When esteemed New Zealand filmmaker Barry Barclay articulated his concept of fourth cinema as indigenous films by indigenous filmmakers, it is unlikely that he was envisioning this year’s Māori-Cannibal film Fresh Meat (2012). His hope that fourth cinema would continue to grow, encompassing ‘identified core values which govern life in the Maori world, values such as whanaungatanga, mana, manaakitanga, aroha, tapu, mana tupuna, wairua,’ does not exactly gel with the splatter-fest of mauled bodies, bombastic special effects and outlandish shoot-em-ups that the Wellington based Gibson Company has produced. Nonetheless, the generous and encouraging writing that Barclay left behind suggests that he might have seen the value in this film which, for all its spectacular and fantastic silliness, stakes a claim for the impact Māori filmmakers can make on the New Zealand film industry (I am using the term filmmaker loosely here to account for all the Māori cast and crew that worked on the film). Although the film could do with more carefully scripted dialogue and a good edit that would tighten the pace and energy of its narrative, it produces some wonderful moments that drive at the way Māori culture is being defined in the twenty-first century.
Set in an unnamed suburb somewhere in New Zealand’s interior, Fresh Meat begins when the Tan Brother’s Gang blow up a prison van to set their leader Richie Tan free. Their getaway plan involuntarily means hiding out and taking hostage the Crane family who turn out to be not just Māori but recently converted cannibals inspired by the father’s esoteric new religion. The siege quickly becomes a bloody mess of mangled limbs and broken body parts as the criminals are pitted against cannibals. While the excessive use of blood and gore can be linked back to earlier New Zealand cinema, particularly Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987), the cannibal topic has its parallels in the way Brazilian cinema of the 1960/70s used cannibalism as a way of dealing with its post-colonial condition. In order to explode the myth of their country’s harmonious racial mix, Brazilian films from Macunaima (1969) to How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971) played on the European settler’s fears of barbaric indigenous cultures by depicting the extreme through the trope of cannibalism. It was a political and reflexive strategy that suggested the only response to the First World culture imposed upon Brazil was to devour it whole. In many ways Fresh Meat readdresses this in contemporary times and director Danny Mulheron says of the family “they’re a metaphor for consumption. This family wants things, they want wealth, they’re Sweeny Todd-like. They want to make money, he wants to be a famous writer so they consume themselves.” Also, like the Brazilian films, Fresh Meat, uses comedy and exaggerated parody to put to the forefront tensions that polite society does not wish to discuss. When daughter Rina exclaims that in the past Māori tribes only ate their enemies not their friends, she highlights the taboo that, for better or worse, plays a part in Māori history.
It’s the humour in the film that allows Fresh Meat to play with revered aspects of Māori culture in a way that jokes around without belittling their status. The importance of Kai (food) is subverted when father Hemi persuades his vegetarian Pākehā (white New Zealander) guest to eat human flesh by telling him that it is rude to sit at a Māori table and not eat. Later in the film Hemi renames one of the criminals Gigi as Kai Kai. At another moment, it is his Mere pendant made from the sacred Pounamu stone, and hanging on his chest, that deflects the deadly but also absurd bullets that one of the gang tries to shoot at him. One of the most memorable visual moments is when the Crane family hang over their recent kill with their faces and hands forming the image of the haka that was ubiquitously used for commercial exploitation during the Rugby World Cup. These are tropes that have been addressed frequently in films describing Māori customs but rarely with the same type of comic effect.
In one of the most interesting twists on depictions of indigenous Pacific culture, Rina finds herself dancing in a hula skirt while swinging the poi balls traditional to Māori culture. It is an image not dissimilar to the many depictions of Hawaiian women in film who perform their dances for the benefit of the white onlooker. In this set up the premise is quickly turned upside down as Rina is performing for Richie Tan as he sits in her overtly childish underwear and she soon gets the better of him by turning the weighted poi into a weapon that she whacks around his head. At this point in the film, it is not just the settler gaze that is being sabotaged but also the male gaze that so often fetishizes these moments. The male gaze is unsettled again at another point in the film as Fresh Meat develops the subplot concerning Rina’s sexual desire for Gigi. When Gigi has to cover herself in pints of milk, fellow gang member Johnny is clearly excited but his reaction is framed alongside the equally enthralled and desirous Rina. While most mainstream films that feature lesbians use their appearance as an excuse to titillate viewers and posit their sexual acts for the benefit of the onlooker rather than themselves, Fresh Meat keeps Rina and Gigi’s sexual acts private.
Throughout the film the greatest parody is centred on Hemi, the under-published university professor whose power for hunger leads him to create a religion with himself at the centre. He berates an unjust society that won’t allow his career to develop because he is Māori while failing to acknowledge the incredibly offensive images he creates when mimicking Asian characters in the film. However, the critical lens is also placed on Pākehā culture in New Zealand, particularly through the depiction of Rina’s friend Shaun. He bumbles around the screen desperately trying to impress the Crane family with knowledge of Māori language and culture, but always failing to get it right.
One of the notable lines in the film states that they’re cannibals who happen to be Māori, not Māori cannibals. In many ways, this line pinpoints the difficulty of representation that Māori people face but it also engages with the fact that this film, like the character’s cannot escape that paradigm of representation.