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COUSINS

(Cousins, from New Zealand directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith, is streaming now on Netflix. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

European colonial rule left a legacy of white supremacy, subjugation, genocide and more, no matter where its obliterating force spread. There may be many among the descendants of imperialists who regret the crimes committed by their forebears, but a quick survey of current trends in America reveals the growing conservative pushback to any examination of historical sins. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Repetition and replication are deeply human traits, however. Fortunately, there are those who document our yesterday, making sure that today we can’t forget.

Which brings us to Cousins, from New Zealand directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith (both of whom directed segments of the 2017 Waru, an anthology film), based on Patricia Grace’s eponymous 1992 novel. In it, we meet a trio of the titular relatives, all Maori women, whose destinies are affected in different ways by the dominant white culture. One grows up to be a leader of her people, another becomes a successful lawyer (despite the odds), and the third has her identity stripped and her life ruined. It’s a moving tale, if often a sad one.

We begin with a brief prologue of the cousins as girls in the 1940s, before jumping to the present, all of them now in their seventies. They are Makareta, Mata, and Missy, and it’s Mata’s whose fate is the bleakest. It’s to her we cut to first; she’s homeless, lost in a longstanding confusion brought about by her long-ago time as a ward of the state. Over the course of the movie’s 98 minutes, we travel seamlessly back and forth in time, three different actresses playing each of the main characters as children, teens/young women, and their old selves. Though Makareta and Missy have their burdens, too, it’s Mata’s story that anchors the narrative.

The child of an English father and a Maori mother, Mata is given over to a Christian orphanage when dad decamps for home. Later, Mata’s family will come looking for her and invite her for a summer visit, but the way New Zealand’s laws are written, there is nothing anyone can do on a permanent basis. And so the impressionable Mata is raised by white women who treat her no better than a servant, internalizing their pious lessons. Meanwhile, Makareta is being groomed to be the next, great Maori, leader, with Missy but a handmaiden. It’s all part of a strategy to keep ancestral lands away from European settlers. Even these plans will be upended, though not necessarily for the worst.

Though the film gives shorter shrift to Makareta and Missy’s stories than to Mata’s (it should almost be called Mata’s Cousins, or some variant thereof), it still lends enough focus to the larger breadth and depth of the 20th-century Maori experience to emerge as a profound testament to resilience and survival. Filled with beautiful images of landscapes and faces (powerful terrains unto themselves), the film offers a striking experience for the eyes and mind, both. The performances, especially Ana Scotney and Tanea Heke as teen/adult and elderly Mata (Briar Grace Smith, herself, plays the older Makareta), perfectly complement the excellent technical elements. The cousins may suffer, but Cousins does them justice.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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