While the Na’vi in James Cameron’s “Avatar” franchise are a fantastical race of peoples, Cameron pulled from real indigenous cultures as inspiration for the 2009 film and its newly released sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water.” As the filmmaker admitted, however, there was a “fine line” to walk when it came to celebrating existing cultures without appropriating them as he brought a new tribe of Na’vi to life in “Avatar 2.”
In “The Way of Water,” Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his family relocate to Pandora’s eastern seaboard, which is inhabited by the Metkayina reef people clan. In contrast to the Sully family’s “forest people,” the Metkayina are “sea people” and have their own culture and even striking physical differences.
In an interview with TheWrap Magazine for our cover story, Cameron talked about how the diverse ensemble cast of “The Way of Water” — which includes Zoe Saldaña, Cliff Curtis and CCH Pounder — influenced the creation of the Na’vi culture.
“We try to have a diverse cast, and what’s interesting is when you put a diverse cast with different backgrounds, sometimes from different language groups, different cultural backgrounds into a new culture, they inform each other and create this kind of aggregate way of speaking and moving and so on,” Cameron said. “So, for example, having Cliff Curtis, who’s a Māori from New Zealand, in the Metkayina clan as the leader of the clan, all the other actors were going to school [with] him. When he started doing a haka, it was like, ‘Oh, I wanna be like that.’ It just brought a feeling of authenticity to it.”
In the creation of the various Na’vi clans, Cameron discussed the specific cultural influences and the discussions around appropriation that took place.
“We had a lot of discussions about cultural appropriation. How much is too much? At what point are you no longer honoring and celebrating a culture, but actually extracting and exploiting?” He said. “So we tried to walk a fine line there and celebrate Polynesian indigenous culture in general, right across through from Hawaii, down through Tahiti, French Polynesia, Māori culture and Samoan culture and so on. And also just put our own swerve on that with our artists in terms of the style of the tattoos and the wardrobe and all that sort of thing.”
While “Avatar” is a sci-fi fantasy, Cameron explained the importance of rooting the characters in real-life cultures that already exist as a way of celebrating human imagination.
“It’s clearly meant to be at least inspired by real things because I think you wanna celebrate human ingenuity. We celebrate the imagination of nature in almost every frame in these movies, the creatures, the sort of ecosystem, the reef, the forest, all that stuff is all inspired by the imagination of the great artists of evolution that have created all this amazing stuff that’s on our own planet,” Cameron said. “That’s what we’re really talking about, right? But we also want to celebrate the human imagination, which has been creating culture for really hundreds of thousands of years.”
Watch the video above.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” is now playing exclusively in theaters.