Indigenous feminism revitalizing
the long take: Waru and
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

by Missy Molloy

Waru (2017) is an Aotearoa New Zealand-set film comprised of eight 10-minute long takes, each written and directed by a Māori woman (the directors in shot order are Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Renae Maihi, Chelsea Winstanley, Paula Jones and Awanui Simich-Pene). The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019) is a "real-time" film co-written and directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn and presented as a single long take; the 13 long takes that constitute the bulk of the film are shot and edited to disguise the cuts.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Waru tracks the ripple effects of a child’s abuse-related death on his community, while The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open focuses on Rosie (played by Violet Nelson), a pregnant teenager living with her abusive boyfriend, and Áila (played by Tailfeathers), a concerned stranger who witnesses Rosie’s abuse, then urges her to seek help. While these films’ long takes are technically proficient and innovative, I argue that their primary function is to develop themes about urgent social issues rather than to inspire marvel at their virtuosity. Thus in this essay, I use formal analysis of Waru and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open to indicate the connections between the films’ stylistic features and their representations of Indigenous women’s experiences.  Furthermore, my analysis of long takes in Indigenous films that originated in NZ and Canada highlights essential rather than incidental links between the two cinemas in anticipation of ambitious international co-productions helmed by Māori and First Nations women filmmakers on the horizon. [1a]

The two films analyzed here share several notable characteristics:

The particular use of long takes in these films serves to strengthen them as Indigenous feminist filmmaking. My close analysis of several lengthy takes from each film demonstrates the makers’ revitalization of the long take, and adaptation of it in pursuit of analogous sociopolitical goals. And while these films recall aspects of cinematic realism historically associated with long takes, especially in regards to theories of feminist filmmaking that developed alongside second-wave feminism, these films also break new ground by meticulously orchestrating story, mise-en-scène and camera movement to situate viewers in close proximity to realistically rendered experiences of contemporary Indigenous women. They do so in the service of a specifically twenty-first century Indigenous feminism that is currently gaining traction in indie, activist, and transnational spheres of film production.

The indirect and intimate long takes
of Waru’s “Mihi” and “Em”

Waru is an anthology film that producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton developed with a plan to commission writer-directors to author eight long takes that tell distinct, yet related stories.[2] Embarking on the project in 2009, Warkia and McNaughton devised the film’s inciting incident: “A child dies at the hands of a caregiver and during the tangihanga [te reo Māori for “funeral’] the wider whānau implodes.”[3] Whānau means “family” in te reo Māori, but the concept includes “extended family” and can also refer to a “community of related families who live together in the same area.”[4] The logline’s “whānau” implies the latter, Warkia and McNaughton inviting Māori women applicants to propose characters and stories that would directly or indirectly involve the death of Waru (which means “eight” in te reo Māori). In theory, the indirect stories would testify to the strong impact of child abuse on the wider community.

An article about Waru published in New Zealand newspaper Stuff opens emphatically with “New Zealand has the worst rate of child abuse in the developed world.”[5] Warkia and McNaughton have stated that the intention behind Waru’s premise was to “communicate the shared feelings we have towards child abuse in Aotearoa [te reo Māori for] New Zealand.”[6] After securing modest funding from the NZ Film Commission,[7] they invited proposals for the long takes that would become a single, collaborative feature. After accepting eight applicants, Warkia and McNaughton hosted a pre-production retreat for Waru’s directors to develop their screenplays and enhance connections across the anthology.[8] The Waru project stipulated the following “non-negotiable” constraints: each shot

“[1] had to have a female Māori lead, [2] the story had to connect to the death of a child, [3] all the stories had to take place within the same 10-minute timeframe, and [4] the vignette would be one continuous shot.”[9]

In Waru’s final cut, the following features enhance connections between the eight shots:

Upon release, critics praised the originality of Waru’s concept and execution[11]; the fresh perspectives it presented on the difficult subject matter of NZ’s high child homicide and abuse rates[12]; and the creativity stimulated by the constraints, in particular the long take specification.[13]  

My analysis concentrates on Shots 3, “Mihi,” and 4, “Em,” which, of Waru’s eight shots, focus most explicitly on motherhood and represent, in my view, the most sophisticated responses to the film’s constraints. Directors Ainsley Gardiner (“Mihi”) and Katie Wolfe (“Em”) were among the most experienced in film production at the start of the project (other Waru directors entered pre-production with experience mainly in screenwriting, producing, and/or theater [14]). Gardiner has produced several of the most successful twenty-first century NZ films, including Boy (Waititi 2010) and The Breaker Upperers (Sami and van Beek 2018), and prior to “Mihi,” had written and directed an award-winning short, “Mokopuna” (2009), that screened at 16 international festivals. Her professional biography (available on NZ On Screen’s website) indicates that Indigenous feminism fuels her film practice: Gardiner “[seeks] stories by two groups who have often battled to be heard on-screen: Māori and women.”[15] Waru offered Gardiner the opportunity to combine the two, and to stretch her directing capabilities by meeting the constraints:

“I was reluctant to be involved at first, I felt aggrieved that we were bringing these amazing wahine — or female — Māori filmmakers together and a story of abuse was the one we were going to tell. But I decided to do it to develop my directing skills — I am more often a producer than a director — and I liked the idea of working within constraints that were not of my making.”[16]

The title character “Mihi” is out of gas at the start of the sequence (Figure 4). After having difficulty connecting to the school office to report her children absent (“My kids, they’re sick,” she declares tersely after the answering machine finally beeps), she exits her car, carrying the baby seat in which her youngest child sleeps, and approaches the front door. On her way into the house, she dials “Work and Income” (NZ’s social services department) to request help accessing fuel (Figure 5).

5: The camera precedes Mihi into the house, pausing to frame her in a long shot while she calls ‘Work and Income.’ The vertical lines of the composition box her into the center of the frame. ‘My car, I need gas,’ she states impatiently before realizing that she’s talking to a recording. 6: Still on hold, Mihi roots around for change in the kitchen drawers. The kitchen’s low-key, low contrast image quality and the muted colors of the production design depict a realistically lived-in domestic space.
7: The camera hovers in the kitchen while Mihi (now framed in a medium shot) scrounges beneath the couch cushions, not finding much change but discovering an overlooked school trip permission slip. 8: Later in the take, Mihi is compelled to search under the refrigerator, her two young daughters appearing behind her in matching red and pink tops and becoming momentarily caught up in the search.

In the next (and lengthiest) segment of the 10-minute shot, Mihi is on hold with Work and Income, the service’s muzak providing a diegetic score that accompanies her frantic search for spare change: in the kitchen drawers (Figure 6), under the couch cushions in the semi-connected living room (Figure 7), and eventually, under the refrigerator (Figure 8).

Mihi’s two hungry young daughters interrupt her rummage through the kitchen drawers; their request for “something to eat” motivates another harried search, this time in the kitchen cabinets. She gives them each a plain slice of white bread, but they aren’t satisfied, so she opens a can of corn and hands it to them (Figure 9). While still on hold and scrounging under the sofa cushions, Mihi finds a school permission slip, which obviously upsets her. Appearing semi-defeated, she stares out the window (Figure 10), the camera refocusing to register her sudden awareness that her neighbor is watching (Figure 11).

10: Mihi’s gaze out the window enhances the depth of the image, the exterior light attracting attention to the center of the image, where Mihi’s neighbor is out of focus in the background. 11: The deepest plane of the image comes suddenly into focus when Mihi becomes aware of her neighbor watching her through the window.

“Keep your bloody nose out of it,” she angrily mutters, retreating away from the window and back into the kitchen, then becoming even more discouraged when she pours the last drop of milk into her coffee (Figure 12). Now totally overcome, Mihi slides down the wall (Figure 13) and lies on the floor (Figure 14). Her vantage (from the floor) compels an under-the-refrigerator search, but the small change that produces only intensifies her despair.

13: The camera tracks in on Mihi when she moves to the wall and slides down to the floor, her overwhelmed expression blending into the neutral colors surrounding her. 14: The previous placement of Mihi in the left side of the frame foreshadows her movement to balance the composition. From this angle, Mihi can see under the refrigerator.

The entrance of her adolescent daughter, Harmony, through the back door and appearing dejected, kicks off the long take’s third (and final) act. They have an altercation, during which Mihi’s call becomes disconnected (and she loses her place in the hold line). Harmony is angry at Mihi for failing to sign the school permission slip for a Museum trip scheduled that day and for failing to pay her fees (Figure 15, “I couldn’t go [on the trip] anyway,” Harmony mutters). On the other hand, Mihi is angry at the school for sending students who can’t pay for the trip home and at Harmony for her disrespect. “You’re not the mom,” Mihi angrily reminds her (Figure 16), a statement Harmony throws back in her face a minute later (Figure 17) after Mihi demands that Harmony go pick up the baby, his crying audible from another room (off-screen).

16: At several points during the argument, the focus racks, selecting either Harmony or Mihi for special attention. Harmony’s dismissive attitude towards Mihi incenses her, as evident in this expression.
17: ‘I’m not the mum,’ Harmony retorts, echoing Mihi’s previous statement. The camera has tracked Harmony’s retreat from Mihi, the latter’s ‘don’t you fucking walk away from me’.....
.... audible from slightly off-screen. The camera pauses between the two, panning to focus on one, then the other. Harmony’s placement mirrors that of Mihi early in the sequence, inspiring comparison of the two that the dialogue’s emphasis on maternity enhances. Maternal struggles are cyclical and inherited, this compositional symmetry suggests.

The long take climaxes when the enraged Mihi grabs Harmony by the shoulders and slams her roughly against the hallway wall near the open front door (Figure 18). At that precise moment, the “nosy” neighbor appears behind them in the doorway, surprising Mihi with offers of fuel (from her lawnmower), food (proffering a plastic grocery bag, Figure 19), and help with the baby.

18: Harmony’s ‘I’m not the mum’ inspires Mihi’s movement into the frame, where she assumes Harmony’s position in the doorway, grabs her roughly by the shoulders, and pushes her against the wall. 19: The neighbor’s unexpected arrival changes the dynamics of the encounter and the image composition; the neighbor assumes the central position in the image, with Mihi’s attention drawn to her and Harmony’s remaining on Mihi.

The neighbor’s unexpected arrival (and help) deflates the violent emotions she interrupted; Mihi lets her into the house to get the screaming baby, hands Harmony food from the bag, and gently (albeit wearily) directs her outside to play with her sisters. The camera subsequently follows Harmony outside and becomes unmoored (apparently magically, the technique accomplished with grace, Figure 20). Mihi is visible leaning in the doorway, observing her children (Figure 21), while the camera floats upward, leaving Mihi in the distance (Figure 22) and eventually off-screen. The take ends with an image of the sky above the houses and tree-line (Figure 23).

20: Harmony exits the house to join her younger sisters in the front yard. The camera follows, then diverges, suddenly taking flight. 21: The camera drifts back and up from Mihi, her children, their home and front yard. Mihi watches the girls play, leaning in the doorway and framed in a long shot.
22. Mihi and her children are visible in extreme long shot as the camera continues its drift skyward. The younger girl’s light red cape complements a new rust-red color pattern. 23: ‘Mihi’ concludes with the camera drifting above the tree-line and into the pure blue of the sky.

Waru’s third vignette effectively communicates that for Mihi, motherhood is a compound of frustration, unceasing demands, disappointment, and exhaustion, which Gardiner expresses by showing that while Mihi is always moving (and rarely still), she is hindered from accomplishing most of her goals because new challenges distract her, often exacerbating existing problems. So for example, while searching for spare change to purchase fuel, which she needs to drive her younger children to school, Mihi finds a permission slip that she had forgotten. When Harmony’s arrival intensifies that problem, a fight develops between Mihi and Harmony that terminates the “Work and Income” call, thus impeding a solution to the fuel problem through the enhancement of another, unsolvable problem. Gardiner explains that her own experiences informed Mihi’s story:

“I have spent years on the DPB [NZ’s Domestic Purposes Benefit, which mainly serves solo parents], where my whole spirit was broken. I was demoralised, my way of seeing the world altered. And while I was lucky enough to have a middle-class education and knew that despite my misery I was not a lost cause, while I had my imagination and storytelling that allowed me to retain hope, and though I was surrounded by friends and family, I felt very alone in my struggle.”[17]

The story Gardiner tells in Waru’s third take draws attention to Mihi’s formidable challenges, which appear perpetual, and to small acts of kindness, which can be decisive for people ground down by a daily fight to survive and by societal contempt for those on benefits.

Gardiner’s emphasis on “imagination and storytelling,” in her comment about the film’s inspiration, is evident in a fantastic element that enhances the narrative complexity of the sequence (which would have been an accomplished long take in the style of neorealism without this element). It involves a dragon, which Mihi evokes through sound effects, animation superimposed onto the live action footage, and dialogue. In the first dragon reference (early in the take), Mihi notices her neighbor while exiting the car, and when the camera pans left to approximate a point-of-view shot from Mihi’s perspective, the sound of a lightly audible dragon’s growl complements the childlike sketch of dragon’s breathe emitting from her neighbor’s nose (Figure 24).

Shortly after, Mihi tells her two young daughters that their school is closed because it “got attacked by dragons” (rather than admit that they can’t go because the car is out of fuel). Later, while Mihi is on hold and desperately searching for change, it becomes clear that her daughters have integrated the dragon tale into their play (Figure 25). “Shh! You’re gonna wake your brother,” Mihi chastises. “We’re chasing the dragon,” they exclaim, one costumed in a red cape and both wielding stick/swords. “I’m using mind control,” the older girl brags. “What’s your superpower, Mom?” “Invincibility. I’m invincible,” Mihi answers. “Invincible?” asks the younger in confusion. In response, the older misinforms her: “It means no one can see her.”

Several minutes later, when Mihi is sprawled on the kitchen floor in defeat, a second animation, of a dragon’s tail shooting out from under the refrigerator before quickly retracting (and also accompanied by the faint dragon sound effect) compels Mihi to pursue it (Figure 26). However, that search also ends in disappointment, which the hold line’s muzak amplifies along with the sporadic interruption, “Someone will be with you soon. Please hold” (delivered in an emotionless computer-generated voice). The invincibility/invisibility mix up resonates here, when Mihi’s imagination fails her, and later, during Harmony and Mihi’s altercation when Mihi pursues Harmony into the hallway, pleading, “Can you even hear me? . . . Stop ignoring me!” (Figure 27).

The element of fantasy that the dragon injects into “Mihi” creatively conveys Gardiner’s belief about the value of imagination, which was pivotal in the challenges she faced while on benefits. It also communicates that imagination alone cannot protect the socially vulnerable from feeling invisible. Furthermore, invincibility requires more than imagination, “Mihi” carefully suggests. It requires social support that legitimately feels supportive rather than isolating and judgmental (Gardiner having described her own years on the DPB as spirit-breaking).

Gardiner’s careful staging of Mihi, a mother struggling to make ends meet, in her home and via long takes is reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s groundbreaking 1975 feature film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. R. Patrick Kinsman’s article on Jeanne Dielman, “She’s Come Undone,”[18] states,

“One of the most immediately noticeable characteristics of the film is its reliance on cinematic minimalism, manifested as long takes and medium shots. Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) is almost always in the frame, but wanders in and out” (218).

Replace “Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig)” with “Mihi (Ngapaki Moetara)” and the statement applies to Waru’s third take, although the camera increases its distance from Mihi at several noteworthy points in the 10-minute sequence. Also like Jeanne Dielman, “Mihi” has formal properties that prioritize its main character’s domestic labor, closely attending to the gestures and expressions that communicate her experience. Teresa de Lauretis argues that in Jeanne Dielman,

narrative suspense is not built on the expectation of a ‘significant event,’ a socially momentous act . . . but is produced by the tiny slips in Jeanne’s routine, the small forgettings, the hesitations between real-time gestures as common and ‘insignificant’ as peeling potatoes, washing dishes or making coffee – and then not drinking it” (159).[19]

Jeanne and Mihi are constantly in action, yet their actions display the discontinuities and disruptions of a distinctly maternal subjectivity, and their stories challenge conventional notions of significant events and suspense in cinematic storytelling (as de Lauretis implies through scare quotes).  

While the hint of fantasy adds depth to the portrait of Mihi’s subjectivity, the movement of the camera independently of Mihi says something about Waru, Shot 3’s perspective on the social problem of child abuse in NZ. For the majority of the sequence, the camera remains close to Mihi, framing her in medium and/or medium close-up, which enhances the conspicuousness of its independent movements. For instance, it lingers on the small pile of change on the counter after Mihi exits frame left, tracking in and slightly right to capture Mihi in the living room (Figure 28), or it tracks Harmony’s angry retreat from Mihi. Yet the most noteworthy camera movement away from Mihi is the final retreat from the house and into the sky. The Waru score becomes audible in this finale, signaling the sequence’s imminent end and enhancing the drama of its conclusion.