‘We Were Dangerous’ Team on How New Zealand’s Early 20th Century Eugenics Movement Inspired Sterilization Plot in Taika Waititi-Produced SXSW Film

“We Were Dangerous” is a surprisingly funny film for a movie whose central conflict is the sterilization of a group of young women on the fringes of society in 1950s New Zealand.

Knowing the project, which debuted at SXSW in Austin March 8, is executive-produced by from Taika Waititi and Carthew Neal’s Piki Films certainly informs how the film approaches its troubling topic — much like the production company’s Holocaust-set “Jojo Rabbit” — with such levity, the majority of the credit for the heartfelt tone goes to a trio of women: writer Maddie Dai, director Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu and producer Morgan Waru.

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“We Were Dangerous” stars Erana James, Nathalie Morris and Manaia Hall as the three girls being held in a delinquent program by a matron (played by Rima Te Wiata). And though the film revolves around female solidarity, the seed that sparked “We Were Dangerous,” which marks the directorial debut for Stewart-Te Whiu and the first screenplay written by Dai, was actually a story about Dai’s great great grandfather, who was imprisoned on an island in New Zealand — much like we find our heroines in the film.

“I started researching that a little more and found a lot of interesting stuff around the treatment of people on the fringes, whether it was New Zealand’s eugenics movement at the beginning of the 20th century to lot of hysteria accusations around young women,” Dai told Variety. “But I always knew I wanted to write a story about teenage girls. And I always knew I wanted to write an escape film and a film that really championed their friendships and had a lot of joy in it, in spite of all this dark historical context that was interesting to me.”

Like Dai, Stewart-Te Whiu has a familial history that made the film resonate with her on a deeper level.

“My dad was raised in state care schools, like the one in the film, he’s been through that experience,” Stewart-Te Whiu said. “So I felt a real personal connection to what Maddie had written. And then I just love stories that have female leads and focus on female characters, essentially, that are multi-dimensional, and not flat. And I could see that in Maddie’s work. And I knew we could just take those and build on it and create this film.”

Dai’s story is ultimately historical fiction but expands on the well-documented rise of eugenics supporters in New Zealand in the early 20th century.

“In terms of New Zealand’s history of sterilization, it never existed in any kind of programmatic way,” Dai said. “But in institutions, especially where a lot of indigenous people were kept and also a lot of people with mental disabilities, there have been isolated incidents of sterilization. So I never wanted to show it as a widespread thing. But it’s a fictional story that draws upon different themes and attitudes about the way we treat vulnerable people on the fringes.”

“We Were Dangerous” also features some real-life pro-eugenics and sterilization literature to amplify the horrors at hand.

“The two documents that are referenced in the film are real: ‘The Fertility of the Unfit’ and that report,” Waru, who produces alongside Polly Fryer, says. “So it’s an interesting, kind of scary context. But it helped to make the stakes really real in the film, in a way that helps the friendship of the film feel really important and really special.”

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