When a pint-sized Taika Waititi came home from school and switched on the TV, the characters on screen were awe-inspiring, heroic, invincible – worlds away from his 1980s Wellington home. But in 2017, when Waititi found himself in the mouth of the Marvel beast, it wasn’t to make heroes more heroic – it was to make them more human. His distinctive directing style gives rise to lovable, relatable characters that give a grateful nod to the sentimental tropes of cinema while adding a twist of fresh, earthy authenticity to create layers of meaning within each piece.
From Two Cars, One Night, the heart-warming short film that earned him an Academy Award nomination, to the multimillion-dollar success of Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi has slowly been taking over the hearts and minds of film critics and audiences alike. The bottom line? He’s a funny guy. He brings a sense of light-heartedness – a realness – to every story he tells. His sense of humour is so earnest it almost seems like a happy accident.
Yet, every comic moment is imbued with a poignant hint of tragedy – a beautiful paradox that captures the genuine complexity of human emotion. Hunt for the Wilderpeople has us perceiving the characters’ tragic pasts as offhandedly bougie – we find ourselves cackling uncontrollably because their quickness surprise us. Waititi’s unique directing style encourages us to recognise this tragi-comic duality and its presence in our everyday lives. Crucially, we are encouraged to enjoy this absurdity rather than feeling distanced by it.
It is a self-aware sense of nostalgia that shines through in his films. While it’s not a particularly revolutionary attitude towards storytelling, he enriches it with his own Kiwi childhood, making it feel unique. Waititi claims that he “didn’t get in massive amounts of trouble but I hung around with kids who always got into trouble. Shenanigans. I grew up in Aro St in Wellington, and so there were a lot of hippies and a lot of weird people growing up there. I worked in a fruit shop, that also happened to be a video store.” It sounds like the setting of an edgy indie movie, but it’s this richness of reality that Waititi brings out in his films, foregrounding the theatricality of simple relationships and interactions.
Perhaps it is these firm connections to his roots, particularly his Maori roots, that have made him such a prominent figure in indigenous recognition and anti-racism in Australia and New Zealand. Waititi has made it clear that he snuck references to Australian and Kiwi pop culture into Ragnarok, including painting a ship with the colours of the Aboriginal Australian flag. Waititi also speaks about the writing and casting process of Ragnarok, especially the employment indigenous Australians in the crew and casting Tessa Thompson rather than a Caucasian actress as Valkyrie. Less subtle is his project with production company Curious for the Human Rights Commission’s anti-racism campaign, a jaunty satire that asks viewers to “support a very important cause…racism. It needs your help to survive.”
In the face of his success, Waititi seems adamant in his groundedness in a typical Kiwi way; “I’m really no wiser than I was when I was 19, I just have more experiences and I know I’ve learnt from some of the mistakes I’ve made. But I don’t have life advice or wisdom. I’m just one of the lucky ones to have survived this long.” Luck, in this case, can actually be attributed to courage. Waititi always seems to be experimenting, trying new things and ensuring that he brings something new and taboo to the table with every piece; look out for his portrayal of Hitler in Jojo Rabbit. However, it is his connectedness to the richness of reality – the devastation and the delight – that is the ultimate allure of his films. He blazes a trail of reflective wonder and surprises us with light-heartedness in times of tragedy.
That, and the fact that you can’t take anything seriously when it’s said in a Kiwi accent.