Remembering Barry Barclay
Barclay was probably best-known as the first Maori to direct a feature film. Made in the mid-80s, a time when industry was closing down all over the Kiwi heartland, Ngati explored the lives of a small East Coast community threatened with the loss of its freezing works. The film's rather sentimental conclusion sees the works being saved, after the suits sit down with the workers and a deal is reached. If only, Barry.
I will remember Barclay for The Feathers of Peace, the docudrama he made in the late '90s about the history of the Moriori, the tchkakat henu (indigenous people) of the Chatham Islands. Barclay based his movie on Michael King's Moriori: a People Rediscovered, but he replaced King's careful linear narrative with a series of frightening and exhilerating leaps backwards and forwards through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Like Peter Watkins' 1974 classic Culloden, The Feathers of Peace re-enacts rather than describes the events of the past. Barclay presents the 1835 Ngati Tama-Ngati Mutunga conquest of the Chathams, in particular, as a sort of breaking news story. His characters - venereal sealers, invading Maori, enslaved Moriori, cynical English administrators - speak directly to the camera. They are interrogated, but they also interrogate us, undermining our assumptions about New Zealand history by revealing the past in its brutal otherness. The more we understand them, the less able we are to subject them to glib generalisations.
In one scene, a Ngati Tama invader takes a break from killing Moriori to talk to the camera. He acknowledges that the pacifist Moriori have offered no resistance, but justifies his actions by citing the twenty years of fighting that his iwi has experienced in the Musket Wars that began shortly after Maori contact with Europeans. We come to understand that the Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga have themselves experienced something of the ferocity that they are visiting upon the Moriori. They are displaced peoples, as much as invaders. In forty years, after the defeat of armed Maori resistance to British colonisation, both iwi will adopt the pacifist beliefs of Te Whiti - beliefs which resonate in important ways with the Moriori doctrine they had mocked. Barclay's own commentary ties the movie together without reducing it to a morality tale. His voice does not drown out the korero of his subjects.
In the 1990s, when the very existence of Moriori was a topic of hot debate amongst Maori as well as Pakeha, and some Ngati Mutunga on the Chathams were vigorously denying their own history, The Feathers of Peace was a triumph of passionate but utterly unsentimental film-making. The method of The Feathers of Peace is as important as its message. With its mixture of documentary and drama, historical fact and fictional detail, cool-handed analysis and poetic metaphor, the film ought to inspire writers as well as movie-makers.