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The new Merata Mita doco pays homage to the wahine toa of Māori film-making

Merata Mita in 1989. Photo/Sally Tagg

Merata Mita broke down film-making barriers. Now, her youngest son has made a documentary to celebrate her groundbreaking work.

Hepi Mita grew up with a film-maker mother, but it took her death to make him a film-maker himself.

You may recognise the surname. His mum was Merata Mita, the pre-eminent wahine toa of Māori film-making, and Hepi’s first film, which has its world premiere at the Auckland International Film Festival, is a loving and often revealing portrait of a seminal figure in the development of this country’s film culture.

In Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, Hepi Mita, 32, ransacks the archives and interviews his five siblings to remember their mother, the first indigenous woman anywhere and the first woman in this country to write and direct a dramatic feature film (Mauri in 1988).

It is hard to appreciate from the distance of 30 years just how big a deal that was. The first feature written and directed by a Māori (Barry Barclay’s Ngāti) had come out only a year before. The ground was shifting and Mita had played a big role in moving it.

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She’d done that with Bastion Point: Day 507, her urgent, confronting record of the shameful state-sponsored eviction of Ngāti Whātua from their ancestral lands on Takaparawhau Bastion Point in January 1977; and in Patu! (1983), the bone-rattling documentary about the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour.

Yet, despite the implied promise of this film’s title, Hepi Mita admits in an early voiceover that he is more interested in the personal than the political, or even film-history stories.

“I grew up not thinking of her as a film-maker but as a mother,” he told the Listener. “The Bastion Point film and Patu! were made before I was born and when she made Mauri, I was a baby. Her workspace was my playground.”

Mita spent his formative years in the US, where his father, Geoff (Goodbye Pork Pie) Murphy, was working in Hollywood, and it was Merata’s sudden death in 2010 – she collapsed and died on the steps of the Māori Television Service building in Auckland’s Newmarket – that brought him home.

Working part-time at the Film Archive, he was given the job of sorting through the two vanloads of material he had collected from his mother’s house on the Coromandel Peninsula and he cut some of the footage together for a video tribute at her unveiling.

The video impressed Cliff Curtis, who urged the young man to make a full-length documentary about Merata for his production company. “He told me that if I wouldn’t direct it, he wouldn’t do it,” says Mita, “but I knew someone was going to want to look at that story and it would have pissed me off if someone else had done it.”

Merata includes interviews with Mita’s five much older siblings, whose memories were more comprehensive than his own.

The state-sponsored eviction of Ngāti Whātua from their ancestral lands in 1977 was the subject of Merata Mita’s confronting Bastion Point: Day 507.

“My siblings were adults when I was little,” he says. “When Merata passed away, we started talking about our recollections of her, and there were all these stories I didn’t know. There are not many family photos, but when I looked through all the footage, I could pause and see my brother there and my sister there. It was more like going through a family photo album than a historical record.”

Mita broke many barriers before making her mark in film. She was an early abortion counsellor; as the presenter of the television magazine programme Koha, she was howled down by traditionalist Māori males who said that was not a woman’s work; and as a solo mother, she was an eloquent presence in a 1977 television documentary Māori Women in a Pākehā World. Hepi’s film gives a good idea of how she battled in a society that regarded letting women, let alone Māori, have control of anything as a privilege to be bestowed by men.

“I had an idea of who she was and what she had done. But the finer details and the challenges involved, the depth of her struggle to make those things, was something I was a little bit sheltered from. So, sorting through those archival materials gave me a much deeper understanding of her as a person.”

Those who crossed paths – or swords – with Merata Mita knew she could be difficult to engage with: tributes on her death included words such as “fierce” and “daunting”, which often do service for more disobliging descriptors. But her son sees that in context.

“I knew,” he says, “that she could be very impatient – though she never was with me – but when I heard her talk about the things she had to go through to get things done, how fiercely she had to fight to even make a film, there was a lot at stake for her.”

As to the question of whether the mission statement of the film’s title has yet been achieved, Mita allows that the job is not finished. He notes that seven of the 10 top-grossing New Zealand films have strong Māori content (another, Sione’s Wedding, is a Pasifika story) and Māori writers and/or directors are strongly represented.

“Māori have made their mark in cinema over the course of my mum’s life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that film has been decolonised; there is a long way to go. But she played a big part in making films that gave the average New Zealander a social consciousness. I am not going to say it wouldn’t have happened without her, but she made a massive contribution.”

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen screens on August 2 and 3 in Auckland and on August 9 and 12 in Wellington at NZIFF.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.