When Tama Poata passed away in late 2005, Māori Party co-leader Tariana Turia summarised his many roles: "Tom was a worker, an actor, a movie-maker, an artist, a unionist, an activist fighting for human rights, a devoted father and a loving grandfather".
Director Barry Barclay praised the warmth, optimism and inclusiveness of his script for Ngati, calling him "a born yarnspinner" who was on familiar and affectionate terms with every character in his story. Editor Annie Collins, who edited a number of documentaries with Poata from an old railway carriage on his Makara farm, praised Poata's respectful, straightforward interviewing style — and the way his films "always went right".
Poata was a long time campaigner for Māori cultural and intellectual rights; he argued in 1992 that film and videomaking technology had been exploited by the majority race, when under the Treaty of Waitangi it belonged equally to Māori and Pākehā.
Poata's many jobs included time as a flax-cutter, union organiser, hydro and freezing worker and manure spreader. In the late 60s Poata founded the Māori Organisation On Human Rights, was a member of influental Māori group Ngā Tamatoa, and campaigned against the Vietnam War. He also coined the title for anti-apartheid group Halt All Racist Tours (HART).
In 1970 he won his first acting role, playing a truck driver in pioneering TV drama Pukemanu. It was the perfect way to launch a screen career for a man who would later write a script (Ngati) celebrating the common man.
Pukemanu was made in a spirit of collaboration and experimentation; Poata was allowed to alter dialogue "as long as we got the idea across". The hours were also better than driving's five am starts, though Poata was surprised that it took one and a half hours to set up a shot of him lighting a cigarette.
Poata went on to play parent to the teen heroes of 1974 kidult series The Games Affair. Off-screen, he was helping organize a key moment in the Māori renaissance: the 1975 Māori Land March. He can be seen interviewed in Te Matakite O Aotearoa. Later Poata was arrested alongside Eva Rickard and 15 others at Whāingaroa/ Raglan Golf Course, after tohunga attempted to lift a tapu on a sacred burial site which had been turned into the 18th hole.
Poata talks about his times in the Progressive Youth Movement in documentary Rebels in Retrospect. He can also be seen orating against the Springbok Tour in footage from Merata Mita's documentary Patu! Prime Minister Robert Muldoon accused him of treasonable activity during the tour, but withdrew the accusation when Poata sued. Muldoon had earlier called him the country's "leading Māori Communist" (Poata had been infamously expelled from the Communist Party nine years before).
1987 saw the release of landmark feature Ngati. Poata based his script partly on his own East Coast upbringing. A portrait of a Māori-dominated township which touches on themes of community and self-determination, Ngati is generally held to the be the first feature drama written and directed by Māori; some label it the first feature in the world directed by an indigenous minority filmmaker (Poata talks about Ngati in this Kaleidoscope piece, and in John O'Shea documentary Breaking Barriers).
Poata's oft-repeated mantra was that Ngati needed no heroes, stars, sex scenes or car chases. He was proven right: the film has become a taonga for many New Zealanders, Māori and pākehā alike. Ngati won Film and Television Awards for best screenplay and best film, and was invited to play at Cannes.
Director Barry Barclay argued that Ngati was political in "the way it was made; a serious attempt to have Māori attitudes control the film." As part of efforts to upskill Māori crewmembers, trainees from specially-created collective Te Awa Marama worked together on Ngati, as well as earlier short film Ka Mate! Ka Mate! Poata wrote the Ka Mate script, which dramatizes the origins of the haka, in te reo.
By the mid-80s television drama was also moving beyond old (white, male, middle class) traditions, and allowing more screentime to other voices. Poata was often amidst the action; alongside Barry Barclay, Merata Mita, and Wi Kuki Kaa, he lobbied for funding to make Māori drama series E Tipu E Rea.
On-screen, Poata played parent to one of the wandering Polynesian teens in 1986 tele-movie Mark II, co-written by young star Mitchell Manuel. He cameoed as a unionist in female-led drama series The Marching Girls, and guested as part of a powerhouse Māori-dominated cast (including Kaa, Rangimoana Taylor, and Utu's Zac Wallace) in an episode of Open House: 'Ahi Kaa Roa/ Keeper of the Fire'.
Poata had already made his big-screen debut with a small role in Utu (1983). During the rest of the 80s he would appear in ill-fated features Wild Horses (as a conservation-minded horseman), The Lie of the Land, and the Maurice Shadbolt-inspired Among the Cinders.
Poata had formed Te Hokioi Film and Publishing Co in 1978. In the 80s he began working on his own directing projects, and training Māori in everything from camerawork, to bringing them along on negotiation sessions with the NZ Film Commission.
After directing and narrating 1988 fishing doco Against the Tide, Poata went on to direct Raglan past and present doco Ngā Kara Me Nga Iwi (The Flags and the People). He would follow it with Nga Paiaka Pacific/Pacific Roots, and a doco on Raglan land rights campaigner Eva Rickard (Tuaiwa Hautai Rickard). Pacific Roots chronicles a Pacific Arts festival in Raratonga, attended by Māori performance group Te Waka Huia.
Poata also wrote and directed another dramatic short in te reo, which won a place at the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival. Te Ao Kapurangi (2001) is based on the moment when the daughter of a Te Arawa chief tried to save her tribe from war.
Poata's involvement with the New Zealand Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga) saw him providing "invaluable" input into the Archive's bicultural framework. He was also instrumental in ensuring an equal representation of Tangata Whenua on the Archive's Board of Trustees.
Poata was one of a group of elders across six tribes who filed the long-running Wai 262 Claim with the Waitangi Tribunal, which argues the Government ignored treaty rights over indigenous flora and fauna.
When Poata passed away in late 2005, Māori Party co-leader Pita Sharples called him "a pioneer in the pursuit of Māori intellectual property, ensuring there was cultural protection long before others had even heard of it."
Moe mai e te rangatira, moe mai.
Martha Ansara, 'The Maori network' - Filmnews, February 1992, page 7
Barry Barclay, 'Tama Poata 1936 - 2005' (Obituary) - Onfilm, February 2006 (Vol 23, No 2), page 29
Geoff Chapple, 1981 - The Tour (Reed, 1984)
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Peter Kitchin, 'Activist used all tools to hand' (Obituary) - The Dominion Post, 1 December 2005, page 37
Huia Kopua and Himiona Grace, 'Tama Poata' (Obituary) - Newsreel (NZ Film Archive), Winter 2006 (Issue 55)
Helen Leahy, ‘Tama Poata another tragic loss for Aotearoa’ (Māori Party press release), 14 November 2005. Accessed 9 February 2017
Jill McCracken, ‘Pukemanu – Mirror of Our Society’ – The Listener, 30 August 1971