Taika Waititi (right) with Natalie Portman, at the 92nd Academy Awards.
I am a New Zealander. That's important for context. I can remember seeing Empire Strikes Back on TV at Christmas, with my cousins at my grandparent’s holiday home in the city of Taupo, when I was nine-years-old. I’d never seen anything related to Star Wars prior to that day, and it was a revelation, not just in film, but in pop culture iconography. I recognized those green puppet ears of Yoda and Darth Vader’s shiny black helmet – not to mention the harsh, shallow breathing of his mask – from various images and references and jokes I’d absorbed throughout my childhood. But until I saw that film, until I saw Vader stare out the window of the Star Destroyer or heard Frank Oz’s now legendary “mmm,” I had zero context for those legendary elements, elements we now take for granted. Even someone who has never seen a single piece of Star Wars media knows Darth Vader. It is a worldwide phenomenon.
The iconic Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980).
For New Zealanders, our own sense of pop culture (or “kiwiana”) is a little more limited. Four Square supermarkets. Tramping through the bush in gumboots. The All-Blacks rugby team (I’m by no means a sports fan). Canterbury brand clothing and pineapple lump chocolates. Your first trip to the local marae – a complex of buildings belonging to a particular Māori iwi (tribe). We take pride in the little things, the small bits and pieces that make New Zealand what it is. Seeing ourselves on screen is almost never complete without understanding our cultural and pop heritage.
And while Taika is not the first New Zealand filmmaker to depict New Zealand – see Geoff Murphy (Goodbye Pork Pie), Niki Caro (Whale Rider), and the early films of Sir Peter Jackson (Braindead, Bad Taste, Heavenly Creatures) – Taika understands more than anything the nature of how the rest of the world sees New Zealand. Prior to all the hobbits, we were that forgotten speck south-east of Australia, left off world maps in movies and occasionally admired for sporting or adventurous achievements. Then, we became Middle-Earth, and our entire identity was dominated by it. Other New Zealand filmmakers, like Martin Campbell, seemed to want to avoid any connection to their home at all in their work, and smaller, non-Rings projects never seemed to gain much traction.
James Rolleston in the titular role of Boy (dir. Taika Waititi, 2010).
History became legend, legend became myth. And for about seven years, we had next to nothing but fantasy… Then came 2010, and Boy, Taika’s second film (as seen in the above picture), exploded onto New Zealand screens, breaking local box office records. And at its heart, we connected with what we saw in that film, because it was us. Taika understands iconography better than almost anyone in my eyes. He knows that every kid in the eighties wished his dad was Michael Jackson, and pretended driftwood on the beach were WWII rifles, and hoped their problems could all be solved with hidden treasure, but Taika infuses every scene with Kiwi iconography and style, down to little cultural moments such as washing your hands when exiting a graveyard or finishing a carving by placing the eyes last, or the Fruju brand ice-blocks the kids wish they could afford. Boy, in particular, shows just how important these icons are to characters who have little else in their lives, and must make up the difference through their imaginative interactions with the world around them.
This continues wholeheartedly through all his films, even as he has grown beyond films set in New Zealand – the humour derived from the coffins and clothing of the vampires in What We Do in The Shadows, the sheer ridiculousness of the climactic police chase in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the heartbreaking red shoes in Jojo Rabbit. Every shot in Thor: Ragnarok understands that it owes its existence to the iconography of artists like Jack Kirby, and Taika uses this to his advantage constantly. His background as a painter means this is no surprise: he is inherently a visual person, yet never skimps on the power and meaning of these symbols. He doesn’t simply throw them in for good measure, but uses them to build the story visually in subtle yet emotionally resonant ways.
And for a kid living in that speck at the bottom of the world, it’s pretty damn cool to see him take the world by storm the way he has – and that’s coming from a middle-class white guy in university. I can only imagine how important his voice is to the indigenous kids he so powerfully dedicated his Oscar win too - Taika is half-Māori, half-Jewish. Because of him, the iconography associated with New Zealand isn’t hobbits or magic rings anymore – his drive to display our people and places and wilderness and food and culture and heritage mean that New Zealand is its own icon.
Taika Waititi and Mark Ruffalo share a hongi, a traditional Māori greeting, at the 92nd Oscars.
And I truly believe that he can do the same for Star Wars. He knows as well as anyone that seeing Darth Vader for the first time in A New Hope has an iconic impact, just as much as any other iconic Star Wars moment, fueled by the filmmaker's skill with understanding the power of imagery. I have faith in Taika’s respect and understanding of those symbols, those icons, and I’m pretty confident the rest of us down here feels the same.
This is Taika’s world, and we’re just living in it.