New Zealand has produced some world class directors; think of Jane Campion, or Peter Jackson. Not a lot of cannibal movies unfortunately, considering the country’s reputation – Jackson’s first feature film Bad Taste had a lot of humans being eaten but, unfortunately for this blog, the eaters were space aliens, so not technically cannibals. Jackson’s Braindead was closer, involving zombies. Can you be a cannibal if you are undead? We’ll have to consider that question some time, perhaps when we run out of movies about living cannibals (probably about the time we get to net zero).
But Danny Mulheron gets right into freshly killed, cooked (and sometimes raw) human body parts in this film. Like Jackson’s Bad Taste, Fresh Meat was Mulheron’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive inception.
The plot involves a family of Maoris, recently converted cannibals, being taken hostage by some bumbling criminals. Rina (Hanna Tevita) is home from her lesbian explorations at “St Agnes Boarding School for Young Maori Ladies” when a bunch of criminals break in to her home to hide from the police, having killed some prison guards to free their boss from a prison van.
But that’s Rina’s second shock of the day; the first was finding her parents’ new eating regime in the fridge.
Turns out her Dad (Temuera Morrison from Once Were Warriors and The Mandalorian) is reviving an “eighteenth century post-colonial religion” – he has found the prophecies of Solomon Smith and become a “Solomonite”; he now believes that eating people (“taking their life-force”) will cause the family to flourish.
Yes, among the satire on Maori and Pakeha cultures, there is the odd dig at Christian transubstantiation.
Mum (Nicola Kawana) produces hugely popular cooking shows and books, she’s a Maori Nigella, into marinades, and she describes the meat she uses:
Rina is shocked that her brother (Kahn West) would agree to eat human flesh, until he tells her about the pork and rosemary pies that her family sent to her at school. It wasn’t a choice.
The subsequent bloody altercation with the criminals is set to fill the larder nicely. Dad tells the last living criminal, Gigi (Kate Elliott), who is hanging upside down ready for slaughter, that
“ritualistic cannibalism dates back to 1000BC to the Hun phase in Germany. The Bible itself refers to the siege of Samaria in which two women made a pact to eat their children. The Aztecs, the French, the Brits… Your ancestors probably did it. I know mine did.”
There is lots of Maori humour, and not all relating to cannibalism. Dad is an Associate Professor at the University, and blames white racism for his failure to be given tenure as full professor. When the cops knock at the door, he complains
Rina’s neighbour is a white boy who is in love with her. When he appears and is invited in (“we’ll have him for dinner” says Dad – yes, Hannibal lives), he points out that he is a vegetarian, but politely eats what turns out to be a human testicle, only getting suspicious when he spots something else on his plate.
Even when they have him tied up in the basement ready for slaughter, he politely tells them
Dad replies with the best line of the movie:
“Oh, we’re not Maori cannibals. We’re cannibals… that just happen to be Maori.”
But Dad has his own agenda: to become immortal:
“By eating the still-beating heart of my youngest son, I’m halfway towards immortality. But I still need to drink the blood of my virgin daughter.”
Doesn’t quite work out that way, Rina’s not a “virgin” after that scene in the shower with her girlfriend. Or does it?
What is it about virgins and blood sacrifices anyway? Are the rest of us not good enough to sanitise humanity’s sins with our polluted blood? We exploit the innocent and gentle ones, and then expect that, by slaughering them, we somehow clear our guilt at doing so. Remember the line from Leonard Cohen’s song Amen:
Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Anyway, the takeaway from this movie is that Maoris, traditionally accused of cannibalism, can be Maoris and cannibals without being “Maori Cannibals”. The two identities can be separated, even as they coexist. There are other families of cannibals who are not defined by their race; consider the Mexican film Somos lo que hay or its American adaptation We are what we are.
In cannibal studies, it is not unusual to be buttonholed by someone who has become aware of your field of interest and told with great solemnity “the Maori were cannibals, you know.” I tend to politely thank the informant for sharing a “fact” that almost everyone “knows”. But if I am feeling feisty, or have had a few drinks, I might invite them to unpack that statement – which Maori, whom did they eat, and what evidence are you presenting for this?
The British invaders of New Zealand were keen on declaring that the indigenous peoples, of wherever they went, were cannibals – it made their job of invading, enlightening and/or exterminating the inconvenient locals so much easier. But there is some evidence that much of the talk of Maori cannibalism was either misinterpretation or just slander – imperialists in the age of expansion tended to use words like “savage”, “barbarian” or “cannibal” pretty interchangeably – if you had dark skin and didn’t speak English, you were probably a cannibal, with no evidence required other than some hearsay from conquistadors or missionaries. But if an alien civilisation invaded Earth and found a copy of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a bookshelf, they might well assume that it was a history book, and that we were all cannibals.
Ganath Obeyesekere’s excellent book on cannibalism in the South Seas makes clear that the oversimplification of Maori culture and mythology (and perhaps humour) probably led to often tragic misinterpretations of local customs. In fact, he says, it is likely that many Maori were convinced that the British were cannibals. And who could blame them? If those aliens mentioned above put down Grimm’s Fairy Tales and took a look inside our industrialised slaughter factories, where 135,000 farmed animals are killed every minute, they would assume we were far more bloodthirsty than they, or the Brothers Grimm, could have imagined. No wonder they don’t make contact.
It is interesting to consider the differing responses to cannibalism in the family of this film. Social Psychologist Melanie Joy calls the ideology surrounding and justifying the eating of meat, dairy and eggs “carnism” – a set of largely unconsidered beliefs in three beliefs that start with the letter N: that these products are “normal, natural and necessary“. We drink milk, eat meat, scramble eggs, based on the insouciant assumption that all these things are normal, necessary and natural (and, a fourth N, nice to taste). The family members reflect these views, but in relation to a different food source: Homo sapiens. Dad thinks eating humans is “necessary” in order to absorb the life force of the victims, and make himself immortal. Mother is a celebrated chef; for her, eating meat is “natural”, and where it comes from is not an issue, as long as it cooks well and tastes good. Rina’s brother finds the whole thing “normal” – his parents do it, and he wants to learn from them, and make them proud. Only Rina objects, although she was willing to eat the pies they sent her when she thought they were bits of a different animal. She’s like a vegan at a barbecue, heart-broken to see her family so unthinkingly accepting the death of animals, or at least, those that she can see and talk to.
If you don’t like gore and body parts (and violence and lesbian kissing) then you might want to skip this movie. But if you don’t mind all that, and like a rip-snorting plot, plenty of humour, a little suspense, and lots of intertextual winks to cultural foibles, some (perhaps unintentional) observations on the ideology of carnism, as well as some great acting and direction, then watch Fresh Meat. Recommended.