Fight for treasured film of Princess Te Puea

By Aroha Awarau

A dispute over ownership of a rare historical film featuring one of Māoridom’s most cherished leaders is making its way to the Waitangi Tribunal.

In 1937, English director Jim Manley befriended Princess Te Puea Herangi of Waikato, who invited Manley to film her and the restoration of traditional Tainui waka. The historical footage is regarded as a national treasure, but for Jim Manley’s family, it’s been a stressful experience. They’ve spent the last 30 years fighting to regain ownership of the film, resulting in a pending claim with the Waitangi Tribunal.

“Te Puea had a vision. Her idea was to rebuild the migratory fleet that came to Aotearoa in the 1300s from Hawaiki,” says Mel Whaanga, the grandson of Jim Manley. “To record the filming of such a tapu work was unheard of and she was looking for someone she could trust.”

Mel’s mother, Moana Whaanga, the daughter of Manley and the first Māori woman to be crowned Miss New Zealand in 1954, treasured her father’s collection over her own legacy. Manley left Moana his collection and the nitrate film after his death in 1978. 

“Mum would say, “Kids if the house catches on fire, don’t worry about me, go and get the collection, mare sure it’s safe,” says Mel.

In 1982, Moana was visited by Jonathan Dennis from the New Zealand Film Archives, now called Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. It took Dennis a year to convince Moana that his organisation had the facilities to best care for the film. Signing a depositors agreement, Moana gave Dennis the collection, believing she still retained full ownership and was only giving the collection away for safekeeping.

“We’ve given all the nitrate over to the film archive, Ngā Taonga Sound and vision, for safety reasons, for preservation reasons and for insurance reasons,” says Mel.

The whānau realised they had lost control over the collection when one of our most revered film-makers got involved.  Merata Mita was hired to direct Mana Waka – a historical documentary using the footage shot by Manley and with Johnathan Dennis as a key adviser. Mel and his whānau walked off the project when they did not like Merata’s vision. When Mana Waka had its first screening in 1989, Mel and his whānau stormed into the Auckland cinema, with Mita and Dame Te Atairangikaahu in attendance, and took the film from the projector.

“People were saying that a family had stolen the film. It was short of saying that we kidnapped it, that we did this terrible thing. What they failed to understand is that we owned the film,” Mel says.

Mel has been fighting for the return of the nitrate film and full ownership ever since. Moana died in 2017 and it was her dying wish that full ownership of her father’s collection is returned to her whānau.

Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision currently holds the collection. Its CEO, Honiana Love, says It’s up to the Te Puea Trust in Waikato, to decide where ownership lies.

“As an organisation, we have done all that we can to try and resolve our small part in this. Obviously we can’t right historical wrongs. We don’t own our collection, the owners of that collection are usually the depositors but not always. How we manage copyright is there’s a copyright owner identified on the film itself, I’ve watched the film, and it names the copyright owner as the Te Puea Trust,” says Love.

Hinerangi Raumati-Tu’ua, chair of the Turangawaewae Marae Trust Board in Waikato, says a meeting with Mel and his whānau is needed before anything can be resolved.

“Like his whaanau, we view the footage as taonga and our priority is to ensure its protection and preservation as part of our Kiingitanga, marae and cultural history for future generations to witness, learn from and enjoy,” says Raumati-Tu’ua.

Mel says his past dealings with Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision and the people of Tainui have been ineffective.

“I’ve spoken to Tainui and the Kingitanga as to what their thoughts are that they never paid my grandfather, I asked then to produce receipts, payslips and there’s nothing. To this day, Tainui never paid my grandfather, from the years and years of work that led to the downfall of his company

Mel says the last resort is to take legal action -  both in court and with the Waitangi Tribunal.

“I strongly feel that we have been disrespected. They’ve dishonoured my mother and haven’t recognised my grandfather.”