Maui’s Hook: A powerful look at embracing death while choosing life

This documentary/fiction narrative crossover sees Māori psychologist and filmmaker Paora Joseph embark on a journey of grieving and healing with five other families from Taranaki to Cape Reinga, exploring the love and loss behind New Zealand’s surprisingly high rate of suicide.

The strangest thing about Māori filmmaker Paora Joseph’s Maui’s Hook isn’t that it’s a documentary crossed with a fictional narrative about teen suicide. It’s not the surprisingly uplifting ending for such grim subject matter. It’s that the film is more about faith and hope, acceptance and moving on, than it is about suicide. Marketed during the recent NZ International Film Festival as a cutting exploration of New Zealand’s high rates of suicide, the film never attempts clinical analysis or biting criticism. It’s surprisingly devoid of anger or resignation at all. Instead, it focuses on the healing that can be found in community. It was more about awareness than finding answers – and this was both its strength and weakness.

My first of two issues with the film was the fictional narrative tie-in. An interesting and engaging idea to link the differing stories of grieving families along the journey, it just didn’t quite tick for me. While it wasn’t bad, it took away from a much stronger whole.

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My second issue was the film’s seeming lack of underlined message of change about tackling suicide. Perhaps it’s too reductive to consider that a sole 90-minute documentary would be able to provide satisfactory answers or fixes – suicide is a complex and divisive issue with no right answer for motivations or actions. But even still, a little anger may have given Maui’s Hook a kick that it was slightly lacking. There were a couple of stats included around suicide rates within the population, with some consideration about the wider ramifications of it. Ultimately, the film fell short of what it could have said about the hows and whys of suicide in this country – but perhaps that’s less important than what Maui’s Hook covers.

The documentary’s ultimate strength is turning away from the bigger picture and focusing on the sorrow and change the grieving process wreaks on families after suicide. In interviewing half a dozen families from around the North Island, Joseph weaves a wonderful picture of how community can help refocus the lens on the way suicide affects those left behind. Joseph’s filmmaking is unpretentious, focusing on the art of storytelling. In fact, the scenes covering individual family members sharing their experiences of grief and recovery were some of the film’s most poignant moments, enwrapping you in every emotion possible. The theme around the spiritual journey was also fitting, matching each individual’s journey from loneliness to acceptance and love by the film’s end. And what an ending. Uplifting and beautiful, Maui’s Hook celebrates soaring from the darkest lows to the highs of life being lived once again. Maybe that’s what people need to see right now before the critical conversations can be had.

An intense and heart-breaking look at suicide and its effect on entire communities. Maui’s Hook offers plenty of food for thought, with the occasionally-gimmicky narrative the only element weighing down this otherwise lean offering 7.5/10.

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