing blessings with people they are responsible for, i.e. customers! Feniu also has a give back program in which they participate in agricultural preservation activities, water purification efforts, and youth employment. Be sure to check them out


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