I first encountered Taika Waititi’s unique brand of feel-good film when I watched his 'Thor: Ragnarok' (2018) as a seventeen-year-old Marvel superfan. What I didn’t realise when I was laughing at Waititi as the scene-stealing Korg was that he was also the film’s director. Intrigued by his style of direction, I investigated further and now, having used my time in lockdown to watch his filmography, it’s safe to say that I’m a die-hard Waititi fan. His fresh take on the coming-age-film and his focus on Indigenous experiences have amassed him a growing fanbase beyond his native New Zealand, but it feels like his star is still rising.

Film journalists like to dub every up-and-coming filmmaker whose films show even a shred of promise as “a new voice of their generation!”, and usually, it’s unfounded. With Waititi, however, the praise is apt. In today’s film industry, Waititi’s style truly is unique. His works are imbued with a perfect balance of tragedy and comedy, but also often edge on being social commentaries. Waititi subtly tackles serious subjects such as poverty, crime, loss and loneliness through a comedic lens. His films always make you feel good, but they always leave you profoundly moved, too - rare, in an industry where genre-defying films remain scarce. Part of the emotional pull of Waititi’s films is his recurring focus on socially outcast boys coming of age and father-son relationships, and their impact on both the boys and the father figures. This also provides a prism through which audiences can view healthy male relationships, refreshingly devoid of the toxic masculinity which often pervades father-son relationships in many Hollywood films.

Additionally, Waititi’s fixation on coming-of-age stories gives his films a playful, childlike quality, invoking a sense of nostalgia for our childhoods, even when his films are not explicitly about childhood – such as his first feature length film, ’Eagle vs. Shark’ (2007). The painful awkwardness which characterises Waititi’s main characters, irrespective of age, reminds us of how awkward it is just to be human, and how we seldom leave that awkwardness behind in our adolescence. For Waititi, it is this awkwardness that enhances the complexity of the human condition – but it also brings about some of the most memorable comedic moments in 21st century cinema. The “Happy Birthday Ricky Baker” song (’Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, 2016) will forever be etched into the memory of thousands. Perhaps Waititi is suggesting, even in a blockbuster like ’Thor: Ragnarok,’ that the process of coming of age never truly ends; it simply evolves as we do.

The most significant achievement which has characterised Waititi’s career so far, however, is his focus on Indigenous experiences on screen. His portrayals of the experiences of Maori people has been a huge step in diversifying New Zealand’s predominantly white film industry, in which Waititi has now become the premier filmmaker. In a country where 16.5% of its population identified as Maori, there was a dearth of films reflecting Maori experiences. With his success, Waititi – a Maori-Jewish man – has started to change this significantly.

“he just doesn’t make being Maori the defining trait of his characters, and this normalisation in itself remains a great achievement.”

In the majority of his films, Waititi has placed Maori characters at the forefront. The most famous example is 2010’s ’Boy’ – the highest grossing domestic film in New Zealand box office history. Waititi’s Maori characters are at the forefront of his narratives, but their Maori identities don’t stop them from also being presented as typical New Zealanders; any exoticisation which characterises the Maori as “others” is avoided as their experiences are portrayed in a way typical to any other coming-of-age film. In ’Boy,’ the titular Boy is just another socially-awkward teenage boy trying to impress girls and bond with his father, while in ’Hunt for the Wilderpeople,’ Ricky Baker is your typical teenage tearaway. The significance of this normalisation of the experiences of Maori communities cannot be underestimated; historically, Indigenous peoples have been consistently misrepresented (if they are indeed represented at all) in the film industry. In the archetypal Westerns, Native Americans appear almost exclusively as the enemy to the white, Western settlers. Waititi instead offers a far more human portrait of Indigenous people.

Nevertheless, Waititi is no Ken Loach. His films are still only casual social commentaries. The characters’ Maori identities are only basic facts of their existence, and they do not seem to actively struggle explicitly with their ethnic identities. That is not to say that life for Maori people is as easy as it is for white New Zealanders: they face significantly higher rates of poverty, crime, unemployment and poor health due to severe structural inequalities. However, Waititi hints at this in a matter-of-fact way. In ’Boy,’ for example, the audience only glimpses these struggles through Boy’s dilapidated, run-down small town. Waititi does not erase the socio-economic struggles of the Maori people; he just doesn’t make being Maori the defining trait of his characters, and this normalisation in itself remains a great achievement.


Mountain View

I May Destroy You and its original take on the time-loop trope

As the first Maori man to win an Academy Award and the director of the upcoming ’Thor: Love and Thunder,’ Waititi has moved into the mainstream. In shifting his focus away from New Zealand films, he has also started to look away from the Maori-driven films which characterised his earlier career, so it would be easy to worry that his previous success in diversifying the New Zealand film industry will diminish.

However, if Waititi’s future projects are anything to go by, he is still staying true to his dedication to tell as many Maori stories as possible; among his upcoming projects is a film adaption of the 2018 novel ’The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke,’ based on Maori chief Hemi Pomara. With a total of eight upcoming projects, the future looks busy for Waititi as he becomes one of Hollywood’s most in-demand filmmakers, but with his dynamic, distinct style and commitment to Indigenous narratives, his rise to filmmaker stardom can only be a good thing.