20th Century Studios
Despite a 13-year gap since the first Avatar movie, the sequel’s messages resonate even more loudly, says K Gurunathan.
K (Guru) Gurunathan is a former Mayor of Kāpiti and a long-time campaigner for Māori causes. He is a regular opinion contributor to Stuff.
OPINION: At the Wellington Airport domestic terminal, daughter Jess comes off the Auckland flight excited.
“Guess what – James Cameron was on the same flight,” she says, and knowing her appa (dad) is a fan, she quickly adds: “Don’t go trying to meet him. People like him get harassed all the time and it looks like he has got a couple of hefty-looking minders with him too.”
I had no intention of doing that. But, as fate would have it, at the baggage claim, Mr Cameron was there in the crowd just 3 metres away from us. A decidedly muscular Polynesian stood on his left.
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Without overthinking the situation I stepped up to him, said “Mr Cameron”, and stretched out my hand.
His eyes met mine as he clasped my hand.
“I just want to say thank you,” I said.
“You like my movies?” he replied.
“Avatar,” I said as he spotted his suitcase.
And that was it. Well, almost.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now screening in Kiwi cinemas.
The handshake spoke a language of its own. His grip was firm and warm. The moment I finished saying thank you I had released my grip. He held on to my hand for the rest of the brief exchange and tightened that warm clasp with a slight shake at the end.
There is a cultural psychology around handshakes. We remember the I’m-more-powerful-than-you comical alpha handshakes of Donald Trump on the world stage.
Despite being an A+ lister on the celebrity scale, James Cameron, at the domestic terminal baggage claim, was the incarnation of the decent Kiwi bloke.
And yes, he picked up his own baggage.
That airport meeting happened at least five years after the 2009 Avatar movie.
The 13-year gap till the 2022 release of his second Avatar movie has led to some critics claiming a lack of a cultural footprint as in the likes of Harry Potter or Star Wars series.
But the insular fan-based cultures built around such movies are artificial commercial constructs compared to the real-world cultural footprint that Avatar landed. A world increasingly aware of the devastating impact of imperialism, colonialism and environmental collapse.
I remember in 2009 walking out of the theatre with my mind in sensory shock and coming across Tame Iti exiting at the same time.
The Māori activist/artist responded with a thumbs up when I asked him about the movie. That for me was the incarnation of the cultural footprint of Avatar.
The impact of colonialism, destruction of the environment and the indigenous people’s way of life was active in 2009, and in 2023, it’s worse.
Across the ditch, the Aussie publication National Indigenous Times wrote a review which carried two criticisms worth mentioning.
The first accused the movie of waxing the white saviour complex, where the white hero saves coloured people from danger.
Avatar’s protagonist, Jack Scully, is a disabled US Marine whose mind is transposed into the body of a Na’vi to be a spy for the invading corporation. He is, however, re-educated and completely taken over by the Na’vi.
I see James Cameron’s narrative as a Trojan horse that subverts the oppressors’ exploitative ideology. If anything, the white saviour is trying to save himself and the Western consumer society from the inevitable self-annihilation that follows the destruction of the environment.
A second criticism suggests the idea of the producer giving a Māori-inspired project like Avatar to an “actual” indigenous filmmaker to tell the story, rather than one told through the lens of a white guy and colonial Western tropes.
While I understand the sentiment, we have, in James Cameron, an exceptional proven talent with a commitment to exposing the economic and cultural forces undermining the future of the human race.
His pioneering use of cutting-edge technology not only increases his global audience but also the depth of the message delivered into the receptive minds of this audience.
Given the declaration by the ACT Party and NZ First that the 2023 general elections will see them campaign against the increasing influence of Māori in government policies, the Māori-inspired second blockbuster Avatar movie is a timely and powerful counter-narrative to highlight the usefulness of indigenous values as solutions.