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White Lies is a story about the nature of identity: those who deny it and those who strive to protect it. Paraiti (Whirimako Black) is a medicine woman. She is the healer and midwife of her rural, tribal people - she believes in life. But new laws are in force prohibiting unlicensed healers. On a rare trip to the city, she is approached by Maraea (Rachel House), the servant of a wealthy woman, Rebecca (Antonia Prebble), who seeks her knowledge and assistance in order to hide a secret which could destroy Rebecca's position in European settler society. If the secret is uncovered a life may be lost, but hiding it may also have fatal consequences. So Paraiti, Maraea and Rebecca become players in a head on clash of beliefs, deception and ultimate salvation.Written by
South Pacific Pictures
I was fortunate enough over the weekend to attend a screening of NZ feature White Lies followed by a revealing Q+A session with writer/director Dana Rotberg, star Antonia Prebble, composer John Psathas and novelist Witi Ihimaera. It might seem odd for a film about NZ colonial identity to be made by a Mexican filmmaker, but surprisingly the story benefits greatly by coming from an outside perspective.
Adapted from Witi Ihimaera's novella Medicine Woman, White Lies doesn't have a particularly well told story at its core, but is nonetheless an important film for NZ to have produced. Set during the early days of settlement, the film depicts a sinuous power struggle between colonial housewife Rebecca (Prebble), her housemaid Maraea (Rachel House), and Paraiti (Whirimako Black), the Maori medicine woman whose particular skills and discretion are sought.
The shifting dominance of each of these women, representing different aspects of female identity at the time, weaves a compelling and bleak narrative, but some of the story beats that should have had greater impact unfortunately fall a little flat. Elements that needed more room to breathe play out much too quickly, not allowing audiences time to digest, although the film's closing scenes are powerful. White Lies deals with uncomfortable subject matter, and Rotberg doesn't shy away from the story's most tragic aspects.
Thankfully, White Lies looks better than any NZ film for some time. The cinematography by NZ legend Alun Bollinger gives the rugged setting of the film a beautifully oppressive quality reminiscent of his work on Vincent Ward's Vigil, and has moments of rare, haunting beauty.
It's a shame that most viewers will be unable to hear Rotberg speak about her approach to the film. The director's keen understanding of the tragedy of colonialism in her homeland brings significance to White Lies that a Kiwi director may have been guarded about addressing, and hearing her thoughts on NZ colonialism and our nervous attitude about exposing our own violent past was incredibly refreshing. Her desire to treat the subject with integrity while never sugarcoating it comes across with wonderful passion, and while she remained respectful of the source material, she makes no excuses for altering Ihimaera's work to suit her own vision. Despite the film's faults, White Lies takes more risks and offers deeper perspective than most NZ films of late.
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