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

by Peter Calder / 13 July, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Merata Mita documentary

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.

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.

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.

Latest

A big science investment - but where’s the transparency?
99199 2018-11-17 00:00:00Z Tech

A big science investment - but where’s the transpa…

by Peter Griffin

An extra $420m is being pumped into the National Science Challenges - but the reasoning behind the increased investment won't be released.

Read more
NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – and a wild past
99182 2018-11-16 13:32:58Z Music

NZ music legend Gray Bartlett has a new album – an…

by Donna Chisholm

We revisit this profile on award-winning guitarist Gray Bartlett, who's just released a new album, Platinum!

Read more
Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on what his creation has become
99178 2018-11-16 13:13:08Z Tech

Vint Cerf: The father of the Internet reflects on …

by Peter Griffin

"We were just a bunch of engineers trying to make it work. It didn't even occur to us that anybody would want to wreck it," says Vint Cerf.

Read more
Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of Mary Queen of Scots
99165 2018-11-16 10:51:28Z Win

Win a double pass to the NZ premiere screening of …

by The Listener

Starring Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart.

Read more
Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct
99155 2018-11-16 09:33:23Z Auckland Eats

Goodside: The North Shore’s new food precinct

by Alex Blackwood

North Shore residents will have plenty to choose from at Goodside.

Read more
A tribute to the dexterous, powerful and vulnerable Douglas Wright
99153 2018-11-16 08:25:30Z Arts

A tribute to the dexterous, powerful and vulnerabl…

by Sarah Foster-Sproull

To choreographer Sarah Foster-Sproull, Douglas Wright was both mentor and friend.

Read more
The death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more