'Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A portrait of an icon of Indigenous cinema as directed by her son.

New Zealand film archivist-turned-director Heperi Mita explores the life and legacy of his mother, Merata Mita, the first Indigenous woman to have ever directed a feature.

The legacy and personal life of the late New Zealand filmmaker Merata Mita are brought to life in the documentary Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. Directed by her youngest son, Heperi Mita, who is a film archivist, this fascinating and insightful if also (perhaps necessarily) somewhat checkered work paints a picture of a fearless woman interested in advancing women and Indigenous rights both in New Zealand and abroad through filmmaking, which came at a certain cost for her extensive family at home (with many of them present as talking heads here).

This classically assembled documentary had its international premiere at Sundance, where Mita was an advisor and the artistic director of the Sundance Institute Native Lab, nurturing emerging Indigenous talent and where an annual fellowship is now awarded in her name (this year’s recipients are New Zealanders Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith).  

Festivals interested in film history, Indigenous issues — like the Berlinale, where this plays in its Native strand — or in content focused on strong women will all want to consider this, while cinematheques will hopefully pair it with screenings of Mita’s too-rarely-seen work. Stateside rights were snapped up by Ava DuVernay’s Array Now. 

At the start, the newbie director explains that looking at cinematic archive material is akin to an act of resurrection, which would be a fascinating idea even without the knowledge that Mita junior started working on this specific project only after his mother suddenly passed away in 2010. That said, Heperi isn’t interested in any kind of hagiographic portrait of his mother, as he tries to find a balance between recounting Merata’s many achievements and (at least part of) the toll this took on especially the director’s older siblings.

Early on, Heperi cleverly puts audiences who might be unfamiliar with some or even all of his mother’s output in his own shoes, when he suggests in voiceover that he didn’t — though probably “couldn’t” would be accurate here — realize the significance of his mother’s work when, while he was a baby, she directed Mauri (1988). She was, in fact, the first Maori woman to ever direct a fiction feature, and reportedly the first Indigenous woman anywhere on the planet to do so.

While the title and Heperi’s background may suggest a very analytical or cerebral approach to Merata’s output, quite the contrary is true. While titles and behind-the-scenes photos are of course part of the package, there isn’t all that much information about the actual contents of the various film projects she worked on. 

We of course get glimpses of her first efforts in the television and documentary field, where she tackled issues such as inequality and apartheid, which, though they might have very specific local contexts in South Africa and New Zealand, resonated with a lot of Indigenous or suppressed peoples around the world. Her few turns as an actress are also briefly seen, including her role in the Maori Western Utu (1983), directed by Heperi’s father, Geoff Murphy, another local legend who met Meta on the set of her film Patu (1983). Heperi leaves Murphy, who died in December, almost entirely offscreen in a wise move that will allow audiences to concentrate on his mother instead.

While the second half of the film, edited by Te Rurehe Pakialmost slides into a PowerPoint-like presentation of Merata’s accomplishments and her influence in the latter part of her life, when she started working for Sundance and mentored talents such as future Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi, the film as a whole is more interested in how Merata’s work output related to both her as a person and to her family. (Waititi’s wife, Chelsea Winstanley, is the producer of this film, in which he also briefly appears.)

To this end, Heperi interviews his older siblings in casual-feeling but also very honest interviews. The director is clearly aware they had a much rougher childhood than him that suggest as much about Merata’s tenacity as it does about how far society in New Zealand has come in the last decades. Abusive fathers; the impossibility to find a home as a single, working mom of color without being pressured into having sex; food shortages; and working three jobs are just some of the things Merata and her children faced in the early days. While some of these must have been familiar stories for Heperi, he also unearths painful parts of his family history he didn’t know anything about, such as a baby sibling who died very young and he’d never heard about before. 

When her work as a filmmaker started to become more political, the pressure on Merata became so great that even the police started to harass her. She rightly points out how this put her in an impossible situation, as it’s useless to go and complain about the police… to the police. But her uncomfortable films all had one scope: Create a better future for her children, so it feels entirely appropriate they get to tell her story, too, with practically all of them very proud of their mother but most of them also very aware that she often wasn’t there or put them in difficult situations because of the work she did.

Society was, of course, quite different when Merata started making films. It is a shock to see her, in archival interview footage, talk about how she didn’t hear about the existence of contraceptives until after the birth of her third child. She also struggled to find any Maori woman who could give her advice about possible abortions. With just a few brushstrokes, Heperi paints a very specific historic, geographic and familial context in which Merata’s character, her outrage and her can-do attitude would so severely clash with the obstacles thrown at her by life and the society she lived in that it could only result in her becoming an activist for women’s and Indigenous rights. 

Production company: Arama Pictures
Director: Heperi Mita
Producer: Chelsea Winstanley
Executive producer: Cliff Curtis 
Director of photography: Mike Jonathon
Editor: Te Rurehe Paki
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: New Zealand Film Commission

In English, Maori
95 minutes