(Photo: John Miller)
(Photo: John Miller)

ĀteaMay 2, 2019

Merata Mita: the godmother of indigenous film

(Photo: John Miller)
(Photo: John Miller)

Merata Mita created groundbreaking films during some of the most divisive moments in New Zealand history, earning her a reputation as a pioneer overseas and a trouble maker at home. Nine years after her death, her son Hepi Mita has made a documentary about the immense legacy she left behind.

Hepi Mita (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāi Te Rangi) was only a child when his mother directed Mauri, the first dramatic feature ever to be written and directed by a Māori woman. He is now an archivist, 32 years old, and has directed his first film, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, a documentary about his late mother’s life.

“There were a lot of people who knew my mum for her activism and ‘radical years’ and then there was another group who knew her for her mentorship and her filmmaking and her work overseas, and those two groups didn’t have a lot of overlap. It was gratifying being able to explore both of those groups,” he says.

It could be said that Hepi has filmmaking in his blood, as the son of Mita and New Zealand filmmaker Geoff Murphy (Utu, Goodbye Pork Pie). But while he remembers growing up around the film industry, he admits he was somewhat sheltered from his mother’s early work and says his documentary taught him a lot about his family.

“Interviewing my older siblings, being the youngest in the family, it took a lot of courage for me to have a conversation with them eye-to-eye as opposed to the tuakana/teina dynamic of me being the baby and being treated as the baby.

“It settled it for my relationship with my siblings and understanding where they come from and their life experiences. The best phrase that I ever got from one of my family members who participated in the documentary was that it was like receiving free therapy.”

Merata Mita editing Patu! in 1983. (Photo: Gil Hanly)
Hepi Mita viewing rolls of 16mm film for the documentary. (Photo: Chelsea Winstanley)

The film explores both the empowering movements that Merata captured, and some of the heartbreak behind-the-scenes in her family. It includes the powerful image of Hepi sitting in an archive library reading an interview his mother gave before he was born. It tells of the loss of her child, a son named Lars who Hepi never knew existed.

“When I first read that passage, we were in a situation where my sister’s own son had passed away and it was really fresh right after that when I found that book and my mum’s words about having to come to terms with the bereavement of your own child.

“In a strange way, we were in quite a tragic situation and even though what my mum wrote in that book was extremely sad, that story came into our lives during a time when we needed to hear those things.”

Luckily, this part of his mother’s life was documented, but many other parts weren’t. Hepi says he regrets not asking more questions when she was alive. Talking to his siblings provided some information about Merata’s life as a young mother, but he says there are still gaps in her story he wishes he could fill.

“There are still so many things that if I ever did get the chance to ask, I would have. But that being said, you live your life and you move on and it doesn’t strike you to ask these big questions and talk about the elephant in the room.

“I only saw the tip of the iceberg, I didn’t see all the sacrifice that was underneath that. When I started to uncover that, it was like my naivety being torn apart. As far as our family dynamic goes and our relationships, I feel like this is the best thing I could have ever done to provide context to that.”

Merata and Hepi, aged 3. (Photo: NZ Herald staff photograph, 22 September 1989)

In an archival clip recorded in 1986, Merata tells an interviewer that she is unsure whether her work was ‘worth it.’ Hepi says through stories of the mental and sometimes physical trauma his siblings endured because of some of Merata’s work, it became clear to him why his mother felt this way.

“It was still very bittersweet for her up until the very end and she questioned the impact that it had on her family.

“I always viewed her as a superwoman but to hear that she at times doubted the merit of her work and the impact that it had on her family, to me made her more loveable. It showed me her aroha for us was so strong that it superseded the reputation that she received because of her mahi.”

Merata Mita died in 2010, halfway through the process of creating a documentary about child abuse in Māori communities. The film, Saving Grace – Te Whakarauora Tangata was completed and released later on Māori Television in 2011. Hepi says despite her working till the day she died, she had a lot more to give.

“There were films and projects that she wanted to do here in New Zealand, stories about Māori women that she wanted to tell and never got the chance to. I think she would be proud of the people whom she mentored and the work that’s being done today and the films that are coming out now by those people. At the same time, I think she would be bitterly disappointed to be the only Māori woman to have written and directed a feature film solely. And that was in 1988, more than 30 years ago.”

She was a pioneer in indigenous filmmaking and helped many indigenous filmmakers tell their stories. Four of New Zealand’s top 10 grossing films have Māori directors, eight of 10 have heavy Māori or Pacific influence. 

In January this year, director Ava DuVernay’s (A Wrinkle in Time, 13th) film company Array, which aims to promote work by women and people of colour, acquired the documentary to distribute in the US, UK and Canada. Hepi says his mother’s work was crucial in creating a space where indigenous stories could be told without over-explaining their meanings to white audiences.

“Within her life she got past the point of having to explain. You can indulge in the luxury of telling a story but when she first started she didn’t have that luxury or privilege. It was more of a fight for survival, a betrayal of the situation that Māori and indigenous people were in. Now we’re in a place where that portrayal and explanation has been done and we can begin to move on, branch out and entertain. Whatever we want to do with it, we aren’t limited in our scope.”

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen is in cinemas May 12.

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