The emotionally powerful documentary “Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen,” which is screening at Berlinale, tells the intimate story of legendary Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, who helped to kick-start indigenous cinema from that corner of the world. Directed by her son, Hepi Mita, it’s also a personal journey through their family life, as Hepi explores how important and trailblazing his mother was in her field of work, and how her passion for the arts informed many aspects of her life, before she died in 2010. “It was daunting to be so intimate. On one hand I wanted to craft an honest and emotional portrayal, and on the other I wanted to protect myself and my family,” says Mita, who adds that “it’s a very delicate balance, especially when your perspective is so ingrained in the subject matter.”
The film showcases never-before-seen footage and offers up extremely open accounts of Merata Mita’s life and work, which opened doors to indigenous filmmakers such as Warwick Thornton, Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo and Zoe Hopkins. “If you look at the highest-grossing films in New Zealand history, seven out of 10 of them are either made by indigenous filmmakers, or deal heavily with indigenous themes,” says Mita, adding that “the success is self-evident and I see it now spilling over into Hollywood, with Maori directors like Taika Waititi on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and actors like Temuera Morrison in ‘Aquaman.’ Indigenous filmmakers continue to prove themselves at the highest level, and indigenous cinema is well on its way to major crossover success.”
Merata Mita was the first Maori woman to write and direct a narrative feature, with 1988’s “Mauri,” while her political films highlighted the political and societal struggles of Maori people during the 1980s. But all audiences are likely to come away with something long-lasting and profound about what she did for an entire generation of artists who would follow in her footsteps. “I want people to be inspired by a fearless woman who against all odds kept going,” says producer Chelsea Winstanley, adding that “in the face of adversity, she chose to participate in the struggle for women, for solo mothers and for filmmakers to be heard. I hope it encourages people to participate, not only in the discussion of how to continue her legacy, but to empower people to act.”
And because so much of Merata’s life was meaningful and potentially helpful to the filmmakers, it proved to be a difficult task to decide what to use and what should be left on the cutting-room floor. “The challenges were mainly how to condense such an incredible woman’s story into 85 minutes and how to ensure her legacy, on film, remained with her family,” says Winstanley.
All involved were in it for the long haul, too. “This film has been five years in the making and I truly believe it needed that amount of time in order to achieve what we all set out to do,” says Winstanley, who adds that “it also enabled Hepi to discover the story he wanted to tell and uncover stories of his mother he never knew existed.”