Whānau is a special longitudinal documentary project that began following the lives of four Māori born in 2000. It set out to question whether a century on from being declared on ‘the brink of extinction’, Māori would step out from the shadow of colonisation. The latest instalment is out now on Re: News.  

Director, Parehuia Mackay (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tamateraa), writes about her unique relationship with the project and how media representations of Māori have changed since the turn of the millennium.

I was five years old when the first instalment of ‘Whānau’ was released, so in many ways I’ve lived my life in parallel with this project. 

That’s why I felt so well placed to help Pianika, Uenukokōpako and KaHana share their stories as I can really relate to a lot of their experiences and perspectives. 

My mother, Kay Ellmers (Ngāti Tamateraa, Ngāti Raukawa), created ’Whānau’ in 1999 and produced and directed the three previous instalments. 

While working on this latest update together we’ve talked a lot about her motivations for starting the project. 

She conceived Whānau in response to a prevailing news media narrative that focussed on the negative statistics for Māori, and often laid the blame at the feet of Māori parents.

At that time there were few opportunities to get Māori perspectives in front of mainstream audiences and these were usually mediated by Pākehā execs who selected and shaped the programmes for their audiences.

In longer form documentary there was an appetite for Māori redemption stories profiling individuals who had risen above their circumstances to achieve great things. These are important stories, but when that is all there is, they risk creating a narrative of individual responsibility that denies historical context. 

They can fuel a kind of “inequity denial” so often displayed by those in positions of privilege and power who refuse to acknowledge the systemic disadvantages experienced by others. 

What she saw in 1999 was a media that routinely represented Māori as “saints” or “sinners”. 

As a parent of two young children mum wanted to share stories of ordinary whānau Māori determined to provide the best for their tamariki.

Mum recalls it was challenging to stay true to this kaupapa. It was hard to present a range of Māori worldviews in a media landscape focussed on delivering white middle class consumers to advertisers. An audience accustomed to more sensational stories. 

Fortunately the first instalment went to air as Mum intended and went on to win the Best Māori Programme Award at the 2001 TV Awards.

Of course back then, there was no Whakaata Māori. There were three TV channels and no on demand platforms for video content. 

Media representations play an important role in shaping societal views and can help or hinder the systemic changes needed to address historically created inequities. 

We need a media landscape that gives voice to a range of Māori experiences and perspectives.

So, are we there yet?  Well, yes and no.

Whakaata Māori was established in 2004, which saw a whole new wave of Māori representation and content. 

On ‘mainstream’ television we see more kaupapa Māori, more reo Māori, more kanohi Māori than ever before – to the dismay of those whose vitriolic comments provide confronting evidence of just how far we’ve yet to go. 

The digital shift has provided a variety of platforms where a multitude of Māori stories can be shared. These platforms and funding decision makers are much more diverse.

And of course, we are creating and sharing our own content.

All of this allows for more three dimensional representations of Māori and does get us closer to the aspirations expressed by the great Māori broadcasting pioneer Barry Barclay who promoted the importance of the opportunity for Māori to both “talk in” – share conversations within our own communities – and “talk out” – present our viewpoints to others.

There is more diversity of Māori content out there but the challenge now is to get it to audiences amongst the tsunami of content coming at us from around the globe, and amongst increasingly narrow viewing diets.

We as audiences have a responsibility to seek out perspectives that may be different to our own, rather than succumbing to the complacent confirmation bias of content served up by viewing algorithms.

There is still a lot of work to do addressing inequities experienced by Māori and the media has an ongoing role to play. 

I feel lucky to be able to contribute to the positive expression of Māori stories. I’m grateful to those before us who have fought for these opportunities. And I’m thankful to these three whānau for letting us share their lives with the rest of Aotearoa. 

Parehuia Mackay (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Tamateraa, Ngāti Raukawa) was born in Tāmaki Makaurau away from her wider hapū and iwi but had an upbringing deeply entrenched in te ao Māori. Through her work in traditional and digital media spaces she wants to share and celebrate indigenous stories.

More stories:

Uenukukōpako: Whānau Episode 1

Watch the first episode of Whānau, the latest installment in this very special documentary series.

Pianika: Whānau Episode 2

“I realised how colonised I was…and I didn’t like it”

KaHana: Whānau Episode 3

“I can’t speak Māori, but I can feel it.”