Maori Merchant of Venice Film Brings New Life to Shakespeare
The sets and costumes of the handsome olive-skinned actors might have seemed familiar to the Bard, but he would not have recognized one word of their lines as coming from his Merchant of Venice.
With a mostly Polynesian cast and crew of 400, New Zealand film director Don Selwyn is making the world's first Maori-language Shakespeare film.
Many in the local film industry greeted his project with skepticism but Selwyn says the essence of the play is relevant to modern Maori, with its universal themes of greed, economic machinations, jealousy, prejudice, anger and love.
"I can understand why these people didn't think it would work because they'd have a narrow focus on what a Maori Shakespeare would be about," says Selwyn of He Taonga Films. "But its (Maori content) has a much more lateral presence. The film is a catalyst and vehicle for Kiwi talent."
The sumptuous-looking yet low budget two-and-a-half hour version of The Merchant of Venice, or Te Tangata Whai Rawa o Weniti, is a testament to the universality of Shakespeare.
Not that he has attempted to make a blatantly Maori film with tattooed actors wearing grass skirts. Shot at locations mostly in and around Auckland, Selwyn's film looks plausibly Venetian, as do the actors and their costumes. In truth, these handsome, voluptuous, olive-skinned Maori resemble Italians more readily than typically pale Anglo-Saxon actors.
While remaining largely faithful to the Venetian setting of the play, Selwyn has allowed some concession to Maoridom by transporting the play's imaginary domain of Belmont to New Zealand. Providing the novelty aspect of the film, audiences will not mistake Maori actors doing Maori things -- songs, greetings, fire dances.
The play was translated in 1945 by noted Maori scholar Pei Te Hurinui Jones because he wanted Maori fluent in their own language to better understand Shakespeare. Also part-Jewish, he believed Maori would relate to play's theme of prejudice, whether racial or religious, Selwyn explains. Appropriately, the film previewed last week at the translator's college, Waikato University, Hamilton.
Selwyn, a seasoned actor and director who ran a film school for Maori students and has produced half-hour dramas in Maori for television, told AFP it took him 10 years of wooing, cajoling and pestering funding bodies to get the project off the ground.
Even a special commission set up to fund Maori productions was skeptical about the idea.
The "gatekeepers of the drama industry" said the project didn't fit their vision of art and doubted there would be a big enough audience, Selwyn said. Others reckoned it wasn't one of Shakespeare's best plays and therefore wasn't worth funding.
The Maori Merchant of Venice may be "up against Goliaths like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings," but Selwyn is undaunted.
An ardent promoter of Maori language (New Zealand's official language along with English), he saw it as a marvellous vehicle to showcase the rich, lyrical qualities of traditional Maori speech.
"One of the reasons we've done this is that we value Maori language as our indigenous language. Even in classic art form it has relevance.
"Today's colloquial (Maori) language is much like today's colloquial English. But in pre-European days, the metaphoric, symbolic, the imagery, the lyricism was there. We're talking about process of communication -- anger, laughter, beauty, tears, apprehension -- Maori language conveys all these."
He is also driven by wanting to create training and job opportunities in film and drama for young Maori.
With the exception of one actor, none of the cast had previous feature film experience. And many of the crew were unemployed or in trouble with the law before working on the set. In several cases, Selwyn spoke to judges asking for young law-breakers to be given a chance.
"Now these people are working on other film projects. They've learned production procedures and have an understanding of the arts."
Adapted for the screen by Selwyn and his co-producer Ruth Kaupua-Panapa, the film is subtitled in English, with Italian and Spanish subtitled versions also produced.
The film has generated great overseas interest, says Selwyn. Japanese subtitles are in the pipeline, and Chinese promoters are still deciding whether to translate the film into Cantonese or Mandarin. Film festivals in France, Venice, Brussels, Britain and the United States are also interested in showing it.
But Selwyn is determined that New Zealanders will be first to see the film, which is to be released here next February -- AFP
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)
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