Ainsley Gardiner is of Ngāti Awa, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Ngāti Pikiao, and Whakatōhea descent. Gardiner previously produced the short films “Two Cars, One Night” and “Tama Tu,” written and directed by Taika Waititi. Her first short, “Mokopuna,” won Best Short Film at the Dreamspeakers Indigenous Film Festival. Gardiner often works as an external script assessor and mentors a number of emerging Māori writers, directors, and producers.
“Waru” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on September 10. The anthology film is co-directed by Briar Grace-Smith, Renae Maihi, Casey Kaa, Awanui Simich-Pene, Chelsea Cohen, Katie Wolfe, and Paula Jones.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Ag: “Waru” is the story of poverty, loss, struggle, compassion, and humanity told in eight connected stories, each directed by a different female Māori filmmaker that centers around the death of a young child by abuse.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Ag: I was reluctant to be involved at first, I felt aggrieved that we were bringing these amazing wahine — or female — Māori filmmakers together and a story of abuse was the one we were going to tell. But I decided to do it to develop my directing skills — I am more often a producer than a director — and I liked the idea of working within constraints that were not of my making.
Within a couple of hours together with the other women discussing this subject, I realized how wrong I was about this story, and why it was very much the right story for us to be making.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Ag: It was important to me to ask people to be honest about their own struggles as a way to understand the issues surrounding child abuse more compassionately. I wanted them to identify with Mihi [played by Ngapaki Moetara] and understand how we are only ever on a knife edge with our own humanity: the ability to make really bad choices is within all of us.
Then imagine if you’ve never been taught how to make good choices, or you’re stuck in a cycle of poverty, or abuse, or generations of abuse, or loss of culture — it’s the beginning of understanding, I think. And it’s where the conversation about child abuse needs to start. First with comprehension and understanding, then with compassion, then with solutions.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Ag: The biggest challenge was the process. While each of us told our own story we worked more strongly when we came together to make decisions for the good of the whole film. When, because of time or budget or something else, we weren’t able to make decisions together, it felt very isolating.
Being a director can open you up to vulnerability, dealing with such personal stories, and such a huge theme as child abuse in our community. It worked best when we honored the collaboration and celebrated the collective nature of the filmmaking.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Ag: It was funded via Tmp/Nzoa [Te Māngai Pāho and New Zealand On Air] innovation funding and Nzfc [New Zealand Film Commission]. The producers had a very clear vision for the film and worked really hard to get it funded and to continue to push for funding as the film expanded beyond its initial expectations of being for television and a web based experience.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Ag: As a director, it feels great to have some recognition from festivals such as Tiff. For a film like this, what is even more exciting is that the film might impact communities who most need it. To me the most gratifying endorsement for any film is being well received by the community it was made for.
Going forward, as a director, I feel grateful to be part of a film that offered up some huge challenges, some expected — one shot, one day shoot, connected films — and some not, but has, in its execution, its style, its authenticity, its originality, stood out among hundreds of other amazing works from around the world.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Ag: Best advice bar none: feed them well. Merata Mita, a legend in our industry, and the last Māori woman to write and direct a feature film in New Zealand [“Mauri”], told me that filmmaking is a privilege afforded to very few. That privilege is a huge responsibility. Don’t be an asshole. Take care of each other and for God’s sake feed people properly.
Worst advice: I can genuinely say that not a single piece of bad advice comes to mind. Every opportunity in filmmaking is an opportunity to learn. What to do, what not to do. The first big mistake I made was as an unpaid onset runner. I went to set, parked my car, and went inside, taking my keys with me. Lesson learned? Always leave your keys in the car. Who knew?
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Ag: Work together. Strive together. Fight together. This industry is not geared towards the way that women work naturally, which is collaboratively, as a tribe. Share your work without fear. And support each other. Hire other women. Make it a priority.
We can’t be successful as women by making it in a male-driven paradigm, we win when we change the paradigm. Looking forward to it!
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Ag: “Gas, Food, Lodging” by Allison Anders was the first significant film I saw by a woman director, about women, that felt like a paradigm shift. That seemed to follow different rules for storytelling. That relied on depth of character and emotional experience in a way that resonated with me deeply. I don’t have favorites though, that’s not how my tribe rolls.
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Ag: The issue is not a statistical one for me. We can see a rise in the numbers of women in various roles without seeing a shift in the processes that underpin the industry, script development, production approaches, marketing, and distribution.
Working on this film absolutely reminded me that we have to embrace what comes naturally to us. We are fierce nurturers and protectors of what is right. We can handle incredible pressure and pain. We can fight among ourselves, recover, make decisions that serve the community, and we can do so without losing anything for ourselves.
We would be well served to fund the experimentation of alternative ways of making films that are driven by women. It’s pointless just bringing women in to sit at the king’s table. We have far more to offer, and, of course, we’re also the greatest consumers of our own stories.
The status quo is fearful.
It should be.
Tiff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Ainsley Gardiner — “Waru” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.