The challenges of being a wahine Māori storyteller

Filmmaker Hanelle Harris is changing the way for Māori and Pasifika creatives with her new television show ‘Sis’ soon to debut on Comedy Central. Although successful, Harris says she has faced systematic racism throughout her career and has had to fight twice as hard as non-Māori filmmakers to gain her recognition.

During an online conversation ‘Flip the Script’, with acclaimed Kiwi actress Jennifer – Te Atamira Ward Lealand, Harris candidly discussed her career and her upcoming show, as well as the struggles she has faced within the film industry. The discussion was produced by Narrative Muse, a website connecting users with personalised recommendations of books and films written and directed by women and non-binary storytellers.

“Our industry is systematically racist. As a Māori female director, I have to create these opportunities. There’s a tokenistic box-ticking culture that goes on in our industry and as Polynesian practitioners, we are very exhausted,” says Harris.

“People assume because my work does so well, I have people banging on my door wanting to work with me. That’s not the case at all. I feel I have to be extraordinary and do these big things with my mahi in order to get the recognition that some mediocre non-Māori will be given on a platter.”

Harris first entered the industry as an actress, however, felt obliged to become a writer or director as the roles she was offered as a Māori actress lacked depth and substance.

“When I came out of drama school, I was 22 and I was already a mother. The roles that I was going for, the characters did not have the same lived experiences as I did. They weren’t as well rounded and they perpetuated a lot of stereotypes. The reason why a lot of Māori characters are written so thinly is that they are never written from the lens of Māori.”

The first success for the Ngāpuhi filmmaker came from her original web series Baby Mama’s Club, which won an award and was picked up by TVNZ OnDemand. The series featured a cast of four Māori and Pasifika women in lead roles, as Harris wanted to provide work for herself and her friends, who were also young actresses with children.

“We are proud to be mums. The perception outwardly to society is that we’ve made a mistake and we had all of these negative connotations.”

Created as a spin-off to Baby Mama’s Club, Harris’ new comedy Sis, also features a cast of Pacific women, which Harris co-produced, co-directed and co-wrote alongside a group of young Pacific talent. The show is based on a group of young Polynesian writers who have to create a comedy show, however are burdened with a white male racist as a head-writer.

Hesitant her show wouldn’t appeal to Comedy Central and Sky TV, Harris was soon optimistic when she walked into a boardroom by four top Polynesian female executives.

“They were like four proud aunties and had their big smiles on their faces when we were pitching. We’re incredibly grateful because Comedy Central is the pinnacle of comedy internationally.”

Harris says herself and her team has a positive experience creating Sis and working alongside one of the most successful television networks in the world.

“They supported us as storytellers. We didn’t have to compromise our mana (integrity). They took us for who we were and what we were offering. That’s what the engagement between indigenous, Pasifika and Pākehā should look like. You give us the resources, the money and the platform and we will tell our stories our way.”

Sis premiers on Wednesday 22 July at 8:30pm on Comedy Central.

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