Lee Tamahori is a famous and successful filmmaker, who was born of a Maori father and a British mother. Ethnically, he is a New Zealand native. Initially, Lee Tamahori started a career in commercial photography, where his main interest was telling a story through the impressive pictures that he took. As a filmmaker, Lee Tamahori is an entertainer with ingenious film directory skills. In his productions, he does not focus on the truth or the historic content too much, but his movies mostly bring out emotions and intrigue, as well as an element of thrill aimed at engaging and entertaining the audience from the onset to the end of a film. Some of this filmmaker’s major works include Once Were Warriors, Edge, The Devil’s Double, and Next among others. This movie director has been especially successful and consistent owing to his ability to pay attention to emotional details in a story. Most of the themes addressed in Lee Tamahori’s films are based on personal ideological inclinations and cultural experiences, especially in terms of his ancestry as a Maori. This research paper explores the history of Lee Tamahori and the way it may have influenced his career choice as a film director and attempts to explain the reasons why he has succeeded in film production endeavors.
Lee Tamahori is of mixed origin considering that he has a Maori father and a British mother (Walters 2015). He grew up in New Zealand, witnessing the near extinction of his Maori heritage as modernization took root and spread to a point where indigenous values and ideals of the Maori community were labeled backward, like any other authentic cultures in the face of globalization or modernization. With a multi-cultural background, Lee Tamahori may have been inclined more towards his mother’s cultural ties, but he was still a Maori by blood owing to his father’s ancestry (Walters 2015). Lee Tamahori’s Maori origin has shaped him as a filmmaker in many ways. First, it can be appreciated that his very first film was about the struggles of a Maori family within the contemporary world where modern concepts made life too difficult for average indigenous citizens. Conflicting values introduced in the modern world were in some way detrimental to the views of traditional people. In addition, the conflict between the old and new personifies what Lee Tamahori has witnessed for most of his life and while growing up in New Zealand (Walters 2015).
It is evident that Lee Tamahori’s British ancestry played a significant role in his success in Hollywood. The role of directors’ culture in shaping their artistic personality has been effectively emphasized in the auteur theory. Moreover, the question of whether Lee Tamahori is qualified as an auteur or not is an altogether different debate. The main argument here is that cultural experiences that underlie the director’s life have enabled him to see the world and tell his stories in the way he does (Dutta 2011). No matter whether he is consistent or versatile, the director’s outlook is often a result of his prevailing environment, the present, or the past. One of the major factors that have urged Tamahori to turn to the film industry is his versatility. Lee Tamahori learned it at a young age considering that he was a multi-cultural child with different perspectives on the world. His ancestry thus made him work in an environment where he would have to tell stories in various contexts and from different perspectives. It is particularly evident in the film The Devil’s Double, where he illustrates Baghdad and Saddam Hussein in an altogether different light as he focuses on the antics of Saddam Hussein’s son, and the irredeemable status of Iraq before the first Gulf War (Tamahori 2011).
An incredible influence of filmmaker’s ancestry on his work as a director is particularly evident on set. Lee Tamahori is known for his strict work system, where he does not condone narcissistic and sycophantic tendencies of star actors on the set. The Maori warrior character limits director’s tolerance or indulgence towards individualistic ideologies of superiority or mediocrity amongst actors. It explains why he treats his cast reasonably well and mostly equally despite their level of stardom. As such, the director has an interesting reputation as a good filmmaker with both upcoming actors and stars. It is all because he is particularly unable to worship fame or idolize actors enough to treat superstars in a special manner. His focus on work is thus elevated by his inability to be derailed by the status of a cast member. Equality is always supreme, and actors have to work just as hard as other cast members do to deliver on their roles while working with Lee Tamahori.
Lee Tamahori spent most of his life in New Zealand, a small country with a few people and a rather compact social system. It means that despite his ancestry, the director was rather limited in exposure in his early life. A number of sources describe his work in commercial art as inspiring and captivating, evidence relevant to the people of New Zealand. Lee Tamahori’s roots are deeply intertwined with the local people. At that time, Lee focused on telling a story for corporations and enticing consumers, getting them to identify with their favorite brands. It was evident that Lee Tamahori was a great storyteller, who worked exceptionally well with the camera and other artists to deliver the right messages. When he ventured into filmmaking as a young man, his aim was simply to tell a story. At that time, he had already established his ability to do this from a captivating and relevant angle depending on the target audience. It can be concluded that among other things, this young filmmaker was very focused on showing the world from a new and different perspective in each project.
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For example, in Once Were Warriors, the main argument is that things are not always so as one may see them. Similarly in The Devil’s Double, despite being an alternative history, the story presents a hypothetically different view of the situation in the Gulf region before the first Gulf War. Therefore, this means that as a director Lee focuses on telling a story that people know, without really repeating the obvious but rather showing them that there is more than what they have already known. Another factor that influenced Tamahori’s interest in filmmaking is his talent in telling inner details in a story. Right from his days as a commercial artist and photographer, Lee Tamahori has been always trying to tell a story behind the story in order to influence people’s perspective on a given subject. It may happen intentionally or otherwise, depending on the movie in question. In Once Were Warriors, it was intentional since the director needed to highlight various struggles of the Maori community (Tamahori 2003). On the other hand, in The Devil’s Double, Lee Tamahori ended up justifying the invasion of Iraq unintentionally as he was not telling a political story. The director claims to focus on the mafia concept in the Iraqi government rather than on the invasion and the Gulf War. Moreover, while this is greatly debatable, the movie mainly focuses on Iraq before the war, making it possible that the director was not too concerned about external players in the situation in the Gulf region at the time.
Lee Tamahori’s Filmmaking Career
Lee Tamahori turned to filmmaking rather early in life. He started out in commercial photography and worked his way up from feature films to his first blockbuster piece, Once Were Warriors (Martens 2007). Primarily, filmmaking has always been his calling owing to his passion for telling a story from a different, entertaining, and most pleasing perspective. For Lee Tamahori, filmmaking was not just about glamour and fame that came with being a resident of Hollywood. The director actually enjoyed the stories he was telling in New Zealand as a young artist working with corporate organizations, getting people to appreciate commercials, and telling their stories in exquisite photographs.
Whether because of his ethnic background as a Maori or his unique perspective on life and people, it is rather clear that storytelling has always been part of Lee Tamahori’s agenda. His approach to filmmaking is specific and entertaining regardless of the subject tackled. His personal life has also been rather turbulent owing to his prolonged presence in Hollywood and its diverse excesses (Walters 2015). Tamahori has been involved in a number of scandals, and the main argument is that he does numerous unconventional things simply because he can. The most recent incident is the one related to cross-dressing, where he might have experimented or tried to experience life as a woman. Lee Tamahori is known for taking risks, and this is a theme or concept that has been also featured in some of his works. Taking risks is in most cases part of the learning curve, and Lee Tamahori’s role as a director requires him to do research for his audience to be able to learn from his work. It means that filmmaking is rather a full-time job that influences his private escapades as well. In The Devil’s Double, the director has to interview one of the persons featured in the actual Saddam Hussein story in order to understand the reality before creating fiction. The filmmaker however uses his own wisdom and experience to believe a small part of the interview, consequently applying his life experiences to influence the outcome of a story. The interviewed individual was a body double to Saddam Hussein’s son, who is also the main character in the movie. Therefore, filmmaking has enabled Tamahori to reach a larger audience with more serious problems.
Each director is considerably unique based on who the one is and what influences and shapes one’s perspectives or ideologies presented in work. For Lee Tamahori, his cultural heritage as part of the Maori community in New Zealand shaped his understanding of the world at an early age. He understood the concept of marginalization and living near extinction owing to modernization and globalization as people embraced new cultures at the expense of their own. On the other hand, the director’s multi-cultural status gave him an open mind since he became capable of accepting and embracing things as they were. It enabled him to examine and present possibilities that would ordinarily be considered impossible in a story. As a good storyteller, Lee Tamahori can be said to have become a filmmaker mainly because he enjoys telling a good story from a unique perspective. He had already captured the art of storytelling in his photographs and commercials. Thus, when he got into filmmaking, he was simply looking to reach a larger audience with a more practical story, but not fairy tales that commercials mostly sold. In essence, Lee Tamahori is mostly interested in being able to tell his story from his perspective without fearing judgments or misinterpretation, and it is the main reason for his transition from photography to filmmaking. Although Lee Tamahori has been still worrying about being misunderstood, this filmmaker stays true to his beliefs and values as a Maori warrior with an open mind.