For Whom The Taika Roars (An Open Letter to Taika Waititi)


Oh, joy, Disney’s turned it’s attention our way. In late 2016 we can look forward to the epic Disney tale of Moana – “Moana” is to tell the story of a spirited teenage girl and “born navigator” who sets sail in search of a fabled island in the ancient world of Oceania. Along the way, she teams up with a demigod named Maui and encounters mythical creatures and places” (LA Times). Awesome. Disney gets to play with our Atua now, as well. Taika Waititi wrote the screenplay, and the film will be directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog). So, Taika… let’s chat:

An Open Letter to Taika Waititi.

Tēnā koe Taika, I hear you’ve written the screenplay for Disney’s new film about the voyaging traditions of our tipuna, through the narrative of a young woman named Moana, and her adventures alongside our Atua, Maui. Naturally, you’ll understand, given the many, many ways in which our stories have been misrepresented in the past and how these misrepresentations have been used to justify the removal of our children from their communities, the denial and degradation of our language, the profiling of our culture as romantic savagery, or of our women as exotic and/or promiscuous, of our men as primitive, lazy and barbaric, the theft of our land, and in general, to legitimise the warfare against our people and ways – that there might be a little bit of concern about the placing of our stories in the hands of others to tell.

So do we have anything to worry about? Well let’s have a brief glance at Disney’s track record with storytelling…

I’m going to start with Pocahontas. Who wouldn’t. Particularly pertinent, Taika, given your public spanking of Trelise Cooper for her culturally inappropriate use of First Nation headdresses on the runway:

Was it the 70s that Disney was portraying Pocahontas as the hypersexualised Hollywood babe with the playmate face, tight buckskins and Caucasian-ised hourglass figure that gets saved by the white knight (twice), was it the 70s when they were portraying First Nations historical and spiritual characters in ways that diminished and trivialised the culture and their historical significance and strength? Err… nah it was 1995. But hey, water under the bridge, right? I mean it’s not like we’re still suffering the consequences of Disney’s global mass-communication machine and their rampant production line of western-centred social narratives.

Except they continue to roll out, and profit from, the same culturally inappropriate merchandise. Except for the countless times I have worn my own hair in braids, and, as a Māori woman (or girl), I’d get told “Oh you look so Pocahontas” or even called “Poke-a-ho”. Except for the annual Halloween roll out of the “Pocahottie” outfit and the continued media throwbacks to that stereotype. What’s the other culturally inappropriate outfit we see at this time? Oh yes… the war bonnet. But you hate that kind of cultural appropriation, right, Taika?

Guess what:

But ok, that was a different crew. Let’s check out Aladdin – similar time (early 90s). That’s the crew that will be working on Moana, so how’d they treat Arab culture in Aladdin? Oh – yeah – hyper sexualised women, Princesses dressed in slave attire (because harem chicks are hot, doncha know?), highly criticized racist undertones, culturally inept references to Allah, and responsible for a multi-billion dollar merchandise market that continues to this day to profit from the perpetuation of cliché, culturally inappropriate stereotypes. (and again, more Jasmine-hottie costumes).

Not looking good huh. So how about Disney’s last sojourn into Te Moananui a Kiwa? Lilo and Stitch (2002) – purporting to support culturally centered notions of “ohana”, and apparently, displaying their cultural sensitivity by using more appropriate and culturally respectful bodyforms.

Yeah… still didn’t do so great – in fact heavily criticised in indigenous reviews for it’s uneven storyline, misinformed cultural tropes, and resplendent with racist, patronizing, and colonial undertones. Not so surprising, and in fact it’s to be expected when asking too much of an inherently racist money-making machine.

But that was 10 years ago, things have changed, right? Wrong. Like I said… Disney still roll out and profit from merchandise from all of those abominations of stories. They continue to profit from the undermining of other cultures and the re-presentation of their stories in a way that disempowers the source and reinforces colonial and western norms. They continue to perpetuate clichéd gender and ethnic stereotypes at their theme parks.In fact, drop by Disneyland today and you’ll get treated to the kind of culturally offensive sensory assault that just might send anyone with the slightest sense of indigenous consciousness into a stroke-induced coma. Doesn’t exactly sing of commitment to indigenous rights and respect, does it.

Looks like your colleagues/contractor still find cultural insensitivity and racism super awesome innocent fun.

They continued, with their most recent film Frozen, to take from indigenous culture (Sámi), and make a cliche mockery of Scandinavian stereotypes, in order to appeal to US audiences and worldviews. The only thing that seems to be developing (sometimes) is the sense of agency and strength of the female protagonist – but scratch under the surface and you’ll see continued gender clichés, a systemic gender imbalance in the production of Disney films, and of course we’ve still YET to see any kind of challenge to the imposed norm of sexual orientation (who wants to put their money on Frozen 2 – Elsa marries Helga).


We already have our own rich storytelling culture, Taika. It doesn’t reposition itself to appeal to the racist humour and privileged wallets of our colonizer (as your chosen colleague has). It doesn’t perpetuate imposed stereotypical norms of gender, culture, or sexual orientation (as your chosen colleague has), or minimalise our kaitieki, or mock our ways (as your chosen colleague has). The story of our voyaging tipuna is not just yours to place into the hands of Disney – it belongs to all of our whanaunga across Te Moananui a Kiwa. It is rich, it is complex, and it is ongoing. The placing of this narrative in the hands of Disney is, at best, cavalier – and at worst a complete sellout. While we continue to promote and demand culturally appropriate platforms and relevant contexts for telling our own stories – the mass-consumptive power of machines such as Disney has the absolute ability to eclipse our voice and position.

I hope, I really hope, that we’re not going to find ourselves dealing with the same fallout experienced by pretty much every other culture Disney has cast their eye over. I hope you will be able to face the myriad of our whanaunga across Te Moananui a Kiwa who you are affecting with this story. I am quite sure the movie will be a sellout. I hope, sincerely, that you have not been.


35 thoughts on “For Whom The Taika Roars (An Open Letter to Taika Waititi)

  1. Tena koe Tina. I think Taika wrote one screenplay then some white fullaz Disney-fied it for this movie… so perhaps the open letter should be to them? Unless you’ve read Taika’s original script and it indeed does all the things you claim above, in which case *tautoko*


    • Tena koe Myra,
      The letter isn’t about the content of the script itself or the end product. It’s about Taika entering into a working relationship with an entity that is far more guilty of cultural appropriation than Trelise, whom he so publicly condemned. It’s also a consideration of the potential effects upon his work, given the track record and a note to point out to Taika that this may have implications for our own (including his) storytelling culture and that of our whanaunga. I’m far more interested in his decision to work for/with these people, (in light of what this means for his stand on cultural appropriation) than addressing his colleagues, who are evidently not responsive or responsible for such issues.


  2. Wow Tina! You have just put into words what many people talk about but never actually articulate (so beautifully) on ‘paper’ regarding cultural misrepresentation on the big screen. I would be keen to share this with my class as we are preparing some persuasive writing and embarking on a myths and legends mini unit. Would that be ok with you Tina?


  3. Hi – all power to your words. I agree, Disney is crap on cultural appropriation. What are your thoughts on The Dead Lands film which borrows heavily from the Western and Samurai film genres? This is all becoming difficult to keep control of cultural identity is it not?


  4. Hika ma!! why is it that when one of us gets slightly recognised and moves up the ranks the rest rip them down. If you have a raruraru get a pen and paper and write your own scripts. We are just lucky we have a voice in there. At the end of the day they will make the film with or without a voice and exactly how they want it. Tukuna to reta kia Disney.


    • We most certainly DO NOT need a voice in Disney. These “ranks” that you refer to – what does this mean? is there an implication here that the maui that Taika has done is moving farther “up” that what a lot of other artists, including myself, have done? Does “ranks” and “moving up” in them mean the job with Disney? is that a signifier of moving up in the “ranks”? Aue! I think its the complete opposite. There are a real group of people who are voyagers of Te Moana Nui a Kiwa who are currently living and breathing the ways of their tipuna. I know that they have caught news of this mahi and they don’t want their stories to be told by something like Disney who colonise, romanticise and dilute the essence and beauty of generations of practice and culture.

      And nemine writing to Disney, its our own people who are being shoulder tapped by them to write these stories FOR them. For them to do what they will. They don’t give a rats about how they represent those stories OR the effect on the people who are real people living. We as Maori can sometimes be so urbanised and/or disconnected that we forget the real effects of maui like this, probably because we just think of our individual selves and have NO whakaaro, about the impacts on others (including ourselves).

      Its hard to read but the bro is part of the system that will enable Disney to do what it does best. That is APPROPRIATE and PERPETUATE. We need to stop taking it up the nono thinking that success is had when these massive company want to engage. Dopey man, seriously dopey.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When I first read about this movie being made, as a director, performer, casting assistant and producer myself, my instincts were that it was not gonna bode well for indigenous storytelling. I completely agree with the letter. We have seen our Maori writers write screenplay’s and then have a person from a different paradigm tell it from their own lens. Often tainted and decontextualised, watered down and romanticised.

    I think the strong point Tina makes is about the direction of the film. It doesn’t matter what the bro writes, in the end his role as writer will be paid for (and its probably a pretty good cheque! but not as good as what the box office will be projected to make!), signed sealed and delivered, then his work is in the hands of another to realise.

    We know as directors that our lens and realisation of the work is what combines with the writing to bring it to life. So how will Ron Clements and John Musker bring this story to life? well, a track record of their work is laid out for us to see, and going by this trajectory it doesn’t bode well at all.

    I agree that Taika has made some good work, I have been part of one of his films as an actor, but we have to be careful that we don’t just idolise the bro (because Im pretty sure he wouldn’t want that) and we look at our own work and questions on our work. Plus the work he has made that were good were written AND directed by him, not just written (Eagle vs Shark, Tama Tu, Boy, What we do in the Shadows are the ones I have seen).

    His success is often marvelled at like he has had “success” in terms of being nominated for an Oscar, but that is based on a value system that’s inherently not always about whakamana of stories. Taika was hard case in that he pretended to be asleep when they called his name and the backlash he got from that was INTERESTING. As if he should be grateful, I mean wha-koff lol. It’s like we have this small country syndrome where anyone bigger than us, like the states, if they have interest in us, then we clap our hands as if that gives us mana, pleeeease.

    Take Whalerider as an example. Its Oscar nomination brought a lot of attention. That film got international accolades but that film also USED the context they were working in being Whangara, and left the community with not much else but a pat on the back for having them there – when that film could have made a contribution to at least helping to fix one of their wharepaku up, oh hang on, they did leave a whale and waka prop as souvenirs! see what I mean?

    The storytelling in that film was from Nikki Caro’s lens, and to my view was very romanticised – as A LOT of our stories are. You see, we as makers of film and theatre don’t know this stuff often as we look at the film as the end product but not the affect on the places and people that film has used. There would have been some good money made and spent on that film but little if none directly affected that community in lasting ways.

    Film’s can go in, and take take take, and get the accolades but not give back, they think that their giving back is by putting that place or people on “the map” – and that is just so arrogant and lazy (I know, I live near there and have heard this from some of the local people).

    The thing is, we are bound as Maori by our tikanga and kawa to manaaki. Its inbuilt to the fabric of who we are as Maori and how we operate, so of course, they are not gonna ask for anything in return, but do their utmost to manaaki. However, when money is involved especially, as film makers we need to be accountable for the way’s we treat the spaces and people we engage in, and not rely on the broken system of the “Maori Advisor” to do that job for us, thats palming off responsibility and ticking a box. Take the time and care to get to know the life of that community, find its key people, before going in and using its obligation to look after you. I’m not sure what engagement this story has had.

    I can say that in my observations being apart of “Boy” that Waihau Bay (where it was shot – and is Taika’s hau kainga) was honoured as Taika’s whanau and extended whanau were very much part of the process (to the point where some were employed to work on the film) and they offered an open set for the locals to come have a jack and stayed at the Marae for kai etc (these were just three ways I saw them integrate the filming process with the community – which was awesome)

    The main point is that Disney is a machine and I don’t have any optimism on the way this film will whakamana our tipuna, like Maui, like Tangaroa, like our tipuna who really did traverse the pacific, without it being romanticised. I can pretty much see it now, some heart felt moments filled with romantisticed musical scores, a character drawn up like she’s a cross between Princess Jasmine or Lilo, and a whole lot of humour around these tipuna of ours but not much depth.

    Our kids will think its amazing and it will add to their sense of story-telling reinforcing the old Disney trademark. Now, this won’t be Taika’s direction this will be Ron and John’s, but it will be made off the bro’s writing. I have heard many examples of this in tv and film where Maori have written screenplays and even these writers are unhappy with how their writing was realised.

    Tina is a voice that is often not heard. I commend her articulation around these questions. We as storytellers and makers hold a set of skills that have the ability to perpetuate attitudes and mindsets. Its why we make i think because we want to see the things in the world that others can’t make because our lens is very unique.

    There is a responsibility in that to look at the CONTEXT in which we work and the SUBJECT matter we are working with, especially when it comes to subjects like Atua that we all whakapapa to, they are not just one persons (one persons vision yes but not owned by them). Also if you are working with Atua and then handing that work over to an American Production beast like Disney. A cocktail that most likely will reinforce the watered down ways the world already looks at indigenous tipuna. We have to be up for these discussions and challenges.

    I think when our people do give him props (which a lot will because we do hold pride as Maori for him and his achievements) they will do so because that’s just our nature. Plus we have mostly grown up “Disney-Ized” and we don’t see anything wrong with that lens, its why we keep feeding the box office to go see those movies. Mostly too, because lots of our people look up to the bro, even if we did feel things we would just whakamana ahakoa te aha a lot of the time.

    It’s a shame we don’t see challenge though, as whakamana (like what Tina is demonstrating). The last point I want to make is that Taika’s work was also held by a network of great people like producer Ainsley Gardner and loads of other cool peeps who often don’t get acknowledged. He pai kei muri, he pai kei mua. Can’t do it without them and the bigger point is that this system is not around “Moana” the film, its a completely different set of PEOPLE and VARIABLES.

    I will be HAPPILY SURPRISED and proven wrong if the film turns out to be something of substance.


  6. Tena koe Tina, I couldn’t agree with you more, but we don’t need to worry about this just happening in Hollywood, it’s happening right here, right now. Take the latest release “Dead Lands” for example, promoted globally as a Maori epic and plastered all over the media as of late. But for those of us thinking this is a “Maori film” just because Maori are in it, know that a Pakeha from the South Island wrote this screenplay, Glem Strandring, and this is his idea of a traditional Maori society, which is now promoted to the world. Here are some other recent scripts of so called “Maori” movies Pakeha have written:

    Whalerider: Niki Caro
    River Qeen: Vincent Ward
    Rain of Children: Vincent Ward
    Tracker: Nicolas van Pallandt (South African)
    White Lies: Dana Rotberg
    The Dark Horse: James Napier Robertson

    Where are the stories of our tupuna? Hone Heke and Kawiti,Te Kooti and the Whakarau, Te Whiti and Tohu, Titokowaru, Rewi Maniapoto, Rawiri Puhirake, etc etc etc? These are true and meaningful stories of our ancestors, why are they not being made? Why are we continuing to allow Pakeha and Tauiwi appropriate our stories and culture and blatantly exploit them for cash profit? As Ngapaki mentioned, Whalerider made a global net profit of $45 million, how many of these millions do you think where invested back into the Maori community from where the very story came? try zero, as for Taika, aue, we desperately need Maori filmmakers not filmmakers that are Maori,for our beliefs and values must be in our films, our language and culture, for our films must be vessels to carry the wairua of our tupuna, just as our stories have always been.


    • If you studied cultural appropriation and intercultural performance practices at university you’d realise some of the errors here.
      Who owns culture? according to sociology, cultures have borrowed and appropriated from one another throughout history.
      Furthermore, this story is about a Polynesian Princess (not Maori). maui is connected to both cultures and has similar representations in Roman, Egyptian, and goodness knows how many other culture’s mythologies.
      Also Whalerider for example was written by a Maori, witi ihimaera, who does give back greatly to his community. He created the story using his talent.

      STOP THE TALL POPPIES!!! If you want money back into the community that apparently made the story then write it yourself! Stop getting your knickers in a know when someone (Maori or otherwise) invests in their talent, develops their craft, and writes a story so good it attracts filmmakers.

      Also who from the community would receive the money and which iwi holds the strongest claim to a narrative? How would the money be dispersed? Think before you make such ridiculous demands.


      • Who owns cuture? Question is old and only asked by positivist. The notion of culture as a lived reality is not understood by the meta descriptor, as they cannot validate what they do not understand. Instead go to the ‘tall poppy’ (rehash of the ‘envy’ of ‘subordinate’ people). Which is all imperialist rhetoric for ‘look indigenous people, we only see you as sub-human, it is our ‘superior’ right to treat you as we wish’. I know, like seriously, in their time on this planet, that’s all they’ve come up with? Well that and Diseny. Oh yes, might wanna rethink the ‘whale rider’ thing, the university of Ngati Porou are definitive in their knowledge, the ‘story’ of Paikea comes from authentic indigenous epistemology. But I’m sure Witi appreciates the compliment.


      • I think they were referring to the script and screenplay being written by Niki Caro. Yes we are definitive in our knowledge and actually… I didn’t see that much definitive Ngati Porou knowledge in Whalerider (the movie or the book). The one thing I loved about Witi’s book was the fact that he wrote from the perspective of a whale with ancestral, collective memory. Stylistically that was whimsical, magical, and beautifully written.

        HOWEVER – the entire premise of a Ngati Porou hapu having issue with a female leader is, of course, errant in the extreme. We simply wouldn’t see a female being born into that role as an issue at all. We wouldn’t have an issue with her holding space on the paepae, we wouldn’t have an issue with her learning taiaha – and of all the iwi that he could have based such a patriarchal storyline on, Ngati Porou is arguably the least appropriate.

        I have enjoyed some of Witi’s writing over the years, and have been quite moved by some of his spoken words as well. But the core premise of that story is misrepresentational. Who’s he writing for? Certainly not Ngati Porou.

        The film misses that ONE aspect that I liked about it – the whale narrative. And like the vast majority of other NZ/Maori films, I watch it and I know it’s written for a Non-Maori audience.


      • Love to see you stand behind your words and come out here to Whangara and say that, a typical ignorant response. Sounds really cerebral with big words but completely ignorant.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Are you seriously saying that the people of Whangara should not have had anything given in return and just be appreciative for what was there? if not, it sounds like your response is doing that. I can see from this response though that it comes from ignorance. Tall Poppies,hhhmm? a term that is very anglo based, we are talking a completely different paradigm here. A paradigm that holds other things as more valuable than the supposed elevation of ones status through writing for someone like Disney. Completely ignorant. Im sure the people who hosted the Whalerider would welcome your comments, but its easy to write that stuff behind a screen.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. As a Maori Woman living in a Maori community in the rural Far North, I eagerly anticipate Moana coming to our screens… So much rubbish out there, so always love it when Disney puts out a new movie. At the end of the day each of us choose to see what we want to see. For me, Disney Movies have always been about happiness, goody beats baddy, wholesome values and good G rated entertainment. And that’s what I aim to see! Enjoy it for what it is-a Disney movie!


      • I love this… the irony of someone being critical of criticism over irony.

        It’s like the blog equivalent of a babushka doll. 😀 Thanks everyone for the awesome feedback!


    • I like to try to think about the impacts that this work has more than just on our own needs for entertainment and escapism. What does this perpetuate for those whose this and these characters are real for them. they are their tipuna and whakapapa, not some blimmin half baked story to spread for a general audience. Im not sure they would see it as “good G rated entertainment”?Aue we need to seriously analyse the ways we watch things and think over things more than just consuming something for ourselves. Thats great for Disney though, another ticket, another lots of money to support their machine. Good one. Meanwhile, a lot of damage is done and set in film indefinitely.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Delete that comment then e hoa lol just though it might been a typo or something.
    Ngā mihi

    Can you CC this to Disney? I think they need to read it.


  9. Here’s the problem I see. Disney is Disney. Everything they make is dumbed-down, and rife with stereotypes and sexism. If they only made movies about white “princesses” (as they did for quite sometime), people would cry racism. When they make movies about other cultures (e.g. the ones you mentioned) people still get upset because they are still being Disney. So really, there doesn’t seem to be a good solution here other than for them to just stop making stupid princess cartoons.


  10. This at its core is an issue of identity and culture, very pertinent questions to contemplate for our future. For I would ask my fellow countrymen what makes us as New Zealanders different from Australians? Do we have a national character which marks us out from all others? If so, what are the essential elements of that character? Such questions are oftentimes a source of unease. Unease because national identity is easily confused with its chauvinistic neighbour, nationalism. Unease because most are wary of national stereotypes. Perhaps, too, Pakeha unease because when push comes to shove much of the world cannot tell us apart from Australians. And so the question remains: what is it exactly to be a New Zealander?


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  14. You SJW morons are a cancer on the ass of society. You’re useful idiots of the central banking oligarchic elite and their cultural Marxist social engineering of the West to weaken and divide it.


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