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Tribute to film-making mother

Film maker Heperi Mita was in Masterton recently for the screening of his documentary, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. PHOTO/REBECCA MCMILLAN PHOTOGRAPHY


Merata Mita played a significant part in the growth of the Maori screen industry as an accomplished documentary director and producer. After her death, her son Heperi Mita captured her life in a documentary –  Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. Reporter HAYLEY GASTMEIER spoke to him at the NZ International Film Festival Masterton.


Your mother made documentaries on the Bastion Point protests and the 1981 Springbok Tour. Both events brought about social change. How do you feel about that?

It was hard for me to understand the impact of these events. I saw the power of the imagery in her films, but growing up with those films and seeing them through the eyes of a child, it took me a few years to understand the issues that were being addressed. I now look back on those times and realise how much my generation has benefited thanks to the people involved in those movements.

How did you get into film making?

When my mother passed away, she had a big cache of films in her garage and we didn’t know what to do with them. We brought them down from Coromandel to the Film Archive, now Nga Taonga Sound & Vision, and it ended up being two cargo van loads. They took one look at it and said, ‘we’re going to need some help with this – do you fancy a part-time job going through it?’ I jumped on the opportunity, and it was through that the seed for this film was planted.

Working at the archive, when did you decide to make a film using your mother’s footage?

For my mum’s unveiling, I cut together a 15-minute reel of interview footage of her talking about her life, and Cliff Curtis saw it. He was good friends with my mum and got in touch with me, and said he was starting a production company and one of the first projects he wanted to do was a documentary on my mum. He said he wanted me to direct it, and if I didn’t want to do it then he wouldn’t go ahead with it. What I really appreciated was us as a family having a say about how my mother would be portrayed. She was controversial and a lot of the stuff that she talked about even back then is still controversial to this day.

Did the film come together how you thought it would?

I didn’t just use stuff from my mum’s cache. I found other archives from New Zealand and around the world that probably hadn’t been seen since the 1970s and 1980s, such as my mother interviewing Robert Mugabe, filming Muammar Gaddafi during dangerous times, filming the Million Man March over in the United States. I wasn’t aware that she had done that because I’m the youngest in the family. My five siblings grew up around the time of the protest movement. Then I went overseas with her and saw that side of her life and they didn’t really know about that. My eldest brother knew her when she was a housewife and school teacher in her 20s, and he was the only one who had that continuous relationship with her, from humble beginnings to her becoming an international film maker. To get my older siblings to talk about those times was kind of tough, because they went through some hard times – through poverty, through protest movements, through harassment and those types of things. So, I owe them a tremendous amount for telling their stories, because it’s not just my mum’s story, it’s their story too.

What do you think of the finished product?

It’s me finding out about my mum as a filmmaker. There’s all this fantastic footage of Maori protest and feminist protest movements of the 1970s and 1980s. But in between that were all these home videos of my older siblings with my mum, and her just living a very normal life trying to bring up these kids, while at the same time having all this crazy New Zealand history going on, on the left and right of her. And that is really the whole heart of my movie.

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