#byusandaboutus: A review of Rūrangi

Essa Ranapiri on how amazing it is (and how sad it is that it is amazing) to watch Rūrangi, a film created by, for, and starring trans people.

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He stands in front of a curtain of beads, they shift before us, the black and red strobing. Waveforms to form a fence that assaults the vision. He silhouettes behind it and we the viewer are separated from him. He from us. He wants to cross the threshold; the beads could hold back nothing, one could shrug through them with ease, but he can’t. Not yet.

That silhouette is Caz Davis as played by Elz Carrad, a trans man playing a trans man in the lead role of the film Rūrangi, directed by Max Currie and written by Cole Meyers. I’m going to start off by saying how amazing it is (and how sad it is that it is amazing) that this story stars and was created by trans people. I have become so used to cis actors wearing me like a costume that just seeing trans people playing trans people in deep and complex roles is incredible to me. Rūrangi isn’t an easy story, and I don’t think it could ever be, as our lives are so fraught. There are moments of real joy, but they don’t usually last long or are undercut by bitter tragedy, though the film ends on a note that rings with hope for the future.

I felt this film deep in my wairua like it was swimming there inside me just waiting to come out

The story of Rūrangi is one of gaining acceptance, finding yourself and your tūrangawaewae. Burnt out from activism, Caz has returned home to Rūrangi to deal with a past he left behind. To any queer person watching, I think this will be quite familiar in a lot of ways, which of course doesn’t diminish the need to tell it. Every time I go back to Tauranga-Moana, I feel some small part of what Caz does when he returns home. As is true of the relationship between Caz and his father (played by familiar face Kirk Torrence) so often it is your family who are the slowest to see you as who you have become. The threshold we watch Caz try and fail to cross in the film is that of his father’s house. 

The cinematography in Rūrangi is powerful and simple. Many of the shots that work to establish the setting and provide breathers between scenes are stunning encapsulations of the New Zealand gothic – beautiful frames of the urban and the rural. Shot reverse shot is, and always will be, the most productive way to communicate the feelings of two people in a conversation, and is used for much of the dialogue in Rūrangi. Āwhina Rose Henare Ashby’s character Anahera begins each day by reciting her pepeha, accompanied by these shots of the landscape shrouded in mist and a still river. Our whenua. Her story of trying to reconnect to te reo Māori is another aspect of the film that I am intimately familiar with. I felt this film deep in my wairua like it was swimming there inside me just waiting to come out. This film can be read as a critique of colonisation and the way many of us as Māori have lost touch with our own ways of being. 

This is my world – a world where gender is constantly challenged, where queerness is almost the norm

Watching this movie was surreal. To be seen and to see one’s self is so important to our survival, but so often I feel we have to slip into an Americanised world to experience queerness in a real way in our media. Not only did I recognise the country roads and the city lights of Auckland, but there were people I knew in the background, trans people, so many beautiful trans and takatāpui people just living and breathing in this world. This is our world. This is my world – a world where gender is constantly challenged, where queerness is almost the norm. Even the farms represented here reminded me of where I would spend time with my cousins as a kid. I could smell the air in Rūrangi in a way that I could never pretend to with other films, because it takes place on our whenua. 

The exchanges between Jem (played so adorably by Arlo Green) and Caz are some of the most beautifully drawn evocations of romance I’ve seen in some time. Of awkward, blushing romance, of dropping-sentences-and-paraphernalia romance. Theirs is a relationship I wanted to live inside of, wanted to stay with. Actors Green and Carrad’s chemistry is undeniable, and their relationship is, of course, not so straightforward, as nothing is easy in Rūrangi. Still, it is a joy to watch these two perform opposite each other. They really capture that struggle to communicate when so much is on the line, those little silences that hold worlds inside them. 

Rūrangi is beautiful and awkward and powerful and stumbling

Early on, the film deals with suicide, but doesn’t dwell on details, just the impact of that action (which doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking). It’s this kind of restraint that stops the film from feeling exploitative – always a risk when we’re the subjects of the story. So often our pain is used to sell our stories, but here I think that pain is just part of the story, speaking to the reality of the situation. 

I think this film is best watched with fresh eyes, so I hope whoever reads this review will give this film a chance. Rūrangi is beautiful and awkward and powerful and stumbling, complete and utterly fragmented, but it holds us queers to be a truth about the world rather than some kind of strange exception to it. 

So we watch as Caz stands before the threshold, holding our breath, hoping like hell that he makes it across. Regardless, by the end of Rūrangi, it’s safe to say we have crossed that threshold as an audience. This film is a beautiful achievement. It gives many of us a place to stand, in a medium where we haven’t stood before.

Rūrangi is having its world cinema premiere at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland, on Sunday 26 July as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.