Cousins, the story of three Māori women

The 3 girls as children in Cousins

Cousins, from New Zealand, spans decades in the lives of three Māori women. It’s a story of family, of colonization, of the land, and of the people. It’s a beautiful, touching, memorable film now available on Netflix. The film is distributed with the help of the ARRAY collective that helps uplift women’s voices.

Cousins is told the way memory works. There are flashes of memory strung together out of order. We see various stages in the lives of the three cousins as moments recalled out of love and longing as well as pain and suffering.

the three girls in Cousins
The young cousins with their grandmother

The cousins are Missy, Makareta, and Mata. Makareta becomes a lawyer, a firebrand, who fights for indigenous rights. She lives in the city.

Missy's wedding in Cousins
The Māori marriage ceremony

Missy stays on the land and fights to keep it in the hands of the Māori people. An arranged marriage meant for Makareta almost ends in catastrophe when Makareta runs away to law school. Missy agrees to marry the man instead. The marriage consolidated the land holdings of two Māori families.

Mata is put in a boarding school by her father and suffers under the hands of the state. She is exploited and abused by white colonizers all her life.

The cousins lose track of Mata, but always look for her. They want to bring her home. All the time she was growing up in boarding school she had family at home – aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. They wanted her but couldn’t get the state to give her back. By the time they find her again, she’s an old woman living on the streets all alone.

Because the film details 5 decades in the lives of the three women, many actors were needed. Missy at various ages was played by Rachel House, Hariata Moriarty, and Keyahne Patrick Williams. Makareta at various ages was played by Briar Grace Smith, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels, and Shannon Williams. Mata at various ages was played by Tanea Heke, Ana Scotney, Te Raukura Gray, and Te Ao Marama Baker.

The film was directed by New Zealand filmmakers Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith based on the novel by Patricia Grace. The screen adaptation came from Patricia Grace and director Briar Grace Smith (who also played the older Makareta). The book Cousins (affiliate link) is available in paperback and for Kindle from Amazon.

There is a title card at the end dedicating the film to Merata Mita, Irihapeti Ramsden, and Nancy Brunning. In an interview at Women and Hollywood, director Ainsley Gardiner talked about the history of making the film. She said, “Our mentor Merata Mita, along with other senior female filmmakers in the NZ industry, had tried to make it in the 18 years prior but faced resistance from an industry with institutionalized racism and bias, who couldn’t see an audience for a film about Māori women, couldn’t understand the subtleties of the Māori perspective in storytelling, and many other reasons.”

I often feel that we live in terrible times. Then a wonderful story like this about three Māori women is produced into being. It makes me grateful for the fact that such redemptive, poetic, artistic work is now shared around the world. Watching the film is a perfect, non-Hollywood, examination of what it means to be a woman, a family, a people.

Poster for Cousins

Take a look at the preview.

If you haven’t seen this film yet, I 100% encourage you to do so.

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