Māori and indigenous cultures shine in Avatar sequel

By Michael Cugley

By Michael Cugley, Te Rito journalism cadet.

Avatar: The Way of Water producer Jon Landau says it was "highly important" to portray indigenous cultures' values in the movie sequel now being launched. 

Coming 13 years after the first Avatar film appeared, this second instalment of a four-part series follows the lives of the Sullys, who come into contact with the Metkayina clan starring Cliff Curtis (Ngāti Hauiti, Te Arawa) and Duane Evans Jr (Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi), and based on a mixture of indigenous cultures and values.

“It was very important for us to represent indigenous cultures not just in Avatar: The Way of Water but also in the first Avatar and, as we expand to the sequels, each movie we create is going to introduce us to new clans who are diverse, who look different, who have different backgrounds culturally to show movie-going audiences the diversity that exists in indigenous cultures,” Landau says.

The movie was filmed in Aotearoa, predominantly in Wellington and Auckland, providing over $500 million to the local economy.

According to Landau, the film created over 1400 employment opportunities over five years, with 90% of its staff being New Zealand citizens. 

Another focus of the film was to shine a light on current issues faced around this world.

Māori make their mark in Hollywood again - right here in Aotearoa.

Metaphor for issues

“I think the movie is not just art imitating life but putting a focus on life, and asking people who might ignore the issues that relate to whaling, that relate to our environment, that relate to the treatment of indigenous, that relate to wars that are senseless, that science fiction gives us an opportunity to be a metaphor for those things.”

Landau says this film is the first of its kind, using underwater motion capture to create its visual effects.

Evans Jr says emotions were running high during his first look at the movie.

“Instantly, my eyes were flowing with tears. I was wearing a mask and all my make-up was just gone, washed away. It’s mind-boggling honestly. I spent 10 minutes after, trying to figure out how to describe it,” he says.

Cliff Curtis is another new character in the movie starring as Tonowari, the leader of the Metkayina clan.

Credit: Instagram / @teao_official

'Knowing your place'

His character is an assertive father figure across his tribe. However, in playing such a role, his words of encouragement for the next generation of actors are clear.

Curtis says, “Be courageous, give it a shot and try. In Māori we overuse the term humility sometimes. It can get a bit twisted. But te āhua o te whakaiti, to me that is knowing your place. It’s not to belittle yourself but to understand that you are a part of something much greater than yourself.”

The movie is to premiere on December 15 in Aotearoa.