Documenting a Struggle: On Merata Mita
Brannavan Gnanalingam on the enduring legacy of Merata Mita.
History has arguably validated the struggles that anti-apartheid protesters and protesters for Māori land rights went through in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1981 Springbok Tour has been hyperbolically described as the closest 20th-century Aotearoa New Zealand came to a civil war; in which Muldoon and his infamous Red Squad squared up against protesters opposing New Zealand's invitation to the apartheid-era South African rugby team. Meanwhile, the protesters for Māori land rights sought recognition of the Crown's failure to comply with its Treaty of Waitangi principles and the resulting loss of land, economic disparity, and denial of Māori rights.
Merata Mita (1941-2010, Te Arawa, Ngāti Pikiao) was the first Māori woman to write and direct a feature film – Mauri (1988) – and to this day, remains the only Māori woman to have done so on a Film Commission-funded solo project. She made her name initially in documentaries, unflinchingly capturing some of the political and economic struggles of the 1970s and the 1980s, notably Patu!, about the Tour and Bastion Point: Day 507 about the Ngāti Whātua occupation of their ancestral land. Her films are breath-taking in their urgency. Mita stands out, still today, in her ability to capture an arresting image. Her sound editing is also remarkable, almost as if a cacophony of voices are talking alongside (and against) the images on screen.
You could never say that Mita herself was indifferent. Her films have a charge that is still extremely rare in Aotearoa New Zealand cinema
What is clear from Merata Mita's early documentaries is how lonely many of the protestors' struggles were. There is a scene in Patu! at Rugby Park, Hamilton, where a small band of protesters was surrounded by police and a baying crowd. The same police who had earlier been cracking protesters' skulls. For a brief moment, it seemed the police were the only thing protecting the protesters from being torn apart by the rugby crowd. You see it in Bastion Point: Day 507 as you watch 600 police brutally surround and evict Ngāti Whātua from their land for the sake of a luxury development. You can still see the likely indifference – or antipathy – that many New Zealanders would have had towards those struggles in contemporary New Zealand. In the 2008 election campaign, John Key professed to being indifferent, as a rugby fan and then-university student, to the '81 Tour. Such indifference is also obvious in the continued Māori struggle for land rights, whether it was the Bastion Point occupation as captured by Mita, the Foreshore and Seabed legislation or the mainstream media's continued insistence that Don Brash is a relevant commentator on such issues.
You could never say that Mita herself was indifferent. Her films have a charge that is still extremely rare in Aotearoa New Zealand cinema. In a national cinema that is rarely overtly political (at least those films funded by the Film Commission), Mita's films demand attention and they haven't aged one bit. Patu! (1983) remains the most electric piece of filmmaking ever made in Aotearoa. Mauri (1988) may have been a period piece, with its setting in the 1950s, however it touched on then-contemporary (and still current) issues, such as the decay of rural communities, alienation of Māori land through the Public Works Act process, and the disproportionate effect of the criminal justice system on Māori.
While Mita’s films are explicit in her politics, what we don’t see so much is Mita herself; that is until now. In Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, which had its world premiere at the recent New Zealand International Film Festival, Mita's son Heperi Mita creates an intimate and very moving account of his mother. What is clear from the documentary is that Mita's empathetic approach to filmmaking is directly related to how difficult her life was during the 1970s. Mita did it tough: she was a solo mother living hand to mouth. She had escaped an abusive relationship. And of course, she was also a Māori woman, as she described: "Māori women, doubly despised because of their sex as well as race, had the worst of it all."
In the documentary it becomes apparent that Mita became disillusioned with Māori representation on film, noting wryly that Māori crew were employed "merely to make access to the marae easier." She wanted to make films in a nascent local industry, which was particularly Pākehā and male. There is little doubt that her empathetic depiction of the multiple struggles that she documents in Patu! was only made possible by her ability to situate her own, and other peoples', struggles into wider narratives.
Merata features a number of frank confessions from Mita. Heperi Mita was born after Mita's particularly difficult struggles. He was the son of Mita and Geoff Murphy – or, the son of a Hollywood director and a respected university lecturer and filmmaker. Merata Mita never told him of the struggles she went through. Her sudden death in 2010 meant that Heperi Mita wasn't able to ask her himself. He pieces together her life and her filmmaking processes through archival footage and the way other people talked about her – in many respects, similar to the approach Merata Mita herself adopted for the documentary Hotere (2001).
Barry Barclay wrote about Indigenous filmmaking being a "Fourth Cinema." It was a semi-tongue-in-cheek response to Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino's conception of a First Cinema (American cinema), a Second Cinema (auteur cinema) and a Third Cinema (post-colonial/"Third World" cinema). There was little room in that framework for Indigenous filmmakers to define their own films. From there, Barclay and Mita spearheaded an alternative way of approaching filmmaking in Aotearoa, an approach that still feels revolutionary even today.
Mita's filmmaking clearly stands out from many other filmmakers of her era. She refused to centre her documentaries on individuals, preferring a collective approach. In Patu!, Mita juxtaposes the anti-apartheid protesters against movements for Māori sovereignty – and refuses to focus on the leaders pushing the anti-apartheid cause. What gets emphasised is the collective action against Muldoon and the rugby tour. It also excoriates the institutions that let the Tour (and by analogy, the ill-treatment of Māori) happen. In Hotere, the artist himself is of less importance than his work and what other people say about him. In Mana Waka, the focus is on the waka, not on any human characters.
New Zealand cinema gained a reputation for its ‘man alone’ focus, where largely Pākehā men struggled to fit in the dramatic rural landscapes of Aotearoa (in the films that gained the most attention in New Zealand's 'new wave' in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Mita's films are still different. For starters, she focuses on Māori characters, but she also shows New Zealand as an uneasily multicultural, urban and globally connected place – one of the opening scenes in Patu! for example, features a Pākehā man being racist about a black man on an ordinary city street. Alternatively, in her more 'rural’ films, her characters are directly connected to the land, but have lost their links to whakapapa in some way. Even in Mauri, which features a central and alienated protagonist Rewi (Anzac Wallace), Mita still emphasises community and a connection (albeit broken) with the land.
She also brought a different perspective into how she structured her storytelling and editing. "It suits me to make pictures on celluloid that were formerly pictures of the mind, memory pictures, pictures of the imagination, that the story teller uses all the time to make his stories more interesting and exciting. With the invention of film, the fact that you are able to transpose these pictures of memory, imagination and reality, mix them all up and make a story from them that you can see with your eye rather than with the mind's eye, is, I think merely a continuation of the oral tradition."
Heperi Mita didn't need to go this far, but I will: she remains one of Aotearoa New Zealand's greatest-ever artists.
I am very conscious of my limited understanding of Mita's use of what Chloe Cull described as a "kaupapa Māori approach to filmmaking." Mita's approach was driven by her desire to present to a Māori audience using Māori frameworks, and her quest to show the feelings of her Māori characters rather than those in the position of power. Yet it's also obvious from Merata just how much of an inspiration Mita was to people outside of filmmaking traditions. Personally, as someone outside of those traditions and born after many of the struggles she depicted, her films still feel remarkably relevant and inspirational in her refusal to sell herself short or to compromise. Merata makes it clear that Mita's influence is immense to a large number of Indigenous filmmakers from the US, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia and Hawaiʻi, let alone Aotearoa. She also provides a model for other POC filmmakers to tell their stories in their own way: she is a trailblazer in that regard, deserving to be talked about alongside Spike Lee, Charles Burnett and co, in terms of influence and in terms of making art within dominant power structures.
But arguably the enduring feeling from Merata is just how much she had to sacrifice in terms of her art. And, it wasn't just Mita having to sacrifice. Mita's filmmaking process also encompassed her family, for better or worse. Merata heartbreakingly portrays her children recounting growing up around the chaos of Patu!, with regular police raids, and taunts from their peers. It's clear it had a long-term effect on them. However, Heperi Mita's personal tribute to her makes obvious she was both a mother and a pioneering filmmaker. Heperi Mita didn't need to go this far, but I will: she remains one of Aotearoa New Zealand's greatest-ever artists.