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Film Review: 'Merata: How Mum Decolonised the World' is a tribute to Maori screen excellence

Glenn Dunks

Heperi Mita's directorial debut celebrates his mother's unsung legacy of bringing Indigenous stories to the screen.
Film Review: 'Merata: How Mum Decolonised the World' is a tribute to Maori screen excellence

Image courtesy of Rialto Distribution

The word 'decolonise' is right there in the title. One really shouldn’t sit down to watch a film with a word of such significant symbolism and expect something flaccid and wishy washy. Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen is more than just a standard bio-doc of Wikipedia dot points; it couldn’t be even if that’s what director Heperi Mita had wanted. After all, Merata Mita’s Wikipedia page is fairly barren. A tell-tale sign that to this day, nearly a decade following her death, her legacy remains clouded in prejudice and a lack of historic understanding. She was the very first female Māori filmmaker – and to this day, the only one to have ever written and directed their own feature – but her homeland was not ready for what she had to say.

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Merata Mita’s mission from the beginning of her career in film was to indigenise the screen and bring to the fore the Māori stories that had previously been ignored and unrepresented. Mita wasn’t the first female director to come out of New Zealand, nor is she the most famous, but in her short yet prolific career as a director of both documentaries and dramatic features – and later as a producer of the likes of Taika Waititi’s Boy and Vilsoni Hereniko’s The Land Has Eyes, itself the first feature film ever produced in Fiji – she put the stories of Indigenous peoples at the centre.

Her words echo throughout Merata. She was obviously a confident on-camera presence across her career and Heperi is gifted with plentiful videos of his mum discussing her work, her family, her people and the recognition she received later in her life from audiences, filmmakers and festivals – almost all international, of course. Footage ranges from early television appearances discussing the taboo topic of abortion up to her work as a mentor to independent film students at the Sundance Film Festival, which now offers a fellowship to Indigenous artists in her name.

Heperi Mita is conveniently placed to make Merata not just because he is her son, but because he is a film archivist in New Zealand who has been working on the process of archiving his mother’s work. Despite this being his directorial debut, he appears on initial inspection to be adept at the process. Eschewing a typical clip-and-talking-head structure, he makes sparing but appreciated use of effects that enliven the cinematic experience.

Of course, Merata Mita isn’t the only female filmmaker to emerge out of New Zealand. Several major names include Jane Campion (who became only the second woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards with The Piano), Alison Maclean (Crush and The Rehearsal) and Gaylene Preston (Mr Wrong plus most recently the documentary My Year with Helen).

Considering her stature as one of the most controversial and high-profile names in the industry, it’s peculiar that Mita's name is not regularly cited alongside them. Or, at least it would be until you witness the films and it becomes obvious pretty quickly why she hasn’t.

Mita’s work certainly was confronting for New Zealand then, and remains so to this day. Her camera was there when people rioted at the invitation to the South African rugby team, the Springboks, to tour the country while still under Apartheid. She was there when Māori men and women led a year-and-a-half-long peaceful protest for land rights at Bastion Point.

The films derived from these important moments in New Zealand history were Patu! and Bastion Point: Day 507 and while they remain little-seen, the footage shown in Merata mark them as remarkably potent works of cinéma vérité with an unflinching gaze upon the violent police tactics levelled at the peaceful protesters executing their democratic rights.

Their aesthetics clearly a part of a documentary lineage that continues to this day in the Oscar-nominated The Square about the Egyptian Spring and recent Netflix-acquired Brazilian revolution doc The Edge of Democracy. Both of those films coincidentally made by women (Jehane Noujaim and Petra Costa respectively).

Australian film observers will no doubt feel a definite sense of déjà vu in her story, too. It is hardly uncommon for local filmmakers to have a difficult relationship with their home country for multiple reasons: funding bodies are less inclined to support challenging or untested ideas; audiences are more likely to watch American, British or French independent films than those from Australia; and a prominent conservative press eager to tear down anybody who dares critique the white majority.

There is a power to Merata: How Mum Decolonised the World. One that comes from the reveal of an extremely talented filmmaker receiving their due at long last, but also from its subjects’ unapologetic attitudes that still sting. The latest in a robust line of documentaries from the last 12 to 18 months that have spotlight unrecognised female practitioners in film. Movies like Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael and Half the Picture.

Merata has been available for streaming on America’s version of Netflix for some time now, another one of that platform’s delightfully left-of-centre acquisitions. I hope that now as its year-long festival season is winding down in Melbourne, audiences in both New Zealand and Australia will have such easy access to this important part of movie history.

Merata Mita is a name that we in this part of the world should know and celebrate. The fact that we don’t shows why a film like this is necessary. I’m just grateful that it’s so well made, too.

Four stars ★★★★
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the World
Director: Heperi Mita
New Zealand, 2018, 95min
Distributor: Rialto Distribution

About the author

Glenn Dunks is a film critic and arts journalist who has also worked across marketing for internationally-renowned events including the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the Sydney Film Festival. His work has appeared across digital, radio and print in Metro, the Big IssueVanity Fair, Junkee, SBS and more, and he is the documentary critic for The Film Experience. His writing has won two Australian Film Critics Association awards and in 2017 he authored Cannes Film Festival: 70 Years for Wilkinson Publishing.