'Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen' Keeps a Kiwi Film Tradition Alive

Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
Mereta Mita was the first Maori woman to write and direct a feature film.

Director Heperi Mita didn't know his mother was a trailblazing force in the New Zealand film industry until he started digging through archives after her death.

For most of the world, says documentarian Heperi Mita, New Zealand seems “a utopian paradise, the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings. People are really shocked when they find out the truth.”

The truth that Mita reveals in his debut film, Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen, provides a corrective view to the idealized image of a land of Hobbits and social justice. The former, of course, are fictional. The latter, if it can be said to exist in New Zealand, was achieved only through bitter and often brutal battles by people like Mita’s mother, the Maori actress, director and activist Merata Mita.

Merata Mita was a woman of firsts. She was the first Maori documentarian, the first — and to date only — Maori woman to write and direct a feature film on her own. She was a trailblazing activist who broke taboos in New Zealand by speaking openly of racism and domestic violence, both on national television and through her films, most notably in the documentaries Bastion Point: 507, about the native struggle for land rights — brutally suppressed by the local authorities — and Patu!, in which she links the fight for Maori sovereignty with the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa. Her impact on the indigenous film community in New Zealand and abroad — shortly before she died, Mita helped produce Taika Waititi’s breakthrough drama Boy — has been compared to that of Spike Lee for African-American filmmakers. Indeed, Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing label picked up Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen for release in North America and the U.K. shortly after its premiere in Sundance.

But for Heperi Mita, Merata was, first and foremost, his mum. The youngest of Merta’s six children, Heperi grew up in Los Angeles, a world away from his mother’s early life in Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. His father was Geoff Murphy, a New Zealand director (Utu, The Quiet Earth) who became a studio director of action movies such as Freejack and Young Guns 2.

“I didn’t know much about my mother’s life before me,” admits Mita.

It was only after her death in 2010, when Heperi Mita took up a job as a film archivist in New Zealand, that he began digging through his mother’s past and deciding, “as a way of coming to terms with my own grief,” to bring his mother’s story to the screen.

“The first time I cried making this film was when I uncovered the first footage ever taken of my mum, when she was the subject of a TV documentary on women’s rights in New Zealand,” Mita says. “She’s taking about how she had to lie about her Maori identity, take on a European name, to find housing, how she juggled three jobs to support her children, about her own experience with abortion.”

Combining footage from his mother’s films with home movies and personal interviews with his siblings, Heperi Mita presents a strikingly personal portrait of a woman whose personal experiences — of domestic violence, racism and social exclusion, but also of community, motherhood and family — directly informed her work.

“I want to decolonize the screen,” Mita says in the film. “I also want to indigenize the screen.”

For Merata Mita, the struggle, to find and present an authentic, indigenous voice in cinema, was lifelong. For her son, that struggle continues.

“Seven out of the 10 highest grossing New Zealand films have a Maori key creator or feature heavily Maori content, so that’s progress,” says Mita. “But we still have major problems with representation, we are still stumbling ahead. God, I wish my Mum were here to give me, and all of us, guidance on how to go forward.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 11 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.