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 that were projected onto the walls of the local wharenui.
Later, during eight years teaching at Kawerau College, she 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 her "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. But she soon began to grow disenchanted at Māori misrepresentation on film, and at how Māori crew 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 cinematographer Leon Narbey) would take another two years to complete. Mita talked about the impact Bastion Point made on her in this episode of Kete Aronui about her screen career.
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 filmmaking co-operative 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 later presenter on Māori TV news show Koha. Mita was disappointed to learn 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 aid in prosecutions of protestors; Mita hid footage so that it couldn't be used, and complained of police harassment during editing.
The subject of intense media coverage, Patu! was described by filmmaker Peter Wells as "the hottest documentary ever made in New Zealand" in a Listener review. It was also Aotearoa's first feature-length documentary directed by a woman. Local cinema chains were not interested in screening it (documentaries rarely got a local theatrical release outside of film festivals in this period). Patu! went on to play at film festivals around the world. In 2012 it became one of the first documentaries listed on the NZ 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 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. Utu star Anzac Wallace took another key role. Mita argued that the heart of the story was its characters' relationship with the land. Mauri 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 in NZ, 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 (now Ngā Taonga) 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, 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. She wrote about Mana Waka in 1992 book Film in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Mita also made this documentary on artist Ralph Hotere (Hotere, 2001), and others on rastafarians in Ruatoria (The Dread, 1996) and judicial injustice (The Shooting of Dominick Kaiwhata, 1993). Her video for Che Fu hit 'Waka' was judged Music Video of the Year at the 1999 Hawaii Music Awards.
Mita spent much of the 90s in the United States, alongside her then partner, director Geoff Murphy. As an actor, she appeared in Murphy's 1983 'Maori Western' Utu (for which she was also a cultural and casting advisor), and a 1982 TV adaptation of Rowley Habib's The Protesters. She was later on the producing team of Murphy's Kiwi feature Spooked (2004) and box office smash Boy; she produced 2010 short Taku Rakau E.
Mita set up and led the indigenous filmmaking programme at the University of Hawai'i Mānoa. She became an assistant professor there, teaching indigenous screenwriting, asethetics and production. Mita hosted workshops and spoke on panels about indigenous filmmaking in many countries, and in 2005 was a key player in the launch of Hawaiian indigenous peoples' festival, the Hawai'inuiakea Native Film Showcase. In 2004 she executive produced The Land has Eyes, for director Vilsoni Hereniko, a fellow professor at the University. It was the first feature directed by a native Fijian.
In 1996 Mita was awarded the Leo Dratfield Lifetime Achievement Award for documentary by the Robert Flaherty Foundation. Two years later she was the subject of Hinewehi Mohi's documentary Merata Mita - Making Waves. In 2009 Te Waka Toi gave her award Te Tohu Toi Ke - Making a Difference. In the following year's New Year's Honours she received a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit.
Mita collapsed suddenly outside an Auckland television studio on 31 May, 2010. The same year she had been named a Companion of 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.
Mita's film Saving Grace - Te Whakarauora Tangata had originally been set to screen on Māori Television, as part of a Matariki special. Mita described the documentary (which examined how Māori cpuld 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) - The 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) - The NZ Herald, 27 August 1983
Peter Wells, 'Looking for Truth' (Review of Patu!) - The Listener, 9 July 1983
Merata Mita' (Profile) (broken link) WIFT NZ Website. Accessed October 2008
Unknown Writer, ''Merata Mita' (broken link) The University of Hawai'i. Accessed October 2008
'Memorial service for Merata Mita set for June 7' University of Hawai'i Mānoa website. Loaded 3 June 2010. Accessed 131 March 2016
Unknown Writer, 'Tamariki Ora: A New Beginning' (Press Release) Scoop website. Loaded 11 June 2010. Accessed 31 March 2016
The Land Has Eyes website (broken link). Accessed October 2008