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Taika Waititi on the ‘fine tradition’ of using comedy to combat intolerance

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox/YouTube

Taika Waititi on the ‘fine tradition’ of using comedy to combat intolerance

Kiwi filmmaker, actor and comedian Taika Waititi is riding high in Hollywood. His latest offering, Jojo Rabbit, has just been nominated for best comedy or musical film at the Golden Globes.

Taika Waititi on the ‘fine tradition’ of using comedy to combat intolerance

Waititi not only wrote and directed this satirical take on Nazi Germany, he also acted as a boy’s imaginary version of Adolf Hitler in the film.

He talks to MiNDFOOD about remembering our history, his own unusual origin story, and the importance of looking at life through the lens of humour.

When you started writing the Jojo Rabbit script, a comedy about Nazi Germany, and Hitler himself, were you prepared for some people not to get the humour?

Yes, but eventually people will get it [laughs]. For some people it takes a while to get the joke, which I understand. I’m not in the business of trying to be a shock artist, I’m not here to make a controversy, and I don’t mind if it follows me around, but it’s not my intention. My intention is to tell a good story, and I’ll use whatever elements I have at my disposal to do that. I don’t do dramas; I don’t do those kinds of films. And again, I think comedy is a very important tool and a very strong weapon to be used against bigotry and dictators. We’ve been doing it for 80 years. It was 80 years ago this year that [Charlie] Chaplin released The Great Dictator. So, there’s a fine tradition of using comedy to attack bullies and people who promote hate and intolerance. So, I feel like I’m in good company. So, if anyone feels like saying, “Too soon to use humour”, – well, it’s not soon enough.

Can you talk about the importance of history and it not repeating itself?

The Guardian released the results of a survey last year which stated that 41 percent of Americans and 66 percent of millennials have never heard of Auschwitz. And so, if you look at statistics like that, it’s shocking. It’s not good enough. And at the end of the war, a very common thing to say was, “We should never forget, so it can never happen again”. It’s 2019 and I shouldn’t have to make this movie. We should be continuing to tell people what happened and continuing this conversation.

You cast a fellow Kiwi actor – Thomasin McKenzie. She’s fantastic in this role – did you know her before this film?

Thomasin is an incredible actor who was in Leave No Trace and she did The King. She grew up in Wellington where I grew up in as well, and I’ve been friends with her parents, who are in the theatre scene, for a long time. So, seeing her growing up I didn’t realise she was such a good actor, [laughs] and then I saw her in Leave No Trace. And she auditioned for Jojo Rabbit and she was at the top of our list for the entire process.

I read that you described her as having an otherworldly quality. What did you mean by that?

She has a quality about her which just feels otherworldly. There are certain people you feel intimidated to be around and she’s got that quality. She feels wiser than you and that she’s just lived many, many more lives than you. And I think there’s a depth there that is real depth to her performance, but also just to her. She feels very layered and you see it, the way she’s so still. She can look straight through you.

I’ve heard a few people describe you as “their favourite Hitler”. Where does your sense of humour come from?

Well, I come from a family who are very funny. On my father’s side, they are indigenous people who are from New Zealand who have been colonised by the British and had been oppressed for many, many years by those guys. And on my mother’s side, they are Russian Jews who escaped the programs in the early 1900s, and eventually found their way to New Zealand. So, on both sides of my family, there’s a strong history of resilience and survival but also comedy. They have an ability to tell stories where you have to laugh in the face of darkness, in the face of danger.

What was it like growing up with a Jewish mother and Maori father? What culture did you celebrate?

Well, being brown in New Zealand, you have a tendency to go more towards the Maori culture. So yeah, we would celebrate both, but I lived in a town where there was a Maori community that was steeped more in those traditions and that culture.

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