He Poroporoaki Merata Mita a Maori Filmaker: a profound loss

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A Leading Maori filmmaker has died and we all mourn the loss…

We are devastated to hear that Whaea Merata Mita has died today. A report in the NZ Herald, released only moments ago say that Whaea Merata collapsed outside the Maori TV studios and efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful.

Merata Mita, one of the co-producers of the hit New Zealand film Boy, has died after collapsing outside an Auckland TV station today.

Potaua and I were blessed to have meet Whaea Merata late last year at our office after she returned home from Hawaii where she had been teaching for many years to help co-produce what now has become New Zealand’s most successful film, Boy. She had come to us asking for our help with the promotion of the Boy the Movie amongst Maori communities and I remember how humbled we were to have been in the company of such an incredible Wahine Toa.

Our deepest sympathies go out to her whanau, friends and colleagues…

Merata Mita is a key figure in the story of Maori filmmaking. Through documentaries, interviews, public speaking and her 1987 feature film Mauri, she has been a passionate voice for Maori and an advocate for social change.

Merata Mita grew up in the Bay of Plenty town of Maketu, the third eldest of nine children. She had a traditional rural Maori upbringing, and sometimes watched newsreels when films were projected onto the walls of the local wharenui.

Later, during eight years teaching at Kawerau College, she began using film and video to reach supposedly unteachable high school students, many of them Maori. “What they were all good at was expressing themselves through art, image, drawing.” The experience taught Mita “how powerful image was in reaching people who don’t have other communication skills”.

Mita worked on her first documentary in 1977, helping a Pakeha filmmaker organize interviews with Maori people. But she soon began to grow disenchanted at Maori misrepresentation on film, and at how Maori seemed to be employed only to liase with Maori communities for Pakeha filmmakers.

In May 1978 Mita got a telephone call telling her “to get a film crew up to Bastion Point”. Mita arrived just in time to film police removing Ngati Whatua protestors from the site. Lack of funds meant that Bastion Point: Day 507 would take another two years to complete.

Mita went on to direct and co-direct films about the trade union movement and the Hokianga Catholic Maori community, some while reporting and presenting for Maori news show Koha. The Bridge (1982) co-directed with Gerd Pohlmann, chronicles the longrunning Mangere Bridge industrial dispute.

Patu! was Merata Mita’s passionate record of clashes between protesters and police during the 1981 Springbok tour. The subject of intense media coverage, Patu! was described by Listener reviewer Peter Wells as “the hottest documentary ever made in New Zealand”. It was also the first feature-length documentary in New Zealand directed by a woman. Local cinema chains refused to screen it. The film went on to screen at film festivals around the world.

Mita followed Patu! in 1988 with Mauri, only the second feature film drama to have a Maori woman director (1972’s To Love a Maori was co-directed by Ramai Hayward and husband Rudall). Mauri‘s plotline centres around issues of birthright and racism in an isolated rural community, with land rights activist Eva Rickard playing the central role as the grandmother.

The film was a training ground for many young Maori crew members, and Mita argued that

what you gain from Maori people is an incredible intensity and passion about the work being done”.

Mauri won a best prize at Italy’s Rimini Film Festival. After some negative reviews of the film at festival screenings back home, Mita argued against Pakeha reviewers who were “not qualified to assess it”. She asked not that people liked the film, but that they view it with an open mind.

In making Mauri, Mita consciously rejected Pakeha traditions of storytelling. Instead she embraced a layered approach, in keeping with the strongly oral tradition of Maori people. “These are differences that Pakeha critics don’t even take into account when they’re analyzing the film.”*

1989 saw Mita and longtime editor Annie Collins working on a Steenbeck editing bench on Turangawaewae Marae. Mita had accepted the challenge of making Mana Waka (1990), a documentary from abandoned footage chronicling the creation of four special wakas built by Princess Te Puea, for New Zealand’s 1940 centenary.

Mana Waka met with some complications: at one point frustrated descendants of the original Pakeha cameraman ran off with an early print of the film, despite having earlier agreed to let Mita direct.

Mita has also made documentaries on artist Ralph Hotere (Hotere, 2001), Rastafarians in Ruatoria (The Dread) and the video for Che Fu’s Waka. Waka won the Music Video of the Year Award at the 1999 Hawaii Music Awards. In 1998, Mita was herself the subject of the television documentary Rangatira.

Mita spent much of the nineties living and working in America, alongside her partner, director Geoff Murphy. As an actor, she has appeared in Murphy’s Utu and a TV adaptation of Rowley Habib’s The Protesters. She has hosted workshops and spoken on panels about indigenous filmmaking in many countries.

Mita is developing a feature version of the Patricia Grace novel Cousins. In 1996 she was awarded the Leo Dratfield Lifetime Achievement Award for documentary by the Robert Flaherty Foundation.

She is also listed as one of the producing team on Taika Waititi‘s second feature as director, Boy.

* from Parekowhai, Cushla. “Korero Ki Taku Tuakana: Merata Mita and me.” Illusions Issue 9, December 1988.

Kia ora to NZ On Screen for this biography.

22 COMMENTS

  1. In response Mhirawhiti, She went to hollywood with Frankie …(Geoff Murphy). Film Networks, Film Industry Relationships.For those in the Political Movement we all have a Merata Mita story to share.Haere atu ra e Kui, Haere Haere atu ra …He mihi ki te Wh?nau Pani, Ng? Tamariki / Ng? Mokopuna o Merata Mita – Ma Te Atua koutou e manaaki e tiaki mo ake tonu …

  2. All said guys. Thanks for this reminder on the work she put out. The question that I always mulled over in my mind waslf was: Why did she have to live in the States or Hawaii to further her skills as a film maker, producer and director? Such a pity.

  3. Same, this is really sad and unfair to lose her like this, but what a legacy she has left, whanau, art, politics, a mentor and a rolemodel for wahine toa everywhere.

  4. I'm gutted. RIP rangatira wahine. She was and is a hero in every sense of the word. An amazing woman who inspired people by just doing her mahi and living her life. This is a sad, sad day.

  5. Nga Mihi mahana ki a koe e te wahine toa, te mareikura o nga mahi a te pouaka whakaata nga uri whakatipu hoki o Ngati Makino; Ngati Pikiao me Te Arawa whanui

  6. Very Sad, to hear the loss of Merata Mita, whilst growing up the first visual's of Merata's would have been Bastion Point:Day 507-1978. EVEN later on her Documentaries Rastafarians in Ruatoria, Ralph Hotere and Patu-(Spring-Bok Tour)….Her work shaped our Country…Profound loss.

  7. I just heard! How very unfortunate, New Zealand has lost a great asset to the New Zealand ilm industry.

    Rest in peace

  8. There are no words to adequately acknowledge the taonga that was Merata.. there is only the legacy that will forever be treasured by generations to come. On behalf of the Maori community in Melbourne we thank you Merata for your inspiration, your courage and your determination to achieve your goals. You were a living example of a Wahine Toa – of a Rangatira.. haere atu ra e Merata, haere atu ki o matua tupuna kua riro e te po… haere, haere,haere….

    MaraeMelbourne

  9. kua hinga te totaranui i roto te waonui a Tane, aue te mamae, kua mate matou whaea nanni mama a Mereta, moera, moera, moera i te poho o te Atua. kia kaha kia manawanui te whanau

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