January 24, 2019
Sundance 2019

How a Broke, 40-Year-Old Single Mom Became the Grandmother of Indigenous Film

She may have started late, but Merata Mita was the first indigenous woman in the world to direct a feature film, and MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen shows us that a determined filmmaker can begin in any circumstances.

In a time when few women were making films, let along mauri women, Merata Mita was a revolutionary. The director of MERATA saw this up close and personal – he happens to be her youngest son. As a kid Heperi “Hepi” Mita wasn’t interested in filmmaking. He wanted to rebel a little. “It’s just kind of lame being the apple that doesn't fall far from the tree,’” Hepi Mita explained to No Film School. Instead, he became a print journalist.

But in 2010, with the unexpected death of his mother, his perspective shifted. After having been away from New Zealand for about 12 years, he decided to return, and then found an entire garage full of old films, many on original 16mm film, that his mom had stored. Through painstaking archival sifting and tough interviews with family members, Mita tells the largely untold story of a determined Maori filmmaker who not only inspired New Zealand, but world politics and a generation of Native filmmakers.

Before the premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Mita sat down with No Film School to talk about editing a superhero creation story, asking about painful topics in an interview, and how he learned from his mom that the only thing that limits you is your imagination. 

NFS: Did your background in journalism help or affect your approach piecing together your mother’s story from this huge amount of archives?

Heperi Mita: Working in archives was completely different from the world of journalism, which is so rapid, and you have be in the action and be completing things. Archiving is almost the polar opposite. You're dealing with things that have been shelved for decades and decades, and in some cases, you're the first person to see that stuff in 30 years.

It was almost a combination of two skills that really drove how I would tackle telling my mom's story. As a film archivist, having a really strong background in research that gave me a lot of experience. I think part of working with archival footage, whether you're a filmmaker here in New Zealand or in the United States or anywhere, is actually navigating through the bureaucracy of who can access the material, using databases, and how you're going to manage those types of things. That unfortunately is the sick truth of working with a lot of archival materials!

Heperi Mita in his role as archivist sifting through rolls and rolls of 16mm film for the making of 'MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the World.'

"...in some cases, you're the first person to see that stuff in 30 years."

Mita: So being a researcher gave me a massive leg-up into that way of thinking. I think the first interview was in 1976, the last interview is 2010. So we were looking at roughly a 34 year period. I had all of that to work with. There were obviously big gaps in her life that I needed to film. This was when my background as a journalist comes in. And the only people who knew my mom from the beginning, before she was a filmmaker, through to when she passed away and was working over in Sundance, and in Hollywood, and what not, were my older siblings. Her life was a pretty wild ride, different transitions and almost reinventions of who she was. So relationships that were maintained, the longest standing ones, were the ones with her kids. I knew that they were kind of the key to the story.

                    However, the tricky thing there was because of my mother's background as an activist, I knew we would be entering into territory that would provoke a lot of repressed memories and a lot of uncomfortable realities that my family had to grow up with. And having my experience as a journalist, I could reach back to that and not only was I a family member. Actually, one of the major stumbling blocks for me was being the younger brother. Being the baby of the family and having to sit down to them and talk to them eye-to-eye, not as the baby brother but as a story-teller. And I was really thankful for my experience as a journalist that enabled me to shift my mindset into a more professional frame of mind, as opposed to being someone who's just the little kid.

NFS: It's deceptively difficult to interview family members! Did you adopt a specific approach to it? Did you know specifically what you needed to ask or was it more loose?

Mita: There were things straight off the bat that I had seen in the films of my mother. Going through these things was like playing "Where's Waldo?" for me. She'd be shooting a big wide shot of a protest, and I would see one of my older brothers, or my sister or someone in the frame. So I had those f references to draw upon, and I could show them. I'd often be like, "Hey, do you remember this? What happened there?" So I did have those kind of landmark things. But in order to be a bit more removed from the family, I dialed it all back on my first few questions and would just basically go, "What is your earliest memory?" Just to really get the full perspective.

                    I didn't want to just spout anything due to my own ... I don't know if prejudices is the right word? But you know, my own ideas that I had already held as the little brother, as my mother's son. I needed to kind of explore every facet and time period of my mother's life. And the only way I could do that is the most basic, basic question. I not only did that with my siblings, but with everyone – even though ultimately I focused on my family, I cast a very wide net. I think at the end I spoke 87 people.

A few decades before the above photography of her son, Merata Mita also sits down to view some analog film in this still from 'MERATA: How Mum Decolonized the Screen.'Credit: Gil Hanley

 "But while I was working on the film, there were a lot of current events going on echoed the struggles that she had been dealing with in her life."

NFS: With all of this material you had to work with, did you have any guiding principles for how you would tell this story, and know when it was done?

Mita: I had several things that I established right up front going into this, because it's so easy to get seduced and go on different tangents. How do you summarize someone's life in a 90-minute narrative? It's almost impossible. But there were certain things that I knew to be right. And one of the things was I knew that my mother would have to speak for herself to a certain degree. She was so outspoken. And her life's experience was so completely different to mine, that I didn't really want to put words in her mouth or represent her in a way that was untrue to her reality.

            And because, when I look at it in the most blatant terms, there she was, basically from a very humble background, struggling through a situation of poverty as a woman of color raising five children as a solo mother. And here I am, as a 33 year old, light-skinned male, no kids. So my perspective and my experiences, the challenges that I have to go through were a world apart. And I was very, very sensitive to the representation of her as my own privilege.

I was interested in a kind of superhero creation story: how she went from a humble beginnings to making those big leaps. How does one person make that journey? And so after establishing the main foundations of my awareness of and identity in those things, I looked at the events, and I looked at her own interviews around the events that really propelled her forward as a filmmaker. And that was my basis around a lot of the documentary material interviews that I later filmed with my own family, talking to them about where they were and how they were viewing things at those times. It was a very careful approach, to be honest with you.

A still of the woman often called the 'Grandmother of Indigenous Film' in this still from a documentary about her titled 'MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the World' directed by Heperi Mita.

"Her goals and everything that she did defied the expectations of the situation that she found herself in."

NFS: It’s a powerful choice to use her own voice, because she's so articulate and brilliantly outspoken. At some point in the film, someone asks her something critical like "Do you think you should be airing New Zealand's problems overseas?" And she says yes, because if you don't have a dialogue, then more violence ensues. How do you feel about the power of cinema today when it comes to a dialogue about racism and sexism and colonialism?

Mita: I think that was actually one of the things that inspired me the most throughout the production process. It took me over five years to make, and at times it was very challenging to talk to my family about the prejudice that they were exposed to because of things that our mom was doing, and the subsequent issues that have manifested in the family because of that. But what really inspired me throughout this process was looking at her speak about those issues that she had to deal with at a very personal level. And that was one of the things that surprised me. I'd never heard her speak about her experience of abortion, or trying to rent a home as a single woman. And it amazed me at how those notions at that period of time were considered so radical. You know, she was simply living radically. Now, 30, 40 years later, a lot of those things are, in mainstream culture, quite accepted rights that people should be allowed to have and exercise.

                    But while I was working on the film, there were a lot of current events going on echoed the struggles that she had been dealing with in her life. The Dakota pipeline thing was going on, the #MeToo movement started up. I was reading my mother's book about being on the frontline of having to deal with sexual harassment in her own life. There was this weird parallel that kept coming up between what she was looking at and what was going on in the world. And sometimes it was quite heavy, but at the same time it was really inspiring to me because it showed me that she wasn't just a victim of her circumstances. And by talking about those things, she was able to use those experiences and use that conversation to inspire other people

NFS: Based on what you learned as a filmmaker putting this film together, and seeing how your mother influenced many more filmmakers after her, what would you impart to other storytellers?

Mita: First, my mother's situation in life never dictated her action. Her goals and everything that she did defied the expectations of the situation that she found herself in. If I were to try to think about starting a career as a filmmaker as a 40 year old solo mother of five, I actually think that's crazy. And not only did she do it, she broke boundaries. It shows me that you are only as limited as your own imagination, really.

                    The other thing is about the power of being able to sit down with your own family and talk about things that you're not comfortable addressing normally. Or even just contextualizing things. I understand the nature of my family so much better after having these conversations. I remember ending one of my interviews, my very first conversation with one of my older brothers, and he said, "I've never talked about any of that stuff before with anybody," and feeling really bad. Because I thought, if I had only known that growing up, I would have looked at you much differently. I would have understood you much better. And that's not only useful as a filmmaker and story-teller, but just as a human being.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.     

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