Art

A Maori filmmaker and the fight for proper Indigenous narratives

Hepi Mita offers a fascinating look at his mother’s life in ‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen.’

 

Filmmaker Merata Mita advocated for accurate cinematic representation of Indigenous narratives. She also made a point of documenting other artists that were doing the same.
Courtesy of Hepi Mita

"Foot soldiers don’t have a very high status, but they have to be very brave and very determined to keep fighting a war." 

These words are spoken by the late Maori filmmaker Merata Mita in Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. They embody her filmmaking philosophy and also drive the central theme of this new documentary by Hepi Mita, Merata’s son: that Indigenous filmmaking is a battle against the establishment. Mita’s film documents his mother’s lifelong fight for the proper portrayal of Indigenous narratives on the screen. If not for this film, it is doubtful that the rest of the world, outside Indigenous film circles, would ever come to know about Merata’s story.

The documentary is Mita’s first film. We see the director, a film archivist by trade, looking at footage of his mother throughout the film; it is his way of connecting with her after her passing. But we also see him make new discoveries. "I viewed the archives as a window to the past, and myself as a conduit to explore them in the present,” says Mita.

His siblings pop up in Merata's film footage and we see how integral family was to her filmmaking process, her four children (later five with Hepi) acting essentially as support system and crew. Talking-head interviews with Mita’s older siblings reveal the immense struggles they faced as a poor young family, first when Merata Mita leaves an abusive husband and becomes a single mother, and later, on her path to becoming a filmmaker. Sleazy landlords offer to trade sex for a place to live; her children are shunned at school because she is seen as a radical filmmaker; the New Zealand government targets her for her politically charged films; and the police even attack her 16-year-old son. Hepi Mita may have had been fortunate to be born later in his mother's career, thereby avoiding the same hardships, but he is also in the unenviable position of having to dredge up and explore traumatic family memories. 

In the documentary, there are the standard interviews with the important people in the subject’s life: her children, Indigenous filmmakers she mentored, Hepi himself in many instances. But one of the most fascinating interviews is with Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. Obomsawin has made 50 films and counting, according to the National Film Board of Canada. The now 86-year-old describes meeting Merata for the first time at a film festival in Guelph, Canada. They were the only two Indigenous filmmakers with work screening there, and Obomsawin felt “as if we knew each other already. …” There was a natural sisterhood between them, according to Obomsawin, a bond born from fighting all their lives for Indigenous voices in cinema. 

In the early 1980s, Merata made two very political documentaries, which are examined closely in her son’s film. Bastion Point Day 507 (1980) documents the police-led confiscation of Māori land in Auckland, and Patu! (1983) covers the anti-apartheid protests that occur after the New Zealand government invites the South African rugby team to tour the country. But the documentary also recounts how Merata was the first Maori woman to write and direct a feature-length film, Mauri (1988), a story about a love triangle that explores cultural tensions in New Zealand. She also directed a nine-part documentary series on one of New Zealand’s most important Maori artists, Ralph Hotere. 

Merata was the first Maori woman to write and direct a feature-length film.
Courtesy of Hepi Mita

Hepi Mita gives us a fascinating glimpse into his mother’s life’s work. Merata’s story is huge — her triumphs, her various losses, but perhaps the most important idea throughout is she was simply there. Merata didn’t focus on developing innovative techniques, like the jump-cut edits created by the French New Wave or the groundbreaking special effects of George Méliès; instead, she tackled a very different kind of challenge. She fought in the cinematic trenches, advocating for accurate representation and documenting the other artists who were fighting for the same goals.

Merata’s cinematic lineage is one that crosses international boundaries, and her vision encompassed Maori connections with Indigenous people worldwide. She saw how the Indigenous peoples of Scandinavia, New Zealand and North America shared similar histories. She inspired the Sundance Institute to think bigger than just the United States; it eventually created a fellowship in her honor. White-hot Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi, a former Sundance Indigenous film program mentor, credits Merata for giving him the courage to explore his own unique, irreverent aesthetic when he was engaged in making his film, Boy. Waititi went on to direct the incredibly successful, Thor: Ragnarok, and is slated to direct the next installment in that series. From Bastion Point Day 507 nearly 30 years ago to the planet of Asgard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Merata’s influence can be felt.

In her son’s documentary, Merata Mita can be seen as a true foot soldier in the fight to portray Indigenous narratives on the screen. She didn’t make films for fame or fortune, and she refused to simply wait around for someone else to take up the cause. In the end, her son, Hepi, says it best, “I wanted to offer her story as an example that despite how hopeless some of these situations may feel, her triumphs are proof that those sacrifices are worth it.” 

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen can currently be streamed on Netflix.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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