“Compromise is part of being colonial. You have to compromise to survive.” This underlying message, spoken by filmmaker and director Hepi Mita’s mum, Merata Mita, plays out in this lovingly constructed homage to whanau (family), Maori culture and Merata.
I’d never heard of Merata and her importance in documenting the struggles of Maori people and the racism of her homeland, New Zealand, through the 70s and 80s. Later in her life and with recognition from overseas festivals, she was able to work outside of the country that didn’t really know what to do with her, with other indigenous filmmakers to raise the voices of their people.
Hepi is a film archivist and much of the richness of this film is created through footage from Merata’s films, where his siblings often appear, and interviews with her when she began to be a voice who refused to be silenced. Filming the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour attracted the ire of racist pakeha, police and government. It caused trouble for her, with pressure put on funding organisations to remove support, and her kids where they were ostracised and beaten up by police. It’s not a pretty picture.
Hepi’s brothers and sister Richard, Rafer, Rhys, Eruera and Awatea speak about their mum and also the hardships of domestic violence, racism and poverty. It’s a delicate process as there are aspects of their past that are not easy to face, nor for Hepi, as the baby of the family, to confront.
In a warm and open Q&A afterwards, Hepi spoke of this and the difficulty of taking the lead with older siblings like Richard who was often a figure of authority to him as he grew up. He says that he started with many hours of audio interview so he and his subjects could collectively decide what would eventually be filmed. It is something that has brought them together and is particularly poignant with the passing of brother Eruera shortly after filming.
Merata’s goal to decolonise the screen by focusing on Maori people and their stories can be seen in her documentaries, such as Patu! (1983) and Bastion Point: Day 507 (1980) – the latter was instrumental in the return of tribal land to its people – and feature films such as Mauri (1988) and Utu (1983). Her most widely known work would probably be her co-production of Boy (2010) and she worked as a mentor to many filmmakers, including Taika Watiti. Mauri remains the only feature film solo written and directed by a Maori woman.
It’s clear that Merata had an impact on indigenous filmmakers in New Zealand and across the world but what shines through in her son’s film is the impact she had on her family as a strong and proud woman. She wasn’t perfect, in fact it is her flaws and her determination to struggle on despite opposition that makes her so inspiring.
Hepi Mita responded to a question about how him we might watch his mum’s films now with some despondency about the minefield of rights to her works. To view the TV footage of interviews with her, he had to pay $180 per second and it effectively hides much of her work from general view. Happily we have this film and Mauri has just been announced to play at the Venice Film Festival this year.
And you can now watch Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen on Netflix (in Australia).
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.