Chelsea Winstanley on producing mana enhancing films and redefining success

Chelsea Winstanley won the NZ Film and Television Mana Wāhine Award in 2015. Seven years on, every project this wahine Māori film-maker touches is mana enhancing, Angela Barnett discovers.

When you google pictures of Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāi Te Rangi) you are bombarded with images of Hollywood! Glam! Red carpets! The Oscars! Frocks! Celebs! And those walls with logos all over them that only A-listers get asked to stand in front of.

But it’s just a moment in time, according to this talented film-maker.

Winstanley’s hope for indigenous storytelling, and all storytelling is that “there will be nothing about us without us”.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Winstanley’s hope for indigenous storytelling, and all storytelling is that “there will be nothing about us without us”.

Yes, the 46-year-old lived and worked in Los Angeles for a while. Yes, the producer and director was nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Oscars for Jojo Rabbit (although more importantly, was the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award).

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Yes, this wahine who grew up in Mount Maunganui, won the Grand Prix Jury Prize at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival for the anthology Waru, alongside eight other talented wāhine Māori film-makers.

Yes, the mother of three, has worked with Disney creating te reo Māori versions of Moana and is now set to release Lion King and Frozen. And yes, she’s worn designer frocks by Kiri Nathan and others.

“But,” she says, dressed in a singlet ready for yoga, at her home in Tāmaki Makaurau, “The thing about Hollywood and even the Oscars is, it’s a business, and when you understand that you understand the culture and the film industry at large. It is not reflective of reality, and it helps to understand how fabricated it can be”.

Winstanley was the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Winstanley was the first indigenous woman to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award

I’m talking to Winstanley over Zoom in her home office. Just as our kōrero begins, her youngest daughter Matewa struts in, in cowboy boots with a pink glittery heel and a smile that would melt ice cream; the colourful life of a mother.

Changing the game

When Winstanley first started out as a film-maker, after graduating top of her class at AUT, she thought she would only direct documentaries.

“All I wanted to do was get behind the camera and make the thing. I love capturing stories. Watching Mereta’s [Mita] films like Bastion Point and Patu! I thought, ‘that’s what I wanted to be!’ But during my first job at Kiwa [Productions], I fell into producing because one of the producers left to have a baby. Sometimes I’ve wrestled with it, thinking, damn, I missed out on my director trajectory, but I’m at peace with that now because producing helps me understand how to be a better director.”

One of her recent producing coups was getting the film, Merata: How Mum Decolonised The Screen, about the mighty Merata Mita – a film-maker every Kiwi should celebrate – onto Netflix. The film is directed by Merata’s son, Hepi Mita, and produced by Winstanley alongside Cliff Curtis and Te Arepa Kahi.

“As a producer, I was thinking ‘what’s the best thing I could do to make sure Hepi’s mum’s story never gets buried’. I had heard of [film-maker] Ava DuVernay. She started her career as a publicist and when she started making films as a director, no-one would distribute her. She’s a black woman. So she started distributing them herself – and now she’s this powerhouse, who supports women, people of colour, minorities, all denominations. She was the only person I could see who would take care of this film, I knew I had to get a screener to her.”

Winstanley’s latest film, Night Raiders, is a celebration of indigenous culture and film-making.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Winstanley’s latest film, Night Raiders, is a celebration of indigenous culture and film-making.

Merata Mita was a mentor to Winstanley and taught her the importance of story sovereignty – controlling the story from script to screen – and Winstanley was able to announce DuVernay’s distribution at Sundance in 2019.

“As a producer, despite the success of JoJo Rabbit, I would say that moment thus far in my producing career would be the highlight. I have hope when I see people like Ava changing the game for women to participate in the whole process of film-making.”

‘For me, that’s freedom’

There’s been lots of recognition for Winstanley’s films, receiving gongs for many projects including What We Do In The Shadows, Jojo Rabbit, Waru, Meathead, and Night Shift. But perceived success, like Hollywood images and the Oscars, only shows the shiny parts.

She’s also had her share of curveballs thrown her way. She’s talked openly about childhood trauma: abuse and her parents separating when she was 7. Being a young solo mother at 23, and attending university full time, only to suffer a horrific car accident that left her unable to walk for six months.

She lost her mentor, Merata, who collapsed right outside Māori Television when they were working on a film together Saving Grace, Te Whakarauora Tangata and Winstanley had to complete it without her. “It wasn’t my story to finish,” she says. Yet her outlook is as fresh and grounded as her storytelling.

Winstanley wears a Kiri Nathan pounamu by Jason Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua).

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Winstanley wears a Kiri Nathan pounamu by Jason Nathan (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua).

“Only recently I’ve learned to look at these things in life as soul-progressing lessons. When I was younger, I thought what the hell! Because you’re trapped in the trauma. You don’t understand these things are about helping you grow to become the better version of yourself. Now, I put myself in the present, it’s about what I have. For me, that’s freedom. Freedom from my own thoughts about not being adequate enough, freedom about having my own choices on love, or freedom to pursue whatever dream I want without being afraid that I won’t be good enough to achieve it. I’ve done a lot of work on forgiveness and when I think about those curveballs, I acknowledge the choices I’ve made to put myself in those moments.

“I’m accepting of what I have chosen in life. It’s easy to go for the victim angle ‘why did that happen to me’ but I put myself in that situation, so what did I learn? Now I think, ‘thank you for all of it because it’s enabled me to fulfil my true purpose and love myself even further’ but more than that, ‘Thank you, because I will never put myself in harm’s way again’. I often think about the choices we make as women, sometimes getting into situations either out of fear or out of not believing we deserve more, and we’re accepting of behaviour we wouldn’t give ourselves. Right now, hand on heart, I’m the happiest version of myself I’ve ever been. Because I’ve been working on freedom and forgiveness.”

‘Nothing about us without us’

After various classes learning te reo Māori – night lessons at AUT and a weekly course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa – Winstanley’s started full immersion rūmaki reo this year. “I think this is the tipping point. I’m starting to feel te reo Māori in a different way, it is full time and the tikanga (culture) goes side by side, you can’t have one without the other.”

“I truly believe this country could be wonderful if te ao Māori [a Māori worldview], was front and centre. As people living in Aotearoa, we need to get our heads around the fact that there’s a wealth of knowledge already here and it is beautiful, people around the world could gain a lot from indigenous cultures.”

Her latest film, Night Raiders, is a celebration of indigenous culture and film-making. Winstanley has produced the Canadian/New Zealand co-production alongside other Māori producers Ainsley Gardiner and executive producer (and Winstanley’s former husband) Taika Waititi, while Saskatchewan-born Danis Goulet, who is Cree-Métis [Indigenous Canadian] directs.

The sci-fi thriller is set in 2043 where children are property of the state in post-war North America. There’s also a deadly virus. “The craziest thing is, Danis made this film before the pandemic and before all those cases of the residential schools had come out in Canada,” she says.

In 2021, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at the site of a former school in British Columbia. More than 1300 graves have been found across Canada. The state-sponsored school system was aimed at eradicating languages and culture of the Indigenous populations.

Goulet takes terrible suffering from the past, the taking of children from their families and culture, and weaves it into a not-so-distant dystopian future. And the main Cree character, Niska, has rare and much-needed skills to live off the land and thrive.

“One of the things I love about what Danis shows in the film,” says Winstanley, “in terms of colonisation, is that indigenous people were not meant to survive. They were meant to be annihilated. And we’re still here, and we will be in the future. And guess what? You’ll be needing us more than we need you!”

Being on set was a moving experience, says Winstanley. “It was beautiful seeing the synergy of our cultures. When we were filming the residential school scenes, because it was such an intense subject matter, with all that mamae [hurt] they had a smudging ceremony before we started that block of filming. It allowed everyone on set to acknowledge the gravitas of what was about to be reimagined.”

Her hope for indigenous storytelling, and all storytelling is that “there will be nothing about us without us”.

Gail Maurice as Ida in Night Raiders.

Night Raiders East Inc

Gail Maurice as Ida in Night Raiders.

Winstanley’s now part of the Producers Branch of the Academy (Oscars) plus the recently formed Indigenous Alliance Group.

“We had our first meeting recently and Danis was talking about the path to the Oscars and how much representation matters, when there are only a few indigenous Academy voting members your view or choices can easily be drowned out by the majority of non-indigenous voices who have never had a relationship to an indigenous story because the history of cinema has traditionally left us out, or told stories about us rather than with us. Often that representation is wrong or romanticised, or worse still, made palatable and so when members see something that is a truthful representation they don’t know how to respond. It’s important we engage with the voting membership more than ever.”

If success is being able to find the path to tell the stories you care about in a way that respects all those involved, then Winstanley is a success. And even though she’s got them, she doesn’t need shiny awards to prove it.

Night Raiders is in cinemas Thursday March 24th.

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