In the small Maori settlement in the Raukokore region of the east coast of New Zealand, director Taika Waititi revisits his roots with his new film ‘Boy’ and gives a modern and relevant voice to a traditional island culture. When people think of native or aboriginal cultures, they think in terms of the past, of what was. They identify the people with traditional customs or beliefs, and want to hold them up to some ideal they have of pure or simple living. But the reality is that most of the people in these cultures are kind of stuck in the middle at the moment, halfway between perception and reality. They are trying to catch up to the advances of modern society and move their cultural identify into the present, but they are almost held back and kept invisible in a way by the cultural identity others want to ascribe to them. That is where Taika’s voice in ‘Boy’ has the most potential for impact, in showing Maori culture not as it was, but as it is, revealing the hard truths that come with that.
Ironically, this, the most modern depiction of Maori life is actually set in the 80s, the time of Taika’s youth and Michael Jackson’s pop culture supremacy. It was a turning point of sorts, because as Mr. Waititi mentioned in his Q and A at a San Francisco screening, the Maori youth suddenly had an eminently cool global cultural icon to whom they could relate and who looked a bit like them in Michael Jackson. The titular ‘Boy’ is an avowed Michael Jackson super fan, and he spends his abundant idle time practicing MJ’s dance moves to show off to friends and impress girls. It doesn’t work, because this Boy is a little awkward and a little lost, searching for an identity, both personal and cultural. Boy’s dad has been mostly out of his life, spending time in jail for robbery. He rolls back into town unannounced with his makeshift gang of 3, the ‘Crazy Horses’, and sets out to get to know his sons. Boy has a younger brother, Rocky, who is quiet and fancies himself a superhero of sorts with unexplained powers. There is a nice contrast between the outlandish and extroverted way in which Boy seeks attention from his peers and his dad and Rocky’s self-isolation and introverted retreats into his own fantasy world. It shows how differently each of us can attempt to fill a void in our life, and I believe most of us will be able to relate to one of the two boys.
What is most stark about the film is the lost world aspect of the town, that is all too common of communities and cultures in this strange, almost forced transition. It’s as if they are stuck behind a two way mirror, where they can see and hear everything of the outside modern world, but they cannot be seen or heard. Except it’s not just images and sounds coming through, but symbols and meaning and even physical objects, getting heaped on top of their own symbols and meanings and styles until they are left fighting and scraping for air, for a semblance of identity maintenance. The town is sparse, beautiful in the melancholic way of a ghost town. Modern memorabilia is scattered throughout, always appearing odd or misplaced, while nothing ever really feels authentic or at home here. And the residents of the town are still meant to carry on and live as if this woe-begotten place is perfectly normal and acceptable. The two options seem to be escape and assimilate, or stay and desperately flail at saving a piece of cultural heritage and identity that could be lost a few generations down the line regardless. But Taika, with this delicate film, is showing us there is a third option: remove the two way mirror and replace it with a window, allowing exchange.
Why I feel this movie is especially relevant today is that this situation is not uncommon in developing countries the world over. With access to the world at large becoming more readily available, even in the poorest and most remote places, the modern western culture is being broadcast out to these places with nothing coming back. But they see only the shiny happy exterior we present, not the grimy, dirty interior that houses real problems and hard questions. Consequently, our lives often appear better thanks to material wealth, health, and freedoms, so there is both a desire and a perceived pressure to try and copy or integrate what is seen. It is unrealistic to expect any culture will not eventually move into the modern world, and to hold them up to an ideal of what we want them to represent while staying in the modern world ourselves is hypocritical, to say the least. I believe not only is it inevitable that we will become one big global community, but that it is a necessary and healthy evolution. However, I think we should preserve and respect the different cultural identities, symbols, stories, and meaning each unique group of people has to offer us. That is why it is critical to document the transitioning world and dialogue about it, so that people everywhere realize they don’t have to give up their unique cultural identities to fit into the new global community. Our global community will be richer and more meaningful through diversity, not assimilation.