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An Interview with archivist Hepi Mita about Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Being the youngest child of the Maori activist Merata Mita meant that Hepi Mita escaped the most turbulent times of his recently deceased mother. Left behind was an enormous collection of film footage, a testimonial to the many achievements of her life’s work. This not only included her personal life but also her tribal community’s involvement and political engagement with the New Zealand government. Playing an important role in women’s rights in the very male dominant indigenous culture of the Maori in New Zealand, Merata was the first female indigenous documentary film maker of world reknown: she filmed the political injustices toward the Maori in the 1970s, including the documentaries Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu!  Hepi Mita not only has these archival films, he also interviewed his entire family, who recalled those times from differing age perspectives and how this affected their lives, giving this documentary not only their personal views of a visionary woman but also showing the pain and abuse the Maori faced – yet transcended.

Hepi Mita described how he looked at each frame of this old and delicate footage, painstakingly using special camera optic lens to discover who his mother really was. He also used these loops in the documentary, so that we felt his discovery was also our own.

Mita said, “I became an archivist because there was a huge film collection: some were from her own personal collection, while other films were scattered among the family. The footage was very old and very fragile, so you couldn’t just watch it ‘as is’. I was excited to put them on a winning bench for film viewing to see what was happening.” He told me that to scan these archival films took about six months – but another six years to make the film. He also found some of the missing sound, and so would try to puzzle out where it belonged. Truly a labor of the love and respect he felt toward his mother.

Mita describes how he ‘discovered’ his mother, hearing about her in bits and pieces, all of which became clearer twenty years later. Mita explained that he was first approached to make this film about his mother by Cliff Curtis (a famous Maori actor from Whale Rider and Dark Horse), who has now starting a production company. He said that Curtis had seen Mita’s tribute short film in honor of his mother. What enticed him to make the film was that Curtis would not make the film unless he was the director “This was the challenge, and that was the beginning; I also knew that if I didn’t do it, then someone else would.”

Mita wasn’t sure how his family would accept this idea. As the ‘baby’ in the family he was close to the entire family but because of the entire history, there was a lot of tension; in the end the film brought them all together and healed old wounds.  

Who was Merata? She was a woman who fought for political fairness whether it was for her tribe against the New Zealand government or for herself against a patriarchal tribe. She fought hard as a single working mother who raised children from three separate husbands. The first two being abusive, but she endured it all because she had a vision of fairness and honesty.

His idea was to show Merata from the different age perspectives of his siblings. An older brother was 18 at the time the political turmoil was at its worst, understood his mother and tried to help her. The middle siblings suffered the most from the abuse without having the understanding; they still suffer emotionally.

Has New Zealand changed? Mita says yes. Her documentary was used in the courts to win back Maori tribal land rights. New Zealand is making an effort to honor the treaties made, but the post-colonial struggles remain. The Maori film industry is very strong, assisted by government funding, and there is pride in the educational system, which also serves the islands far distant from New Zealand.

Mita said one of his proudest moments was to show this film at the main Marae (tribal house) of their Maori tribe. Of particular importance because his tribe is one of the most patriarchal in the area; when his mother was alive she was not allowed to speak inside the Marae, and now he was actually showing a film dedicated to this strong woman! The role of Maori women still rages. The 1977 issue of abortion was a debate faced and filmed by Merata Mita. This remains on-going; some things have not changed.

Meti says making a film is one thing; to build an audience is now the next level. His story is personal, but with a universal message that he will spread as broadly as he possibly can.