Acclaimed Hollywood actor Cliff Curtis says his new movie Muru is a fictional response to police ‘anti-terror’ raids in Te Urewera in 2007.
Curtis stars in the action thriller, alongside Tūhoe activist Tame Iti, a target of the infamous raids and the film’s story is loosely based around those events.
Curtis is also co-producer and plays a community police officer caught in the middle of the unfolding events.
Curtis' roles in New Zealand-made productions stretch back to the early 1990s, including Desperate Remedies, Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider.
“The response I think it's a sly approach that the filmmakers have taken on that and in a good way,” he says. “If you look at the 2007 raids, in my point of view, it was shameful what happened.
“The impact is multigenerational. It doesn't go away all of a sudden the minute they hand out the apology. It's an embarrassment, really.
“But the response is not just to the 2007 raids, I think, for the astute eye, you will see the face of Rua Kēnana there. I think the response is also to the raids almost a century earlier. And once you see the film, I think when you see the resolution of the film, it'll come home what the film is actually offering is looking at multi-generational trauma and unintended consequences of government actions.
“I think the filmmaker's really smart I mean, he's made a really astute play to say this is a response, we're not recreating.
“We're not making a documentary. Documentaries have already been made. Journalists have already had their say. The government's already handed their apologies. And so how do we make a movie, write a movie that people want to see, that's highly watchable. That's got something to offer, a movie you're going to remember, I believe, for whatever reason you walk out of the cinema. That's interesting to me. I think that's great."
He said director Te Arepa Kahi and Tame Iti were very clear about the way they wanted to approach the story, and admits he had reservations.
“I managed to negotiate that with myself and I thought, Okay, this is a an allegory. It's an allegorical tale. This happened twice with the same government with the same people, and there's unintended consequences. This impacts generations of people and you know, in the name of defence, in the name of keeping us safe.”
Curtis says he talked to Tame Ita about the fact many of the main events in the movie didn’t happen during the raid. Tame Iti’s response, he says, was the events didn’t happen chronologically, but they had happened. He was eluding to events 100 years before, in 1916 with the arrest of Rua Kēnana when two people died.
Rua Kēnana was a Tūhoe prophet who set up a community at Maungapōhatu. He was arrested for sedition for his opposition to Māori conscription in World War I.
Curtis said he understood the point Tame Iti was making and lent his services to the project.
“I have to be very clear about my role as an actor, that I am in service of a story, that the writer, the director, the producers, the editors, they fashion that story, and I'm in service of the story," he says.
“Tame Iti being central to the story gets to engage in terms of what that story ultimately is. And ultimately, I have to concede to my role as an actor, and that I'm supporting the storytelling, and that the story is, in fact, in service of the audience.
“The viewer is gently and constantly reminded of the two stories as well with the presence of Rua Kēnana’s image at the school gates, for example, on people's walls and their homes, as the constant linking of the two stories in the minds of the viewers, even those who don't know very much.”
He said the talked to police officers before he played the role of Taffy, the community police sergeant, interviewing them to get their perspective on what happened. He says he was shocked to hear of the raid when it happened.
“I remember when I heard, I was like ‘no’, because I know Tame Iti. I know who he is and I have a sense of what he is. What he is to me and who he is to me is an artist. He plays in the space of political agitation.
“He's an activist, he has some things to say that are important to him that otherwise might not be heard. And he does so as an artist. He dances, he paints, he puts on art exhibitions.
“He's an artist, but to frame him as a domestic terrorist is well outside of the scope of who I know him to be and what I know him to be. And I knew when I when I heard it, I was at home, I remember exactly where I was at home, and I heard it on the news and thought what a mess. They're making a huge mistake."
Part of the tragedy was local officers were frozen out and had no knowledge of the operation, he says. Those local police were betrayed by the Crown, he adds.
“Those police officers were not to be trusted to know what was best in their communities, and that's very dysfunctional. That's what happened. It all could have been avoided, it didn't have to go down the way that it went down. It really hurt those police officers."
The cinematography is striking. Curtis points out the movie portrays the lives of this community authentically and the terrible beauty of the mountainous settlement, the gentle cadence of the Tuhoe dialect contrasting with a brutal history.
The actor says his Hollywood success has given him the freedom to entertain, while also choosing more meaningful stories to tell. He says he’s proud of his association with Kuru and honouring the identity and history of Tuhoe.
“I'm really blessed to have a Hollywood career,” he says. It’s where I get to create entertainment, which has a value all of its own. It’s in cinemas and we enjoy that type of content. It does help me pay the bills, like bankroll my company.
“I'm really extremely blessed in this moment that I can have a project like Muru, which focuses on the micro aspects of indigenous circumstances… There's a real resonance in terms of the validity of the story, for the scale of Hollywood, and for the intimacy of honouring Tuhoe very specifically, and not even just Tuhoe, but Tame Iti’s version of Tuhoe.
“If you go to the valley you're going to get lots of different versions of Tuhoe, and not everyone's going to agree about this film, about anything, really. But I think that's a great moment in my career - to have the balance of these two experiences within the canon of my work."