"Music and film have transformed my life," says the singer and songwriter Stan Walker. Of Māori, Tūhoe, Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Porou descent, Walker grew up on a marae in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand, and when he was still just a teenager, he won Australian Idol. In the years since, he has continued to discover ways of merging his love for music and his love for cinema.
"I knew straight away that this was a composition about identity and purpose," Walker explains. "From the melancholic opening bar to the swirling triumphant outro, I was matching every film moment in music."
Based on Isabel Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the biographical drama follows the author (played by Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she sets out to research the roots of societal prejudices and experiences a global journey of self-discovery. "The recording had to be majestic and, like the film, ultimately cathartic and hopeful," Walker says. "There had to be tension in the music and a holding on to culture."
"I Am" is a collaboration between Walker and Aussie songwriter and producer Michael Fatkin; Vince Harder, who brought his Samoan ancestry to the table to infuse the song with authority; and Te Kanapu Anasata, one of New Zealand's leading Māori lyricists.
"As a young boy, I was told not to speak Māori, and that only English would give me a future," reflects the songwriter. "To proudly be able to sing both languages in the song is my own personal reclamation of my identity."
Below, Walker shares with A.frame five New Zealand/Aotearoa films that deeply affected him.
Directed by: Lee Tamahori | Written by: Riwia Brown
Once Were Warriors is spiritually a companion piece to Origin. In this story was my story, my father's, mother's, my grandparents'. Starring the royal family of Kiwi actors — Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis — this film holds up a torch in a very dark and dangerous cave. It is very hard to watch, but like all art, this is not sensationalism; it's a film with purpose.
Yes, it charts poverty, domestic abuse, violence and alcoholism, but it enlightens the fact that these crushing elements have been induced by taking once Proud Warriors, who had a self-sustaining life on land and sea for thousands of years, and then had every part of their Māori culture stripped away from them through the colonization of New Zealand. From suppressing their art, banning their language, stealing their lands, and forcing them to live in urban squalor, you will come to understand colonialism in the context of caste and the huge damage it brings. But this film is also a redemptive tale of great hope. Once were warriors, always warriors. This film is as close to a biography of my childhood as can be.
Written and Directed by: Niki Caro
The film's lead star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was my guest at the premiere of Origin. Like Keisha, my career started young. At 18, I won Australian Idol, and I was unprepared for fame. Keisha inspires me. Despite the road rash of child star infamy, Keisha has honed her craft and committed to her art. She has steadily built a great CV and has grown into her skin as an actor.
For anyone with a young daughter, please watch Whale Rider. As much as it is about the environment, it is a gentle yet powerful meditation on gender. Keisha's character dreams of being the iwi (tribe) leader, traditionally a male-only role. Any young girl will find this a powerful journey. Keisha's character proclaims, "My name is Paikea Apirana, and I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way back to the Whale Rider. I'm not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength." Find this film and watch it with your daughter. You will come for Keisha's incandescent performance, and you will stay for a powerful meditation on women as Chiefs!
Written and Directed by: Taika Waititi
If Once Were Warriors was the dark side of my childhood, Boy is the joyous. If you want to understand what it is that makes New Zealand joyous, unique, and a world-class country, watch Boy. Playful, truthful, and heartbreakingly honest. I was 20 when I saw this movie, and it was like reading my childhood diary – if I had kept one, but I wrote songs instead. The soundtrack featuring all Kiwi music made me realize that music really is the soundtrack to each of our lives, that music can be a character in film, that music is our time machine to memories. The use of music in Boy lit a fire in me that made me dream of a song of mine one day being in a film.
Written and Directed by: Taika Waititi
We all have heroes, and dreams do come true. In 2016, I scored the smallest of roles in Taika Waititi's laugh-out-loud, hearty, kind, and heartwarming comedy. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a mash-up of two of my favorite genres: road movies and the odd couple, starring New Zealand's national treasure, Sam Neill, and the amazing Julian Dennison in his breakout role. This film has lines you will be quoting for days.
To watch a genius like Taika was how I came to understand what a true filmmaker can be. This film balances slapstick comedy with profound humanity. Everyone from age eight to 88 will find something deep in it for them. Taika, I watch you with pride and awe knowing your best work is still ahead.
Written and Directed by: Tearepa Kahi
This was a powerful case of art mirroring life: I played the lead in a motion picture where its theme was the transformative power of music. I starred alongside acting God Temuera Morrison, playing a humble potato picker in rural New Zealand. My character forms a band with one dream: supporting Bob Marley when he tours New Zealand. It's about family, dreams, struggles, and the power of music to help you find purpose and identity.
Mt. Zion was my real graduation from singer into an artist, truly understanding why music reaches into people's souls as Bob Marley does. It was the film Mt. Zion, falling in love with Bob Marley's music, and feeling the power of film that set me on a creative journey to Origin. Working with Ava has been a deeply powerful chapter of growth for me. An absolute humbling career high.