Rachel House talks authentic storytelling, ‘Moana’ and ‘Stateless’

Rachel House. 

The notion that the next generation of New Zealanders will be taught Māori culture and history via a compulsory school curriculum fills actress, writer and director Rachel House with pride.

“These sorts of massive changes are very bold. They recognise that there has been a very Western gaze of history in this country. And they need to be that big to create change,” House tells IF, praising NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s vision.

“She is of a generation that knew that was being taught in or schools wasn’t quite right and I love that she is changing that.”

For House, the nexus between culture, education and performance was fundamental in her development as an actress and storyteller; it was via Māori theatre as a teenager that her identity was allowed to thrive for the first time. She also credits experience for the understanding of how historically accurate storytelling can shape consciousness and compassion.

“In telling the stories of our history that formed and changed our country, we allowed both Māori and non-Māori people to access out culture. Its certainly where I started to feel my culture most profoundly. It developed me personally and my identity as an indigenous woman which was a great gift. It was provocative work.”

In 2016, House brought her passion for authentic storytelling to the global stage in Disney’s Moana. Not only was House the voice of character of Gramma Tala, she was instrumental in the creation, casting and cultural direction of the Māori-language version.

Next month, House will be part of a special panel at the New Zealand Film Commission’s Power of Inclusion summit, discussing the details of the Polynesian collaboration in the making Moana and its translation into Te Reo Māori, Tahitian and Hawaiian. Her session will also feature producer and former Pixar VP of development at Walt Disney, Osnat Shuree, and the film’s soundtrack songwriter, singer Opetaia Foa’i.

It took over five years to develop and produce the film, with directors Ron Clements and John Musker recruiting experts from across the South Pacific to form an Oceanic Story Trust, who consulted on the film’s cultural accuracy and sensitivity as the story evolved through nine versions.

“The Moana directors were very focused on inclusivity and authenticity. The lengths that they took that to ensure that this story was going to be told well and led by a fantastic team were so gratifying,” House says.

For Disney, the production was a risk after being plagued by cultural insensitivity accusations in the past, and the studio was striving for authenticity. Before joining the project, House was aware of the fire that the film was attracting from Polynesian people and was cautious. However, she was swayed by the inclusion of the Oceanic Story Trust in the production process, and how that fed into every aspect of the film from fauna, design, music and the authentic intersection of the mix of cultures involved.

The film went on to gross over US$643 million globally, but House says that the value of the visibility for Polynesian cultures in mainstream entertainment was invaluable.

“The visibility was enormous and also the process that the film went through in attaining that cultural authenticity for a global audience which promoted our cultures was game changing. It was also incredibly timely for the rise of diversity and that the protagonist was such a force as a wonderful, strong, fierce young woman,” she adds.

In terms of Māori cultural ambassadors in Hollywood, the actress praises filmmaker Taika Waititi with whom she has enjoyed a long collaborative relationship with, from Hunt for the Wilderpeople to Thor, and who also wrote the original Moana screenplay.

“People like Taika have promoted our culture to the world and its vital that he is driving that slice of the cultural narrative. In anything Taika does, his uniqueness and his distinct Māori-ness comes through; it permeates through his work, which is wonderful. But if you reverse that –  if a pakeha (*Māori for foreigner) was to direct our films – the same thing would happen and that’s not a great thing at this point. Especially if it is predominantly Māori story,” she cautions.

House believes that the success of New Zealand storytellers on the global stage and the preservation of the Māori voice is based on the quality and resonance of the work as much as the hard fought battle to preserve that culture.

“There is a surge in interest in our language and culture and we are in a pretty good place, but I look around now and see how far we have come because of people that have dedicated their lives to preserving that. It really feels like we are hot ticket right and people want to get on board with that, but we need to ensure that the writers and producers who we work with are genuinely committed to telling our stories, are open to collaboration and working on new experiences that engage with the best interest of our culture at heart,” she says.

The integration of experiences and the ownership of stories from diverse cultures has been weighing on the actress fresh from wrapping the ABC series Stateless co-produced by Matchbox Pictures, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s Dirty Films.

The six-part drama series revolves around four characters caught up in Australia’s immigration system and held in one of Australia’s desert-based detention centres.

“Personally, I found that difficult. Because I felt so uneducated, misinformed and ignorant prior to working on that project. It was such an awakening and really challenging and painful to understand that so often we stand by and allow terrible things to take place, inhumane and cruel things to take place,” she says.

“But it was a privilege to be part of this current story and understanding that this is happening now in Australia, in America and all over the world. Being an indigenous woman and having to fight to be that it also focused my understanding of the importance of being a responsible part of a global community and helping other cultures find their balance as well.”

House will also be seen alongside Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln and Jacki Weaver in Penguin Bloom, directed by Glendyn Ivin, scripted by Shaun Grant and Harry Cripps and produced by Watts, Emma Cooper and Made Up Stories’ Bruna Papandrea, Jodi Matterson and Steve Hutensky. She plays a Kiwi kayaking coach to Lincoln’s character

The year ahead will see her take on more directing projects, including those covering “good, meaty, political stuff”.

“I want to make stories that promote  change and that tackle some truth culturally  and politically and really most of all I want to tell stories that promote empathy and compassion.  That means that I am really keen on exploiting all genres as well. I think  the impact of patriarchy and colonisation has allowed ourselves to feel disempowered, but it’s a hoax to me. I think the more that we realise that we have the power tell our own stories in the way that we want to tell them, the better.”

The Power of Inclusion Summit will be held October 3-4 in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.