'Cousins' world premiere in Rotorua

By Kayne Ngātokowhā Peters

Briar Grace-Smith, Tanea Heke and Rachel House in Cousins.

The highly anticipated New Zealand film Cousins is going ahead with its world premiere tonight at Reading Cinemas in Rotorua.

The film is an adaptation of the Cousins novel written by Patricia Grace, which follows the journey of three girl cousins thrown together as children, who grow apart as women but eventually find their long lost connection to one another. 

Co-director and actor in the film Briar Grace-Smith says she's pleased to finally be celebrating the release of the film since the book was published in 1992.

"It's been such a long time since the book was written and then Merata Mita tried to make it into a film and finally it came into our hands. And I guess you're looking at 30 odd years for it to make it to this point. So it really deserves a celebration that it's been made."

Grace-Smith teamed up with critically acclaimed movie producer Ainsley Gardiner to co-direct the film with her.

Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith, co-directors of Cousins.

Handing down the mantle

Gardiner says Merata Mita, who had originally planned to write and direct Cousins, had shared her screenplay with Gardiner 16 years ago.

"So when she passed, and when Briar re-introduced me to the film, I felt a certain call to arms to finish what Merata had started - an adaptation to the book," Gardiner says.

"And that's where Briar and I came on the project together."

Merata Mita who died in 2010, was a pioneer Māori filmmaker who made films like Bastion Point: Day 507 and co-produced Taika Waititi's Boy alongside Ainsley Gardiner and Cliff Curtis.

Grace-Smith says Merata Mita was a mentor to both her and Ainsley, and spoke about making Cousins.

I was very used to her speaking about the film, and Patricia Grace speaking about the film and knowing how much it meant to them. And so after Merata passed, it felt like a real shame not to have that dream realised. So that was the reason for both of us to try and put some effort into getting it done."

But both Grace-Smith and Gardiner never intended on co-directing the film when they first teamed up to make it.

From writer to director, then actor

Grace-Smith wrote the latest adaptation of Cousins and Gardiner had assumed the role of producer. But then both felt it only right that they support one-another as co-directors of the film.

Grace-Smith says, "At the beginning of this we didn't consider ourselves upskilled enough to take on the direction of Cousins which is, I have to say, an incredibly epic film."

The movie doesn't focus on one lead character, and has over 90 speaking roles.

Grace-Smith says she never intended on becoming an actor in the film. Her close friend, award-winning actor Nancy Brunning was originally cast in the film but became unwell and died in 2019.

"So it was kind of a case of me having to step up," says Grace-Smith. 

"There were lots of amazing actresses who auditioned. And I ended up trying hard to not get the part. But it was a part I knew because I was involved in writing the adaptation. So I knew this character and what she carried."

But when Grace-Smith was cast in the film, she says she had to rely on Gardiner's direction to help her fulfill the role.

Young Makareta, played by Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne. The older character, is played by Briar Grace-Smith.

World Premiere despite Covid

Grace-Smith says, "I didn't think we would have the premiere but I think we've all just learnt to roll with the waves."

To meet Level 2 guidelines, guests had to be staggered in their arrivals and were advised to refrain from physical contact (hongi, kissing, hugging) outside of their own bubbles. Physical distancing of two metres, was also put in place. And all whānau were advised to stay home if they felt unwell.

Co-Directors Briar Grace Smith and Ainsley Gardiner attended tonight's premiere, along with powerhouse actors and rising stars Tanea Heke, Miriama Smith,Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Hariata Moriarty.

Cousins is now available in cinemas across the country.