Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen : A Commentary

“The way I see it, if you’re a Māori woman and that’s all you are, that alone will put you on a collision course with, that society and its expectations. And if you flatly refuse to give up your Māori value system for an easier way of life, and you live in a society which is supposed to be bicultural and multiracial but isn’t – that’s a lie – then you’ll be in constant conflict with how that society is run and how it sees itself. That’s been my experience.” (Merata Mita in Head and Shoulders).

There is something particularly powerful about the voices of the whānau as they share the story of the life and works of their mother, Merata Mita. It is a narrative form that has sat at the centre of her work and her inspirational approach to her storytelling, both documentary and drama. In ‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen’ Director, Heperi Mita (Merata’s youngest son) takes us through a whānau journey that brings to the fore the many experiences that both shaped and motivated his mothers life and work. When whānau share their stories of those they love it is layered, like a well recited cultural genealogical template that is our whakapapa.

Whakapapa is both identity and stories. It is a cultural framework through which we come to recall who we are, where we are from, the collectives to which we are connected and to whom we are responsible. It is a series of layers that go as long, as deep, as high, as wide as we determine as Māori. This story, in my view, is inherently one of whakapapa kōrero, of storytelling that is deeply embedded within and emboldened by the influences of our connections and relational way of understanding our place and our role in the world.

In the opening sequence Hepi speaks to his role as an archivist and the place Merata’s films play in the creation of spaces to enable the telling of this country’s stories. Stories, that even today, many seek to deny and to silence. For years Merata Mita struggled in a space where Māori voices were denied, Māori stories were deemed insignificant and where Māori women’s place was contested, sometimes even by our own men, where colonial notions of gender worked to marginalise the fundamental essence of Mana Wahine. Merata worked relentlessly and unapologetically in those spaces with a hope that “once the work shows you are capable then prejudices of race and sex may fall away” (Merata Mita).

Across her works, Merata actively engaged issues of colonisation, racism, sexism and classism, and represented examples of the intersection of those issues before many even considered the ways in which such multiple intersecting oppressions impacted upon our people. Her commentary within interviews about her work highlight a desire and intention to bring forward all of those issues when it was far from acceptable to do so, including issues that were deeply personal. As is so clearly articulated by all voices in the film, her work has also been critical in the remembering of the courage and strength of Māori and Indigenous nations that live in a context of colonial occupation. As her reflections on the documentary ‘Bastion Point Day 507’ highlights,
“What courage, what strength what commitment what dedication to stand and say, in the face of our army and our police and the rest of the country howling for their blood. What extraordinary people. From that day forward I have been fearless because its as if you’ve become part of something greater its like a rebirth its kind of like when you fear nothing, when you lose your fear about anything it makes you that much more powerful you get so much more strength” (Merata Mita)

The work of Merata Mita has been a powerful critical influence for many Indigenous Peoples. It has also been influential in the ways that Māori and Indigenous films and storytelling has evolved over the past 40 years. This documentary tells us of the life of a mother, a film maker, an activist, a mentor, a storyteller, a change agent. It tells us of Mana Wahine, of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination), and of work driven by an aspirational vision for a future where all of our tamariki and mokopuna can live fully as Māori on our own lands. It also reveals to the world the struggles that she as a Māori women filmmaker and her tamariki endured in order to be a part of the transformative change that is needed in Aotearoa. As Merata voiced, “When you come up against that kind of racism, you know… so raw its probably one of the ugliest things you have to experience in your lifetime. But the fact of the matter is that when you have children you have an investment in the future and so you come out fighting again”.

That is a message that is all too common in the experiences of many Māori activists and their whānau across a range of struggles and movements in this country. Being at the cutting edge of challenging the status quo, in order to seek change for future generations, often comes at a high cost. And most often that cost is borne by whānau. As we weave through the stories shared by Hepi, Rafer, Richard, Rhys, Awatea, Eruera (to whom the film is dedicated), we hear of painful experiences that the whānau have carried, such as police violence during the production of films such as ‘Patu’, we also hear of the involvement of whānau throughout each of her films and reflections that highlight a deep sense of aroha and respect for the work that Merata brought to the world. We are also reminded of the centrality of whānau to the work. Both as support and as inspiration. The reflections shared are testament to the powerful contribution that whānau make to the act of sharing forward the stories that are of those Māori women, Māori people that put themselves at the forefront of the struggles of our people. This is something Merata did many times with films such as Patu, Bastion Point Day 507, Te Hikoi Ki Waitangi, Mauri and others. We hear also of the life influences that are integral to her work including the bringing forward of her cultural and spiritual understandings within films such as Mauri (1988) where the audience experiences a broad range of cultural, political, emotional and spiritual responses, aligning to her view that “wairua is an active force in filmmaking” (Merata Mita).

What ‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen’ presents us with is not only the story of the first Māori woman to write and direct a feature film (Mauri 1988), which in and of itself shows us that powerhouse of a Māori woman she was, it is a story of the perseverance of a Māori woman to bring our stories, our images, our histories, our struggles, our people, ourselves to the screen in order to challenge the world to become a better place for our tamariki and mokopuna.
“Our land get taken the fisheries and forests get taken and in the same category is our stories. What we see on the screen is only the dominant white monocultural perspective on life, we need to see our own,we need to see our own people up there, we need to be able to identify with our own race, we need to see each other up there and we need to go out and do it.” (Merata Mita)

This is a documentary that opens the door for many who have not seen the extensive collection that is the work of Merata Mita, and encourages us all to seek out her works as a way of understanding many of the issues that we currently face here in Aotearoa. These are works that context racism, sexism, classism as inherent to the ongoing systems of colonisation. As the current debate over the inclusion of Māori history within education continues to rage, we are reminded that in order to move forward in Aotearoa we must come to terms with our past. The influence of Merata’s work in the context of decolonisation is internationally renowned and validated as evidenced through her close relationships with Indigenous filmmakers such as Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki), Hawaiian Sovereignty leader and scholar Haunani Kay Trask and Sundance Indigenous Progamme leaders Heather Rae (Cherokee) and Bird Runningwater (Cheyanne/Mescalaro Apache), amongst many others.

Decolonising and Indigenising the screen has never been solely about image, or the narrative. It is about the essence of what it means to be Māori, what it means to be Indigenous. It is fundamental to challenging dominant colonial imagery and representations. It is about telling those stories, framing those images and shaping our understandings in ways that align to our cultural, spiritual, emotional and intellectual ways of being as Māori and Indigenous Nations. It is about our right to be self-determining in all spaces, including film. What is clear from is that for our stories as Māori and Indigenous Peoples to be heard we must tell them ourselves. We must see ourselves and we must create those images through our own lens. That has always sat at the centre of the decolonising intent of Merata’s work. An intent that has been honoured in this documentary by those that most count. Her children.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised The Screen opens in Cinema’s nationwide in Aotearoa (New Zealand) on ‘Mothers Day’, May 10th 2019

Production company: Arama Pictures
Director: Heperi Mita
Producer: Chelsea Winstanley
Executive producer: Cliff Curtis
Director of photography: Mike Jonathon
Editor: Te Rurehe Paki
Featuring: Merata Mita, Rafer Rautjoki, Richard Rautjoki, Rhys Rautjoki, Awatea Mita, Eruera “Bob” Mita, Hepi Mita, Alanis Obomsawin, Jesse Wente, C.M. Kaliko Baker, Tammi Haili’opua Baker, Heather Rae, Bird Runningwater, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, Sterlin Harjo, Pauline Clague, Blackhorse Lowe, Taika Waititi
In English, Maori
95 minutes
https://readingcinemas.co.nz/movie/6899?fbclid=IwAR1nfPrsgBJo6SfM377R_tznIxa506J1ZCtneqsPl9qHhi1SFPxSGAUXeq0

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