Film Review: White Lies

Dana Rotberg’s female-centric, 1920s-set Maori story dealing with tough issues of racial identity has good intentions but stiff dialogue.
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Screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, White Lies—New Zealand’s official entry for the 2014 Academy Awards—is a women’s picture that deals with big themes around motherhood, racial identity and abortion. A partly profound yet generally heavy-handed and stagnant film, Dana Rotberg’s project manages to establish a reflective connection with the audience when it allows occasional naturalism to shine through its Maori story, set in 1920s New Zealand. Adapted from a novella by Witi Ihimaera (who also authored Whale Rider, adapted by Niki Caro for an internationally acclaimed film version), White Lies attempts to give viewers a taste of the early 20th century in New Zealand through the experiences and eyes of a Maori woman whose methods as a medicine woman and midwife have been banned (with some minor exceptions) by the Tohunga Suppression Act.

We are introduced to a young Paraiti (Te Ahurei Rakuraku) in the film’s opening sequence, as she gets brutally beaten by white settlers and watches the murder of her family. Jumping ahead, we follow the now-older Paraiti (touchingly played by Whirimato Black) as she moves her way around various settlements in Tuhoe, working as a healer as much as the current laws let her. During the film’s strongest scenes, we soon find out that she lovingly trains pregnant young women in birthing procedures (she is not permitted to accompany them during delivery), and uses herbs and plants in applying ancient healing methods to her patients. During one rare visit to the town, she is approached by Maraea (Rachel House), the maid of a well-off white woman named Rebecca (Antonia Prebble). Maraea leads Paraiti to her mistress’ house and reveals their plan: Rebecca needs an abortion before her husband returns home from a business trip in Europe. And they would pay her handsomely for her services if she can perform the procedure in less than a week’s time. Predictably, there is a secret behind Rebecca’s condition.

To her credit, Rotberg pulls off a polished-looking film, making wise use of the indescribably beautiful locations of the film’s setting, which cinematographer Alun Bollinger captures with patience and grace, allowing the viewer time and space to soak in the scenery. The story attempts to celebrate the cultural identity of the region’s indigenous people, while mourning the lasting effects and damages of colonialism. Yet, stiff and stale dialogue often obstructs these well-intended attempts; certain English-spoken segments especially stand out for their artificial, implausible theatricality. Plus, Rebecca’s secret never proves to be all that complicated to figure out; the result is that a crucial portion of the film slows down so that Paraiti can catch up with what the audience already knows.

Thematically, White Lies is essential cinema, unafraid to delve into female issues even contemporary societies grapple with. If only its occasional effortless feel could have dominated the film, instead of laborious one-liners given to one-dimensional “good” vs. “bad” people. Still, it makes for moderately appealing viewing, if for no other reason than its gorgeous settings and a particularly well-executed sequence of childbirth that carries much emotional and symbolic magnitude.

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