Taika Waititi on why 'normal' Indigenous representation in film matters

Coming off his most recent successes with Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the Māori filmmaker from New Zealand was premiering his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, at TIFF.
Rosanna snuck in two questions with Māori filmmaker Taika Waititi while he strolled down the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

Taika Waititi is one of the most sought-after filmmakers in Hollywood. Coming off his most recent successes with Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the Māori filmmaker premiered his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, at TIFF.

Waititi grew up speaking only a little of the te reo language — he was born after the era when Māori were punished for speaking it, but before the wave of Māori immersion schools in New Zealand. "I grew up just before that big resurgence, that renaissance." 

Waititi sees decolonization happening on the screen too.

But it's a specific kind of Indigenous representation that speaks to him.

"We've been represented in the past as always through a white lens," Waititi told CBC Radio's Rosanna Deerchild on the red carpet. 

"We're the Native presence in films that talk to trees, and we're smudging all the time, and we're riding whales, and we're talking to the ghosts of our ancestors — which, sure, maybe for a few of us ... I don't. I'm just a normal dude." 

Waititi recently spoke about the 1998 film Smoke Signals, starring Canadian Indigenous actors and filmmakers, as an example that illustrates exactly what he's talking about: Indigenous people doing normal things.

His film Hunt for the Wilderpeople starred a young Māori boy — but on the surface, the film had little to do with Māori culture in itself. 

Subtly, the film had commentary on the effects of adopting Indigenous children into white families, but for the most part, it was a film about a boy who was on the run from an entire country.

Another film, 2010's Boy, stars a Māori boy who's obsessed with Michael Jackson. There's even a Thriller-themed haka in the film.

Both films aren't exactly what you'd call "normal" experiences, but Waititi said it's just about putting Indigenous actors in spaces that other people are in, and not boxing them into to telling stories specific to their culture or their trauma.

"I like it when our experience is presented in a way that feels normal," he said.

"It's more relatable to audiences."