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Avatar: The Way of Water - The Billion Dollar Indigenous Film

I want to preface this piece by saying: there are plenty of indigenous filmmakers doing truly fantastic work at the minute. We’re seeing a push to reclaim story sovereignty. I implore you: seek out art made by indigenous creators. Consume it, enjoy it, buy the merch. Talent from indigenous nations around the world right now are generating exciting, innovative, groundbreaking works. The future - perhaps the very near future - of indigenous cinema is incredibly bright. This film, and its cartoonish extrapolation of native cultures and identities is not indicative of our future on screen. But, for some reason, this film is consuming a lot of oxygen from the mainstream discourse and I want to take some time to talk about what isn’t being said about it.

James Cameron’s second instalment in the intended-to-be-many-chaptered Avatar franchise takes inspiration from myriad cultures and peoples around the indigenous world. Cameron’s position as a pākehā (white) filmmaker means he will never fully grasp the nuance of an indigenous person's experience. Nor will he be able to tell any story about indigeneity with the level of authenticity they deserve. He will also never share the same collective and creative goals we have for ourselves on screen. His creative goals don’t extend beyond making a cool action movie that makes a billion dollars. The problem comes from him wanting to use our culture as decoration.

The meaning and intention of a story can change radically depending on who tells it. Little Red Riding Hood would be a different story had it been written by The Big Bad Wolf. The Way of Water is still a story ‘about’ indigenous survival, but by way of American postcolonial cinema. The Wolf, to stretch an already-paper-thin metaphor, is trying his best to hold himself accountable. But The Wolf is always going to be The Wolf. No matter how studied, well-intentioned, or empathetic The Wolf is, the story is always, subconsciously or not, going to come back around to being about how cool and powerful wolves are. One would be remiss not to draw attention to Cameron’s initial inspiration for writing the first Avatar. In 2010, Cameron claimed he believed that Lakota Sioux ancestors would have “fought harder” against colonisation had they access to “had a time-window and they could see the future … and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation”. The Wolf is always going to be The Wolf.

The Way of Water is the story of the virtuous native sympathiser, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now fully and bravely committed to his test-tube Na’vi avatar. He’s had some kids with his tribal princess wife, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and they’re raising a family. Turns out ‘happily ever after’ actually kinda rocks for Corporal Sully. Until, RECORD SCRATCH!, the evil Sky People return, forcing Jake to hesitantly pack his life into a knapsack and go into hiding. Sully and Neytiri take their gang of moody biracial tweens across the ocean to the tropical island of Awa’atlu; the island home of the Metkayina. The Metkayina are a clan of light-skinned Na’vi with a proclivity for swimming and a divine connection to the ocean. The bulk of the story sees the Sully clan forced to adapt to their new home. And I’ll tell ya this: it’s not that easy being a different shade of blue.

Jake Sully is a quintessentially American action hero. He wields guns, his sons call him “Sir!” and doggone it he just wants to protect his family, is that too much to ask?! By putting Sully at the centre of this story about colonialism, Cameron washes his hands of any responsibility to actually engage with the indigenous experience. Instead, all he has to do is tell a story about a man protecting his family. Family, of course, referring to Sully’s nuclear American family - and not Neytiri’s entire tribe of whanaunga (relatives). Collectivism, a concept synonymous with indigeneity that prioritises collective and communal wellbeing, goes out of the window. Because, after all, Jake Sully is not indigenous. He opts instead for some good ole fashioned imperial individualism; all I gotta worry about is me and mine! And so what does he do? When the chips are down, and the colonisers are knocking - what does our great chief do? He abandons his people. This movie wants you to believe it’s about native plight. But Cameron’s interest in colonisation doesn’t extend beyond loosely tracing it to shape the messy, weak, three hour plot. He makes no consideration of what it means for native audiences to relive historical violence and trauma, the effects of which are still felt to this day.

Having lived in the Wairarapa here in Aotearoa New Zealand since 2012, Cameron once, completely unironically, described how Māori culture had ‘invaded’ his creative process. In The Way of Water, we get front row seats to the bright blue, 3D carnage that was wrought by said invasion: the Metkayina, the water tribe that offer the Sully’s ‘uturu’, or asylum. The Metkayina are one of many peoples spread across hundreds of smaller tropical islands. They wear cultural tattoos. They live off the ocean by freediving and spearfishing. They’re spiritually connected to the sea. They speak in wise, thoughtful idioms that are evocative of, yet significantly clunkier and dumber than, Māori whakatauki (proverbs). They share a divine connection with ‘tulkun’, a massive whale-like creature that migrates endlessly around the atolls of the Pandoran seas. The Reef Tribe even have a legend about a tulkun called ‘Payakon’ who saves one of Sully’s sons, Lo’ak, from drowning at sea. Many Māori would be quick to draw a comparison to Paikea, a Māori ancestor who was saved by a whale named Tohorā. All this to say: The Metkayina are unmistakably Māori and Pasifika. And for good measure, Cameron has his blue natives throw around “cuz” and “bro” as terms of endearment, just in case you weren’t 100% sure of it.

Tonowari, the leader of the Metkayina of Awa’atlu is adorned with moko kanohi (facial tattoo) and long braids. He wears seashells and a shawl that looks like a hybrid of a korowai and an aloha shirt. Beneath the blue CGI is Cliff Curtis (Ngāti Hauiti, Te Arawa). Cliff Curtis is one of the most recognisable faces in Māori cinema - one of few Māori actors to ‘make it’ in Hollywood. Over the decades Curtis has inspired and supported generations of Māori actors and filmmakers. Unfortunately, his character here is less than aspirational. With a name that sounds like Cameron threw a Māori dictionary into an AI and asked it to spit out a new word, Tonowari is little more than a staunch brooding chief. He has a stiff upper lip and talks in a deep and commanding tone. He is the idealised western caricature of a Polynesian Chief. Curtis himself has had turns masquerading as other ethnicities (see Training Day and Colombiana), so it’s almost nice to see him cast in a role where his whakapapa (heritage) makes him a prime candidate. I have to concede that I cannot fault a Māori actor for contributing to this film. I wish we, as a community of artists, had more scope and opportunity to assess the appropriateness of our work. I wish we had access to jobs that paid us in clean, guilt-free money. Perhaps then Curtis would have been able to consider the implications of this work. Alas, actors gotta eat. Any Māori actor would be mad to turn down such an opportunity, and any director would be stupid to not cast one of our finest performers in such a role.

Perhaps one of the more egregious elements of The Way of Water is Tonowari’s wife, the intimidating and powerful Ronal, played by Kate Winslet. Ronal is coded as a Māori woman. She’s a tribal leader that has a special connection to her “spirit sister” (Jesus fucking Christ) who’s also a hyperintelligent, song-composing, tattooed whale (Jesus fucking Christ.5). She’s brave, she’s a medicine woman, she’s a knowledge keeper. Her face is adorned with an offensive reimagining of a moko kauae (a chin tattoo specifically reserved for Māori women). The most unsettling part of Ronal’s visage, though, is her hair; thick, black, voluminous and curly. In one shot, as Ronal watches out over a golden-hour scene, the digitally created light bounced off of her hair and I had a thought: that’s my fucking mum’s hair. Millions of dollars, hundreds of man hours, all spent crafting and refining a digital model of Pacific hair - just to put it on a white actor’s head. Everything about this character - minus her blue skin - points to her being a caricature of an indigenous woman. And yet, Winslet dons the mocap suit and does her best vaguely ethnic accent in a role that, in truth, is far beneath her station as an actor. I know for a fact that we would not stand for Winslet wearing the tattoo and wig in live-action, and it’s equally as fucked up when it’s done through VFX.

These two characters are lightyears behind the conservation of native representation on screen. They’re a hodgepodge of stereotypes and aesthetic choices. But this world is not us. It is a fantasy. It’s a fabrication meant to evoke our people for white people. Ooga booga chiefs. Singing healer women. This film boils down indigeneity to the same thing Hollywood has: savages. Beasts. Aliens. These racist stereotypes have become a shorthand for communicating something foreign as something safe. We are mystical and wise, we mean no harm. Fuck that.

After watching the movie I spent a lot of time thinking about it. It angered me, it baffled me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But after some deliberation I decided to divorce myself from the notion that this film has anything to do with my people. It’s a macaroni-collage-imitation of a vast, detailed and complex tapestry. And so, I should let Cameron have his fantasy. Revel in his billion-dollar success, make twenty more and rope in some other colonised group to his Blue Monkey Cinematic Universe. As mentioned before, my peers in indigenous film are making astronomical leaps in representation in film - in all levels of film production and distribution. I should instead enjoy their works, and let this big, ugly, blue monster dissolve into the recesses of my mind. And I was close! I really almost let him get away with it. Then I opened TikTok. Pasifika and Māori moviegoers cheering and celebrating The Way of Water. Pirated clips of Na’vi performing pūkana have gone viral, as brown audience members delight in seeing their ‘culture up on the big screen’. A friend of mine also cited people in his screening cheering at the recognition of our people. My heart fell. Of course our community loves this movie. We are starved of representation in mainstream cinema. Satiating ourselves from the crumbs doled out by Hollywood, we’ve become passive consumers of what is, quite frankly, harmful dogshit.

The odd selection of Pasifika filmmakers and movie stars operating at that level often pat themselves on the back for including bare-minimum easter eggs of our culture and, out of desperation to see ourselves represented, we cheer and celebrate over nothing. Aquaman hongi’s his father. The Rock performs a ‘haka’ (twice). A Na’vi does a pūkana at the call of war. And our people applaud. We cheer and throw popcorn at the screen because what else do we have? We desire so desperately to claim a space in the blockbuster that we choose to forgive representations and misappropriations of our culture that we don’t deserve. We’re being fed slop and we treat it like a feast. These bastardisations of our history, culture and identity dishonour our mana as a people. And yet, because some Americans paid lip service to some small part of our lives, we worship it.

But we don’t have to accept it. Because it is not us. We’re so much more than set dressing in a white-guilt action movie. We’re more than ‘loose inspiration’. But we won't be able to accept that fact until we’re shown the true possibilities of our potential. To recognise that we are a complex, flawed, and fascinating people. Those images - the ones we need to see - in order to heal and grow as a people, will not be found in this film. But those images don’t exist without our storytellers. The people that have the depth and understanding required to deliver our stories to the world with authenticity, pathos and nuance.

These filmmakers exist. I’ve seen it. With time, support, and space to grow, these artists will one day be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with films like this one. Our worlds and histories will be portrayed with elegance and with grace. And, god willing, there won’t be any magic tattooed whales.


Bailey Poching is an Indigenous Pacific filmmaker and performer of Samoan, Māori and Torres Strait Island descent. After graduating film school, Bailey had multiple short films selected for the most prestigious indigenous film festivals across the world. Bailey is also a fixture of the New Zealand comedy scene having been nominated for multiple awards (Best Newcomer, Breakthrough Act) at the NZ Comedy Guild Awards.

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