Taika Waititi is the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year in 2017. Taika Waititi is an award-winning director, writer, actor and artist who has become one of the country’s best-loved and most distinctive cultural voices. His subversive, funny and deeply human films have introduced the world to a New Zealand rarely seen on screen before, and reshaped the way we see ourselves.
Chances are that any Kiwi asked a decade ago to name a favourite New Zealand film would have opted for either one of Sir Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings movies or the brilliant and disturbing Once Were Warriors.
But that was before Taika Waititi landed up in filmmaking after a lengthy sojourn exploring his creativity through illustration, painting, music, photography and stand-up comedy.
From his breakthrough short film Two Cars, One Night through to the quirky romcom Eagle vs Shark, the coming-of-age drama Boy, the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and the blockbusting Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika has shown Kiwis a vision of New Zealand that has rarely been captured before.
Taika’s films have become hugely popular at home and overseas. Boy was New Zealand’s highest-grossing film till it was pushed out of the top place by Wilderpeople, which was one of the best-reviewed movies in the US in 2016 and won influential British film magazine Empire’s award for best film of the year.
While his work is distinctive for its anarchic wit and an emotional power that shifts seemingly effortlessly from darkness to light, Taika says he took a while to evolve his signature style.
“I feel like my style and sensibility has developed over the years, and I’m now more confident with my voice and how I like to tell stories,” he says.
“The mix of drama and humour is common in my work. When you put comedy and paths together, that’s close to what life is like. Life is always a mixture of joy and sadness.”
Of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent, Taika often puts Māori characters at the forefront of his work. His films are all about relationships, and often focus on people in the margins: people who don’t feel they’re part of society.
Away from filmmaking, Taika has been an outspoken critic of New Zealand’s teen suicide rate and its child poverty statistics. “I’m a proud New Zealander, but no-one can be 100% proud when we have kids going without food,” he says.
Now in the US directing one of Hollywood’s biggest productions, Thor: Ragnarok, Taika says he often encounters Americans who say Donald Trump’s election victory has made them want to move to New Zealand. He always advises them to stay.
“Everyone thinks we live in a Utopia, but nowhere is perfect – the same problems are everywhere. You need to stay where you are and fight to make it better.”
Taika has been a supporter of children’s charities such as the Dream Chaser Foundation, which helps children and families facing childhood cancer. The charity was set up by Keri and Ryan Topperwien, whose son, Chace, died of leukaemia at the age of three.
“Keri got in touch with me and told me about Chace, who had passed away. Being a father myself, when I heard her story I really wanted to do anything I could to help other families in that situation,” says Taika.
Taika was one of three finalists for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, Taika sees the nomination as recognition for the role the arts play in New Zealand’s national life.
“Entertainers, whether they are dancers or actors or filmmakers, make the world a much less boring place. The world wouldn’t be worth living in if we didn’t have the arts,” he says.
“I think everyone nominated for an award like this will think, ‘There are people who deserve this award more than me’. But if I did win I would be very proud, and I’d look on it as recognition for the joy that the arts bring into people’s lives.”