Ainsley Gardiner is in a state of Te Kore. Having first broken through in the New Zealand film industry in her twenties with her creative collaborator Taika Waititi, Gardiner has casually racked up an Oscar nomination, producer credits on some of Aotearoa’s most critically and commercial successful films, and cemented herself as one of the most vital voices for First Nations filmmaking globally. In between that, she raised a few kids, raised a film company, and raised herself into the role of director first with Waru (2017) and now Cousins. Suffice to say, that’s a lot, and Gardiner is relishing a breather. “After Cousins, I started to learn that the rest period is so essential,” she says. “In order to be full of potency for the creative spark to ignite, you need a significant period of just inertia and absolute nothingness. One of my colleagues described it to me as Te Kore, which in our genesis story and our mythologies Te Kore is the nothing, but it’s also the nothing from which everything emerges. It’s the place of ultimate potential. At the end of the creative cycle, for me it usually manifests in massive depression and you sort of can’t see yourself doing anything else ever again... This time around, I just really love being in this place, being molecularly dissembled. You actually don’t know who you’re going to be when you come back together and you don’t know what’s going to ignite you and what’s going to drive you creatively. I think COVID was all part of that, recognising that rest was essential not just to well-being, but to creative potential.”
Of course, Gardiner’s version of ‘rest’ doesn’t reflect what most would consider the norm. In between finishing post-production on Cousins, and the distribution push, there was the widely successful theatrical release in New Zealand in March, which included not just traditional cinemas but screenings at marae and tribal homes for many of the key cast and crew. Now, the press and marketing cycle as Cousins expands further into Australian cinemas this month and international territories. Throw in a recent relocation to Auckland and for someone with as many plates spinning as Gardiner, it’s as close to “proper down time” as she’ll get. “I feel like a year’s downtime would be amazing,” she laughs. “It’s just resources too, right? We don’t earn enough to allow that.” Some of Gardiner’s first experiences with storytelling involved black and white foreign films that she couldn’t fully grasp at age four, but knew she was instantly obsessed with as she immersed herself in someone else’s story world. Mentored by seminal Māori filmmakers like Merata Mita – of whom Cousins is partially dedicated to – and Larry Parr, her big break was back-to-back producer roles on feature Kombi Nation and short film Two Cars, One Night, both in 2003. The latter was by a then relatively unknown Taika Waititi, with the process not just creatively rewarding for Gardiner but culturally too. “What I recognise looking back is the way I have always made films is from being Māori, but quite unconsciously,” she says, citing the discovery that she and Waititi were from the same iwi on New Zealand’s North Island and choosing that specific location as the setting for the short. “That’s the nature of telling Māori stories: the source of the story is of utmost importance. Going to where that story comes from, going to where we come form, was a no brainer and not up for discussion. Those kinds of logistical and practical filmmaking decisions that we made really early on were always sort of underpinned by a specifically Māori paradigm.”
That short saw Gardiner and Waititi nominated for Academy Awards, a “great but ridiculous experience” she says which led to bumping into Oprah in the bathroom and her friends shouting Maggie Gyllenhaal In-N-Out Burger from the back of a limo. What it also cemented was the path Gardiner wanted to continue on. “The convergence of all of those elements meant that we were really successful as Māori filmmakers from the beginning and we were doing it our way. We didn’t have to convince people because our success convinced them for us.” In part, that’s a wisdom learned from experience but also from solid guidance. “When we made Eagle Vs Shark (2007), we were challenged by Māori about why we weren’t making Māori films and we were like ‘well, it is a Māori film because it’s made by Māori’,” says Gardiner. “That was really quite triggering for me because the accusation I heard wasn’t that your film wasn’t Māori enough, but that you’re not Māori enough. So early on Merata was really influential in talking to me about how your success will silence the critics and change the conversation and that my only responsibility was to do what I do to the best of my ability”. In part, that was utilising her skills as a “creative producer” and helping bring other people’s visions to life on films like Boy (2010), The Pā Boys (2014) and The Breaker Upperers (2018). Now, it’s about tapping into the matriarchal elements of both her personal and professional worlds.
Based on the 1992 novel of the same name by Patricia Grace, Cousins follows three women as their lives intersect and overlap through different generations. “It was my first experience reading a book that was about Māori women,” Gardiner says, which only fuelled the desire to make the big screen adaptation a “one hundred per cent consciously wāhine Māori film”. Sharing the directing chair with Briar Grace-Smith – who also co-wrote the film and co-stars, while Gardiner co-produces – their “really cohesive vision” helped shape the structure, tone and visuals of the expansive story which covers multiple time periods. That spirit of collaboration was integral to Gardiner and Grace-Smith, both having come off the significant experience of Waru which told eight short films from eight different wāhine Māori filmmakers about the challenging subject of child abuse. “The first fundamental of Māori storytelling is coming together as a group and talking,” she says. “Waru definitely triggered a much more active approach on how to do things from a specifically and practically wāhine Māori point of view that is ongoing.” For Cousins, which co-stars veteran character actors like Rachel House and Tanea Heke alongside up and comers like Ana Scotney, Hariata Moriarty and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, a big part of its resonance in New Zealand at least was timing. “For me the measure of success has always been ‘does the film resonate with the community that it’s made about?’” says Gardiner, with the film debuting right as cinemas were opening again post-pandemic. “The fact that this is a story about connection and family and all of the loss that’s suffered, and the resilience and tenacity that’s driven by wanting to connect and belong, it was just so kind of resonant after COVID.”
– Maria Lewis
Cousins opens in Australian cinemas on June 10. Join Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, in conversation with academic and writer Amy Thunig, as they discuss their work on Cousins in our next Meet the Creators @ AFTRS & ACMI event on 8 June.