XIN CHENG AND ADAM BEN-DROR’S FILM ‘Making Like a Forest: Manawa Karioi’ (2020) takes as its focus the Manawa Karioi Ecological Restoration Project, which is managed and cared for by Tapu Te Ranga Marae in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. The film emulates the reparative intimacy of this reforestation project through a visual-temporal translation of Manawa Karioi as ‘the heart desires to linger.’ In its own lingering, ‘Making Like a Forest’ presents a sequence of long, still shots of the forest, most of them close-ups on plants and insects, accompanied by spare voice-over from Dean Stewart, Ross Gardiner, and Parehinetai ‘Pare’ Sannyasi. Sounds from birds, humans, water, and the wind in trees act as complementary presences. The calls of tūī and other native birds give voice to the forest’s health, indicating its capacity to sustain bird life, including, as we learn, predators such as morepork. An abundance of birds in turn nourishes insects, with the two together supporting the forest through seed dispersal and pollination respectively.
The voice of Sannyasi shares kaitiakitanga practices, acts of guardianship and care, such as standing ‘at the mouth’ of the forest, and waiting to be invited in. Another voice, that of Stewart, describes the practical regeneration technique of using gorse, an invasive shrub introduced by colonial settlers, as a nursery plant. The project, which began in 1990, imagines that a future visitor will be able to see the growing giants of the forest—tōtara, rimu, kahikatea. It proposes a type of care across generations for human and nonhuman forest life, whereby a proliferation of multispecies exchanges between plants and humans, insects and birds, forest and birds coalesce for the well-being of all. In this context, Pākehā and other non-Māori are invited to work alongside tangata whenua.
In their duration, the sequence of shots in ‘Making Like a Forest’ incorporates expansive and intimate views of the forest; they linger on the droplets of dew on plants, bark on trees, and lichen-covered rocks inside the forest. In ways recognisably characteristic of Cheng’s previous work, in which she focuses on under-appreciated spaces or humble objects like upcycled chairs, ‘Making Like a Forest’ dwells on scenes that do not induce spectacle, although the long, static shot of a lone thrip wandering around the inside of a tiny ngaio flower is a rare moment of heightened seduction. This dwelling on, and examining of, the interior of a flower exemplifies proximity. But proximity alone does not determine intimacy. Rather, intimacy in the context of this film arises from an ethical commitment to tangata whenua and the forest, which in turn guides the artist’s interactions and slow, attentive filmic moments.