The late Merata Mita was a key figure in the story of Māori filmmaking. Through documentaries, interviews, public speaking and her 1987 dramatic feature Mauri, she was a passionate voice for Māori and an advocate for social change.
Merata Mita grew up in the Bay of Plenty town of Maketu, the third eldest of nine children. She had a traditional rural Māori upbringing, and recalls watching newsreels when films were projected onto the walls of the local wharenui.
Later, during eight years teaching at Kawerau College, Mita began using film and video to reach supposedly unteachable high school students, many of them Māori. "What they were all good at was expressing themselves through art, image, drawing." The experience taught Mita "how powerful image was in reaching people who don't have other communication skills".
Mita worked on her first documentary in 1977, helping a Pākehā filmmaker organize interviews with Māori people. But she soon began to grow disenchanted at Māori misrepresentation on film, and at how Māori seemed to be employed only to liase with Māori communities for white filmmakers.
In May 1978 Mita got a telephone call telling her "to get a film crew up to Bastion Point". Mita arrived just in time to film police removing Ngāti Whatua protestors from the site. Lack of funds meant that Bastion Point: Day 507 (co-directed with Gerd Pohlmann and Leon Narbey) would take another two years to complete. She talks about the impact Bastion Point made on her in this episode of Kete Aronui.
Mita went on to co-direct films with Pohlmann about the trade union movement (The Hammer and the Anvil) and the Hokianga Catholic Māori community (Karanga Hokianga Ki O Tamariki). Both films were made at Auckland co-op Alternative Cinema. The Bridge (1982) chronicles the longrunning Mangere Bridge industrial dispute. She also collaborated with Martyn Sanderson on cross-cultural documentary Keskidee Aroha.
In 1980 Mita began an "often bitter and demoralising" tenure as a researcher, reporter and then presenter at Māori TV news show Koha. Mita was disappointed to be told that the programme was aimed at a majority viewing — ie white —audience, and that Māori language content should not exceed two per cent.
Patu! was Merata Mita's passionate record of clashes between protestors and police during the 1981 Springbok tour. Police sought court orders to get hold of film and photos to use in court prosecutions of protestors; Mita hid footage so that it could not be used, and complained of police harassment during the edit.
The subject of intense media coverage, Patu! was described by filmmaker/ Listener reviewer Peter Wells as "the hottest documentary ever made in New Zealand". It was also the first feature-length documentary in New Zealand directed by a woman. Local cinema chains refused to screen it. Patu! went on to screen at film festivals around the world. In 2012 it would become one of the first documentaries listed on the New Zealand register for the UNESCO Memory of the World project.
Mita argued that Patu! saw her branded unfairly as a political filmmaker, when in reality the film was primarily visual, and was deliberately low on commentary or heavy analysis.
Mita followed Patu! in 1988 with Mauri, only the second feature film drama to have a Māori woman director (1972's To Love a Māori was co-directed by Ramai Hayward and husband Rudall). Mauri's plotline centres around issues of birthright and racism in an isolated rural community, with land rights activist Eva Rickard playing the central role of the grandmother.
The film was a training ground for many young Māori crew members; Mita argued that "what you gain from Māori people is an incredible intensity and passion about the work being done".
Mauri won a best prize at Italy's Rimini Film Festival. After some negative reviews of the film at festival screenings back home, Mita argued against Pākehā reviewers who were "not qualified to assess it". She asked not that people liked the film, but that they view it with an open mind.
In making Mauri, Mita consciously rejected Pākehā traditions of storytelling. Instead she embraced a layered approach, in keeping with the strongly oral tradition of Māori people. She told writer Cushla Parekowhai: "These are differences that Pākehā critics don't even take into account when they're analyzing the film."
1989 saw Mita and longtime editor Annie Collins at a Steenbeck editing bench on Turangawaewae Marae, working on Mana Waka. Mita had accepted the challenge from NZ Film Archive founder Jonathan Dennis, to make a documentary from abandoned footage which chronicled the creation of four special wakas, originally commissioned by Princess Te Puea for New Zealand's 1940 centenary. Ironically Mita's reworking of the material would itself later be restored, in time for return screenings at the 2011 round of NZ Film Festivals.
Mana Waka met with its own ownership complications: at one point descendants of the original Pākehā cameraman ran off with an early print of the film, despite having already agreed to let Mita direct. Mita wrote about Mana Waka in 1992 book Film in Aotearoa New Zealand.
She also made documentaries on artist Ralph Hotere (Hotere, 2001), rastafarians in Ruatoria (The Dread, 1996) and judicial injustice (The Shooting of Dominick Kaiwhata, 1993). Mita also helmed the video for Che Fu's Waka, which won the Music Video of the Year Award at the 1999 Hawaii Music Awards.
Mita spent much of the 90s working in America, alongside then partner, director Geoff Murphy. As an actor, she appeared in Murphy's historical epic Utu (for which she was also a cultural and casting advisor), and a TV adaptation of Rowley Habib's The Protesters. She was later on the producing team behind Murphy's Kiwi-set feature Spooked (2004) and box office smash Boy, and was executive producer on 2004's The Land has Eyes, the first feature directed by a native Fijian.
Mita hosted workshops and spoke on panels about indigenous filmmaking in many countries . As an assistant professor at the Academy of Creative Media at the University of Hawai'i Manoa, she taught indigenous screenwriting, asethetics and production. In 2005 she organised the Hawaiian launch of indigenous peoples' festival the Hawai'inuiakea Native Film Showcase.
In 1996 Mita was awarded the Leo Dratfield Lifetime Achievement Award for documentary, by the Robert Flaherty Foundation. She was also the subject of Hinewehi Mohi's 1998 documentary Merata Mita - Making Waves.
Mita collapsed suddenly outside an Auckland television studio on May 31, 2010. The same year she had received the order of merit in the New Year's Honours. Her long cherished dream of adapting Patricia Grace novel Cousins into a feature remained unfulfilled. Her unfinished film Saving Grace - Te Whakarauora Tangata was originally set to screen on Māori Television as part of a Matariki special. Mita described the documentary (which examines how Māori can find ways to prevent violence against children) as one of her most important. Saving Grace finally aired in March 2011.
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
Ella Henry, 'Mana Waka'(Interview) - Onfilm, February/March 1990 (Volume 7, No 2)
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Merata Mita' (Catalogue) 1984
Helen Martin, 'Through a Maori Lens' (Interview) - Listener, 14 October 1989
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Tapu Misa, 'Stories Worth Telling' (Interview) - Mana, December 2002/January 2003
Merata Mita, 'A Film Maker's Manifesto' - Alternative Cinema, Spring/Summer 1984/85, page 19
Merata Mita, 'The Soul and the Image' in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition, 1996)
Cushla Parekowhai, 'Kōrero Ki Taku Tuakana: Merata Mita and me.' Illusions, December 1988, Issue 9
Tony Reid, 'Recurring nightmare for tour film-maker' (Interview) - NZ Herald, 27 August 1983
Peter Wells, 'Looking for Truth' (Review of Patu!) - Listener, 9 July 1983
'Merata Mita' (Profile) WIFT NZ Website. Accessed October 2008
'Merata Mita' (Staff Profile) The University of Hawai'i System Website. Accessed October 2008
NZ Film Archive Online Catalogue The Film Archive website. Accessed October 2008
'Tamariki Ora: A New Beginning - On Maori Television' (Press Release) Maori Television Website. 7 May 2010. Accessed 2 June 2010
'Tamariki Ora: A New Beginning' (Press Release) Scoop Website. 11 June 2010. Accessed 17 June 2010
The Land Has Eyes (Film Press Kit) The Land Has Eyes Website. Accessed October 2008