White Lies [2013 Dana Rotberg Film] Review

AKA: Tuakiri Huna, Medicine Woman
Genre: Historical Drama/Tragedy
Year Released: 2013
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: New Zealand/Mexico
Running Time: 98 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 17+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Vera Drake, White Like the Moon, Imitation of Life, The Whale Rider, The Other Side of Paradise
Notes:
-This DVD was packaged with White Like the Moon, but they are unrelated films.

-WARNING! Topics of colonialism and abortion will be discussed given the subject matter of the film.
Fun Facts:
-White Lies is the English and Maori language directorial debut of Mexican filmmaker Dana Rotberg. She’s originally from Mexico City, but she and her children moved to New Zealand after being so inspired by The Whale Rider film (I’m not making this up) and still lives in that South Pacific nation to this day. One of her other films is Angel of Fire. Rotberg is also of Polish, Indigenous, Italian, European Jewish, and Russian descent.

-Maraea (sounds like Mariah) is played by Auckland-based actress Rachel House. She has acted in multiple Taika Waititi movies such as Eagle vs Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok, and Jojo Rabbit. But if you’re a Disney fan, you have heard her voice before as Moana’s grandma Tala. Interestingly enough, she voiced that character in the original English version and the Maori dub of that film which makes sense because she is of Maori descent in real life.

-The main character Paraiti involved the acting debut of Maori singer Whirimako Black. Most of her songs are in that indigenous language and use traditional instruments in her culture. Black contributed theme songs to The New Zealand Wars and Te Karare. She is a New Zealand Order of Merit recipient (so is the aforementioned Rachael House) for her services in making Maori music. By the way, that tattoo on her chin wasn’t makeup or a high-quality temp for the White Lies, she has that tattoo in real life because it’s the Ta Moko which is a traditional marking for Maori women to highlight their pride in their culture as well as beauty.

-White Lies was based on the book Medicine Woman by Maori author Witi Ihimaera. He’s the first Maori writer in New Zealand and has written books in English and Maori. Some of his other books have been adapted into films such as Mahana (The Patriarch) and most famously The Whale Rider.

-Language Bonus: Language plays a major role in the film in multiple ways. Half the dialogue is in Maori (mostly from Paraiti) and the other half is in English which is the most obvious aspect most people can pick up on. The Maori title of the film is Tuakiri Huna has a dual meaning of “Hiding one’s identity or personality” or “Beyond (or the other side of) skin”. Since Spanish would be director Dana Rotberg’s first language, she thought of the Mexican proverb of “Verdades a medias: Mentiras que matan” which means “Half-truths are lies that kill” before coming up with White Lies. These references play a perfect setting for the plot with how identity, culture, and deception play into the story. Without getting too deep, the White Lies title is metaphorical and gets very literal with Rebecca’s character arc.

-White Lies won the Best Makeup Design and Best Production Design in the New Zealand Film and TV Awards.

It has been way too long since I watched anything from New Zealand. Oddly enough, one of the previous times I did so was a Kiwi/Mexican co-production with Dan Sadgrove’s work A Dream Dress in Black. Oddly enough, I’ve reviewed more things involving the Auckland-born, England-based wrestler TK Cooper (side note: Sunshine Machine RULES!) than I have watched New Zealander movies. I should watch more things made in that country and I’m not talking about The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s too mainstream for me to review. With that said, there’s one aspect of that country I haven’t covered until now: the Maori community. I’m no stranger to reviewing films featuring Indigenous cultures in different countries, but I feel that it’s a good time to involve something from that ethnic group. They’ve been through so much since that island nation was colonized over a century ago and have faced discrimination which sadly still happens to this day. Thankfully, you have those in the community who wanted to tell their own stories and people who wanted to adapt them into cinematic form.

Will this be a form of healing to see this community represented in this period piece?

White Lies involves a Maori tohunga (healer) and midwife Paraiti. During her childhood, her village was slaughtered by British colonizers and one of them beats her with a torch which leaves the left side of her face scarred. Flash forward to the year 1907, she is a childless and unmarried old woman who has healed her community in the rural part of the country while also helping the women birth their children safely for decades. During that same year, the New Zealand government enacts the Tohunga Suppression Act which bans the usage of traditional natural methods of medicine or healing and criminalizes the Maori way of medical treatment with the punishment of imprisonment, so Paraiti is forced to do things in secret. During a trip to town one day, a Maori maid named Maraea requests Paraiti’s services for her affluent white employer Rebecca Vickers. Maraea tells her that Mr. Vickers is away on a business trip in Europe and Rebecca is pregnant, but wants to terminate her pregnancy and is offering to pay a considerable amount of money for her services. Paraiti initially declines since she doesn’t want anything to do with offering medical services to someone who resembles the people who disfigured her and killed her tribe. Things change when a Maori woman goes into town to give birth in a local hospital where she and her unborn child die at the hands of a white nurse. To make things worse, Paraiti had natural herbs that could’ve healed her, but the hospital staff forbid her to go into the hospital room and threaten to send her to jail because of the new law. The guilt of the healer eats away at her as the European rules and laws prevented her from saving those two lives. She eventually takes the job from Rebecca as a way to restore justice, but she may or may not have harsh methods to make a point even with the arrogance of her wealthy client and her maid Maraea’s condescending nature or her refusal to talk to Paraiti in the Maori language even though she clearly understands her since she responds to everything in English instead.

For starters, I will say this was a better film than White Like the Moon even though they aren’t related, they do have some similar themes. I was also reminded of a movie I saw in my late teens called Vera Drake which could’ve influenced it since both are period pieces involving women who are “unlicensed” healers and abortion is brought up in the plots, but I can assure you that White Lies doesn’t play out the way that British film did. This film has so many things going for it that make it a quality work. The cinematography and production were great and one couldn’t tell this was an indie film. The acting from so many of the cast members was quite strong. Whirimako Black could’ve been acting for years instead of the first time and I would’ve been fooled. She really nailed the mix of world-weariness, commitment to helping those who really need it, and soul-crushing guilt all at the same time. If she wants to continue acting, then I’d say go for it. Antonia Prebble as this snobby trophy wife had the right amount of arrogance without coming off as over-the-top in her performance. Yes, she was frustrating, but even she had some tragic elements that make one feel bad for her at times. Rachel House as Maraea was quite adept. She was such a complex character with her disdain for her own culture in subtle ways and is very subtle about her antagonism towards Paraiti since she acts like a normal human being instead of a cartoon villain. The character dynamics worked well and the plot twist in the third act felt like a shotgun blast which makes the whole plot darker in hindsight for the right reasons. I was also surprised by House’s age when she played Rebecca’s maid not just because of my first experience of her acting work being Tala from Moana, but she would’ve been in her 40s when she played both of those roles just 3 years apart. There was some makeup work to make her look older but still looked believable. Keep in mind that Rachel House is 2 years younger than Jennifer Anniston, and let that fact marinate in your brain. Major props to the makeup work for Whirimako Black’s role as Paraiti with her natural chin tattoo and for that burn wound on her face (that wound is just outside of her eye). If one pardons me using a running gag I’ve had since my Ringing Bell review, but it feels like a deconstruction watching a movie where someone with a big wound on the left side of their face is a hero, doesn’t kill someone’s parent, or take over a kingdom during their screentime. Trust me, I’ve reviewed 3 different projects involving villains who do one of those things, or 4 if you count archived footage from 2 separate documentaries I’ve covered and I don’t have to mention who any of those examples are. The other aspects of the production were great like the subtle usage of Maori instruments or ambient works, accurate settings and fashion, and showing the rural countryside of New Zealand mixed in with the 1900s-looking towns there. One of my favorite aspects was the usage of language. The dynamic of Paraiti talking to her community and Maraea in the Maori language (except for a couple of dramatic pieces of dialogue towards the latter like where she says “You want me to make this clear?” in English to the maid) is awesome and there were subtle aspects of the story that made it brilliant in hindsight. In the Maori culture, the childbirth customs involve taking the placenta, wrapping it up, and burying it in the ground to ensure the spiritual safety of both the mother and child was something new to me, but there was a powerful reason. The word in Maori for placenta is “whenua” and also “land” which shows the connection between the people and the soil, so when that white nurse dumped the whenua in the trash, that was not only very disrespectful in Paraiti’s eyes, but it’s a sense of colonial mindsets taking over and that the dead mother and child can’t be connected to the earth. This is powerful symbolism right there. White Lies did show the right amount of drama both literal and metaphorical in this setting.

I’d be lying if I said that White Lies had no decipherable flaws. While the production was stellar, the DVD release did struggle with some aliasing even when the characters were still in certain scenes. I do think it was a good choice to have the focus to be on Paraiti, Maraea, and Rebecca which makes a ton of sense with the medical situations playing a major role for all three of them, but you don’t see Mr. Vickers at all. He didn’t have to be in most of the movie given his business trip, but the unseen aspect did feel shallow as we don’t know what he’s like. All the viewer has to go on are Maraea and Rebecca’s words of how he would apparently be explosive if he were to find out that she had a baby with another man or because of the other reason why he would be furious with Rebecca’s secret. There was some good dialogue, but sometimes it can be a bit on the nose like some of the discussions about Maori culture, Rebecca’s secret as to why she has those special “baths” every day, and there was one piece of dialogue that I found to be unintentionally hilarious. Rebecca points out that Paraiti was just disfigured instead of just being ugly, but in a later conversation, she straight-up calls the healer “Scarface” during a heated argument. I felt like a bad person for laughing loudly during that otherwise serious scene because there is no way I wasn’t going to think about Tony Montana when she called her that name. Don’t lie, when it gets to that part of the movie, you’d be thinking about that Al Pacino character, too. At least she didn’t call her that same name minus the word “face” because I would’ve howled with laughter and made jokes involving two different animated characters and one of them would’ve involved someone from Fullmetal Alchemist. This is also a slow movie that can be austere, so don’t expect soap opera drama or wackiness. It doesn’t play around with the subject matter and can be too intense at times especially when Rebecca is getting closer to her due date or why she wants her unborn child to be deleted in a week’s time before her husband gets back and even Paraiti warns her that the procedure could be fatal if it’s rushed. Also, not all of the Maori dialogue was translated such as the songs and poems uttered which got distracting since most other dialogues did have subtitles available.

While it does feel odd that a movie like this was licensed by ArtMattan of all distributors given their emphasis on the African diaspora and the continent, White Lies is definitely a movie you should watch even if it gets deadly serious. The acting and production are excellent even with a lower budget for the latter. The level of brilliance with the languages and subtle aspects of Maori culture was stellar. I’m glad Dana Rotberg was very respectful of the culture when researching the original book and having actual Maori cast members for different roles. However, some DVD aliasing and some character choices could’ve used some work. While I wouldn’t go that far in giving it a 100% like Rotten Tomatoes did, this is definitely worth your time if you like serious period pieces involving Indigenous cultures done well. Recommended. This is quality cinema from New Zealand here.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you like movies with Indigenous main characters.
-Add 1 point if you like serious period pieces.
-Subtract 1 point if you prefer more bombastic dramas.
-Subtract 2-4 points if topics such as abortion or colorism make you feel uncomfortable.

Pros:
-Respectful depictions of the Maori culture, language, and traditions
-Amazing production and makeup work
-Powerful acting especially from the main characters

Cons:
-Mr. Vickers is an invisible presence
-DVD aliasing issues and some Maori dialogue isn’t translated
-Can be didactic at times and the “Scarface” comment had no business being unintentionally funny

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: White Lies is a very mature movie that only older teens and up should watch. It’s not so much when it comes to offensive content, but it is the portrayal of serious adult subjects. Abortion is a topic that is discussed and that option is on the table, but I won’t spoil how the plot plays out. There are a couple of nude scenes involving Rebecca in the bath with her method of keeping her ivory complexion and when she is being operated on by Paraiti (spoilers averted). There is medical blood and gore going on. Some characters die such as Paraiti’s community early in the movie, the Maori woman and her unborn child, and one character commits suicide in a bloody fashion in the ending. Surprisingly, there’s only one swear word spoken and it’s in the Maori language. Topics such as colonialism, racism, colorism, and psychological abuse are on display. The last example is very tragic and mentioning it will unveil the biggest plot twist of the movie involving a relationship dynamic between two of the characters which change everything. One case of severe fridge horror involves a scene where Rebecca is smoking while she’s pregnant which really shows her irresponsibility and callousness even if they didn’t have Surgeon General’s Warnings back then.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. White Lies is property of ArtMattan. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of ArtMattan.

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