A Maori Tale of Coming Out

Kawa, the second book by author Witi Ihimaera that has been brought to the screen, is now out on DVD. Ihimaera has been internationally acclaimed for his bestselling book Whale Rider and the hit film based upon it.

“My greatest inspiration has been the stories of men and women struggling with difference and trying to change the world,” Ihimaera says. “Some of those people died — and are still dying — for what they believed and believe in.”

“My greatest triumph has been to write about Maori people and gay people in New Zealand — by far the most put-down minorities in my country — so that both our stories are heard.”

As the film opens, Kawariki appears to have everything. He’s a successful businessman of Maori descent living in Auckland, New Zealand, moving as easily within Maori circles as he does in the more westernized Pakeha society. He has a stunningly beautiful wife, Annabelle (Belle, for short); a rambunctious 16-year-old son; and a precocious 7-year-old daughter. He adores them all, and they, in turn, practically idolize him. They live in an elegant house, and everything comes across as perfect in their exotic and supremely picturesque world.

After all, this is a man who was brought up with strong sense of duty to be leader of his whanau (the Maori term for family), as well as his community. But appearances can be deceiving. Kawa has a deep and tightly kept secret — one that has compelled him to move out of their home, leaving Belle desperately bewildered. Instead of communicating, though, her husband attempts to compartmentalize his life, clinging to the vain hope that he can continue doing so despite the havoc this duplicity threatens to wreak.

However, on the weekend that his elderly father is to step down, in accordance with their tribal traditions, and name him as the new head of their clan, his seemingly balanced existence becomes desperately complicated. The fact is that Kawa is gay, and his lover, a devoted but impetuous actor named Chris, is no longer willing to keep their relationship a secret. Having led a double life for so long, Kawa balks at revealing his true sexuality to his wife, kids, and conservative parents.

The film is adapted from Ihimaera’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, and the book’s title is derived from a comment one character makes: “All of the nights in the ‘Gardens of Spain’ and we’ve never been introduced,” using the term as a euphemism for all the steam rooms, bathhouses, back-room bars and alleyways that are often so much a part of a closeted man’s shadowy world. At its heart, this is the novelist’s genuine coming-out experience — or pretty close to it.

“Kawa is based on my own story of being a gay husband and father leaving his family and children because he has fallen in love with a young man,” Ihimaera says. “The warrior culture that I belong to could never condone anything that is less than masculine and, as a consequence, Maori gay men have been subjected to violence. Man is at the top, women are lower and, well, Maori gay men are the lowest of the low!”

First-time director Katie Wolfe allows the action to unfold naturally, in a leisurely way, bringing a subliminal feeling of normalcy to the most tumultuous events. With numerous wide shots of sumptuously photographed billowing clouds, sunsets, lush green vistas, and sparkling azure oceans, sandwiched between snippets of the modern Maori’s world, we’re given a first-class production that visually borders on hypnotic. Similarly, as with the original narrative, Kate McDermott’s screenplay doesn’t at all apologize for itself — these are tough situations with tough consequences. No longer able to reconcile the way he’s been living, Kawa must make a choice, and innocent people are going to be hurt — but most especially Kawa himself will be hurt, regardless of how he proceeds.

“I made a mistake — I chose the wrong life,” he guilelessly confesses to his wife at one point.

Yet among the key elements that make this film so rare and remarkable is that, yes, it is definitely, fittingly and unapologetically pro-gay, but not at the expense or belittlement of anyone else’s viewpoint. In particular, it treats the beliefs of the Maori people with terrific respect even as it asserts the validity of its own position.

In the central role, Calvin Tuteao gives an award-worthy performance, presenting a handsome, mature, thoroughly likable and identifiable everyman. If he’s straddling several worlds (whether culturally or sexually), it certainly doesn’t show … at first. Then again, quite often the calmest smiles have been known to conceal the most complex emotions, and this is the case with Kawa.

Kawa ultimately parts with his wife to be with Chris, but their match, alas, is bittersweet. Nonetheless, as his would-be partner, Dean O’Gorman’s motivations are clear and on some level, rational. He’s involved with someone who insists on keeping their relationship (and him) under wraps. As it’s played out, following the guy he loves is not really the act of malice or neediness that it might be coming from a lesser talent in an inferior movie; more accurately, it’s a misguided hope for resolution that simply can’t occur.

Nathalie Boltt, too, is spot-on, as Kawa’s wife, Belle, a woman placed in the middle of near-overwhelming circumstances. Although she’s nobody’s victim, neither is she anyone’s villain. Rather, she’s a figure worthy of empathy, who ostensibly had everything, only to have it taken away for reasons entirely beyond her control.

Likewise, veteran actor George Henare portrays Kawa’s father, Hamiora, as well-rounded and believable. He loves his son, but is beleaguered by such a revelation, and the shocking awareness that nothing is as he thought it was or ever will be resounds in his every glance.

Successfully rounding out this “generational portrait” is Pana Hema-Taylor as Kawa’s strapping (if slightly headstrong) son, Sebastian. Here’s a lad searching for guidance, but like his father, he has grown up surrounded by deeply rooted customs that may not always conform with our increasingly puzzling and transitory world.

In the end, there are no absolute rights or wrongs. To its noteworthy credit, Kawa doesn’t go for easy answers. In this piece of “art,” as in life, some are wounded — but they also maintain the ability to heal, and grow, and face (or at least strive for) better days. As shown in the final reel, the story happily notes above all that things are changing. That’s why at its conclusion, a refreshing balance is struck between realism and idealism that is rare in many LGBT offerings these days.

“Over the years, many Maori gay men have become their own gay ‘tribe’ and, supporting each other, have begun to change attitudes within our community,” Ihimaera stresses, then divulges: “I was the chairman of the first gay Maori and Polynesian men’s group in Auckland. So these days you can be gay and a warrior, too!”

An utterly outstanding release, Kawa is available on DVD through Wolfe Video. For more information or to order online, go to: www.wolfevideo.com .

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