Myth-taken Identity: The Reel Life Struggles of Hei Tiki
A handful of colourful movie stills from 1935 have made their way into the Tauranga Library Archive.
Hei Tiki, was a ground-breaking film in New Zealand's early cinema history, shot in 1930 around Lake Taupo and Waihi. Featuring an all-Māori cast, primarily from the Whanganui and Tūwharetoa iwi, it was one of the country's first talking pictures. However, the film's production and release were not without controversy.
Directed by American writer Alexander Markey, the film aimed to create a cinematic epic celebrating Māori mythology, music, and dance.
Markey showed little to no interest in Māori tikanga or culture. Instead, the film employed the "star-crossed lovers" theme popular in Western film and literature. The two protagonists, love interests played by 16-year-old Ngawara Kereti (Te Arawa) and Ben Biddle, and themselves royalty from separate tribes in a pre-European Māori idyll, must find a way to be together.
Markey's directing style was characterized by a domineering, impatient, and disdainful attitude towards the cast and crew, many of whom were amateurs. Ben Biddle often acted as a negotiator for the entire cast and crew's benefit. He confronted Markey when wages were withheld or insults became intolerable. He would apply pressure as the leading man by disappearing for up to several days, retreating further up into the nearby mountains where he would hunt wild pigs or deer.
The film was released in Great Britain and America with the cringeworthy title, "Primitive Passions" in 1935. The New York Times called it "a disappointment, a sorry mélange of antique melodrama (and) spotty photography...a native legend... native to Hollywood, so many versions of it having been filmed there".
New Zealand wouldn't see it until 1939.
The reel stills that make up part of Ams 227 are in excellent condition, particularly considering they are made from cellulose nitrate, a medium first used by George Eastman in 1889 and regularly thereafter in 35mm motion picture film until the 1950s before being replaced with more stable formats.
So, how did these become part of our archive at Tauranga City Libraries? The answer is Margaret Goulding née Wallis (1894-1988). Margaret Goulding, who spent two years with the production of Hei Tiki as a personal assistant to Ngawara Kereti and cook for the production, received a number of reel stills from one of the camera operators sometime in the 1980s. These were part of the Goulding papers, which make up Ams 227.
- Limbrick, Peter (2010) Making settler cinemas: film and colonial encounters in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand
- New York Times Review: https://www.nytimes.com/1935/02/02/archives/at-the-globe.html
- Adventures in Māoriland - Alexander Markey and the Making of Hei Tiki: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/adventures-in-maoriland-1985