In New Zealand cinemas, there has been sobbing.

The drama Cousins, about three Maori girls separated as children, has struck a chord with viewers, especially those who grew up reading the emotional novel on which it’s based, by celebrated Kiwi writer Patricia Grace.

“Even in films like Once Were Warriors or Whale Rider, we’re in those stories but they’re not necessarily told from our perspectives”: Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith who co-directed Cousins. Credit:Louie Douvis

“Some of them were connecting really strongly to the experience of family being taken,” writer, co-director and actor Briar Grace-Smith, the author’s former daughter-in-law, says. “Other people were just connecting to the whole idea of dislocation or missing family.”

The film centres on the story of three cousins: orphaned Mata, cheeky but dutiful Missy and ambitious Makareta, from childhood after World War II to now.

They are played at different ages by nine actors including Rachel House (Penguin Bloom), Ana Scotney (The Breaker Upperers) and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Hunt For The Wilderpeople).

Three young cousins who are separated in the New Zealand film Cousins.Credit:Vendetta Films

But a film that covers key moments in Maori history – a battalion in the war, children being taken into care, arranged marriages, the land march to protest at the alienation of land in 1975 – took more than two decades to get into production.

The late Merata Mita (Mauri) and Gaylene Preston (Perfect Strangers) both tried unsuccessfully to get it made.

“There were just a lot of cultural and political barriers at the time,” co-director Ainsley Gardiner says. “It’s a colonisation story about the things in our culture that have been lost – that’s land, that’s language, that’s culture.”

The two directors say New Zealand’s thriving film industry has largely shut out films by Maori women.

“Even in films like Once Were Warriors or Whale Rider, we’re in those stories but they’re not necessarily told from our perspectives,” Gardiner says.

That started to change when nine Maori women directedWaru, an anthology film about how the death of an abused child affects a community, in 2017.

Now two of those directors, Gardiner and Grace-Smith, have struck out on their own to make Cousins. And they had 90 per cent of more than 70 speaking roles played by Maori girls and women.

“Funding bodies in the film industry are becoming more open to different types of storytelling,” Gardiner says. “Since the MeToo movement, there’s been a push by government agencies and society in general to shift some of those dynamics.”

Rachel House in Cousins.Credit:Vendetta Films

As well as support from a network of Indigenous filmmakers in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, the directors were mentored by revered director Jane Campion, right up to the last possible moment.

“She gave us some feedback as we were in the car, driving away from the lock [of the edit] on the very last day to the airport,” Grace-Smith says. “We had to ring the post-production house and say ‘wait a sec, guys’.”

The two directors are hoping the closeness between the countries encouraged by the Trans-Tasman bubble will draw Australian audiences to Cousins.

“What COVID has given us is a real desire for connection,” Gardiner says. “Politics and culture aside, it’s essentially a story about connection to land, connection to one another and the desire to be connected. Thematically, it’s a nurturing film.”

Cousins is in cinemas now

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