Hepi Mita was only a baby when his mother, Merata Mita, became the first Māori woman, and the first indigenous woman in the world, to write and direct a feature film. (That was Mauri, in 1988.)
He was living and working as a journalist in the US when he got the news, in 2010, that his mother had died suddenly in Auckland. That brought him home, and led to him making a film about her life, MERATA: How Mum Decolonised The Screen.
In MERATA, the outspoken mother, feminist, activist, mentor, and groundbreaking filmmaker — whose work challenged New Zealand’s “dominant, white, monocultural perspectives” — comes to life again.
As Hepi says in the film: “My mother once said, ‘What you see when you look at an archival film, are resurrections taking place. A past life lives again, and something from the heart and the spirit responds.’”
Here, he writes about the deeply personal process of documenting his mother’s life.
When I started researching archival films about my mother, I never knew it would result in a documentary.
At the time, it was just a source of earnest curiosity, a longing to relive the connection with my mum — a connection that was unexpectedly severed by the deceptive fragility of mortality.
My hunger for the past came out of a need to process my own grief, rather than a desire to study the history.
I was 24, and working for a newspaper in Las Vegas, when I got a call from my dad in New Zealand, telling me to come back home. My mother had passed away suddenly while working on a film. She was 68 years old.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment would set the course for everything that came afterward.
I never saw my mum as a filmmaker, nor was she ever a radical activist in my eyes. She was always a loving mum and grandmother who invested her time mentoring young indigenous filmmakers from around the world.
Being the pōtiki of my whānau, the youngest of her six children, that’s the side of Mum that I got to witness in the last couple of decades of her life. She was already into her 40s when I was born — I arrived more than 12 years after my brother Eruera, her second youngest child, so I’m pretty sure I was an unexpected surprise!
I was born in New Zealand, but I grew up in Hawai’i and Los Angeles. Being the son of two filmmakers (my dad was Geoff Murphy, who’s best known here for Goodbye Pork Pie), a career in the film industry was probably inescapable for me.
Not that I didn’t try.
After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I began working in online journalism for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Las Vegas Sun newspaper in 2007. When Mum passed away, I decided to come home for good.
As a journalist, I was always much more interested in the present. But when I got home, the past was impossible to avoid. Mum literally had van-loads of films, spanning from the 1970s through to the early 2000s, sitting in her garage.
None of us kids knew what to do with them, so we took them to Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s film archives. They took one look at her vast collection and offered me a job on the spot.
It was archival footage that introduced me to my mother’s younger self — her āhua and youth forever preserved in those images. It was a part of her I never knew. Through old audio recordings, I could bring back her voice. And through her early work, I could see her worldview and sharp analysis.
I used these things to feel close to her again. I even managed to edit together extracts of her interviews and used her own words to tell the story of her life in a 10-minute video I presented at her unveiling.
Cliff Curtis, a close friend of my mum’s, saw the presentation and approached me a couple of months later with a wero. He said: “Hepi, I’m starting a production company, and I want one of my first projects to be a film about your mum — and I want you to direct it. And if you don’t want to make it, then I’m not going to do it.”
It was like The Godfather, an offer I couldn’t refuse. I wasn’t going to turn down Cliff Curtis! Besides, I knew that there was interest in my mother’s story, and that, someday, somebody would want to tell it. And, even though I didn’t know a whole lot about the specifics of her story, I knew she was fiercely outspoken — and if the film was in anyone else’s hands, I feared she’d be misrepresented.
But I had never made a film before, and I had doubts about my own ability to do her story justice. Even with all the archival resources at my disposal, there was a gap that old recordings couldn’t fill.
It was the 1970s when my mother first got her start in the film industry. At the time, she was in her mid-30s and a solo mother of five working up to three jobs to get by. And what amazes me is that she managed to document the most significant historic events with devastating perspective, all while seemingly trapped by circumstance.
But it was her desire as a mother to create a better future for her children that led her down the path of documentary filmmaking.
And so, it was in my tuākana — my older siblings Rafer, Richard, Rhys, Awatea and Eruera — that I found the parts of my mother that the archives were lacking, both in emotion and her story.
They were part of her struggle. They witnessed first-hand the turbulent events that transformed her from a schoolteacher and housewife into a “radical” feminist, a protestor into a documentarian, and a filmmaker into an icon of global indigenous cinema.
And with the combination of family memories, home movies, interviews, and her own body of work, I could build something that began to resemble what I thought was a more accurate portrayal of her life, from which a biographical documentary could be made.
But something unexpected happened along the way.
In documenting my mother’s life from the perspective of our family, I was inadvertently creating an archive of my whānau. I was highlighting the constant glimpses of my older brothers and sister within our mum’s work. I was seeing them grow up on film.
And I was uncovering the conflicts and contradictions present in being the child of someone like our mum. Her public profile in the media meant they couldn’t be sheltered from the prejudice and abuse she encountered as one of the only Māori women in the media.
As children, they were caught in the crossfire of the struggle for Māori rights and the riots of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. Parents told their kids not to play with them because their mum was “a radical”. Anonymous abusive phone calls were made to the house. They would see their mother harassed. They would even be witness to, and subject to, police brutality.
Some of these conversations were uncomfortable, and sometimes quite shocking, but through recording their experiences, the bonds between us were strengthened. I marvelled at the strength of whānau in times of adversity.
The preciousness of immortalising this kōrero would make itself painfully evident to me very quickly.
My brother Eruera was the first person I told about the film. He was an enthusiastic and proud participant. I did hours of research before we started filming, and recorded each of our conversations every time. I remember once, after sharing his recollections of the police harassment against our family, he told me he had never spoken to anyone about those things in his life.
And then, just three weeks after we filmed his interview, he passed away of a heart attack.
I was devastated. I couldn’t look at the film for months. It was one of my mother’s longtime collaborators, Annie Collins, who coaxed me back into the edit room and watched the footage with me.
And it was then I realised the importance of sharing our mother’s story and the role that her children played within it. It was for them that she overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve the things she did. I channelled that inspiration to finish this documentary. To immortalise their story.
I’ll never forget showing it to Eruera’s son for the first time, and him telling me: “It’s been a long time since I heard my dad’s voice.”
So, in a strange irony, this documentary became a reflection of itself, but as the saying goes, “art imitates life”. And although both my mum and brother are gone now, through this film, I feel like I’ve kept them close, and I’ve brought them with me as the film has travelled to film festivals around the world.
And I realise that, one day, my own tamariki may watch this film to learn more about me.
MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen opens in cinemas around the country from today (Mother’s Day, May 12).
To read more about Merata Mita and her work, see also this biography of her in NZ On Screen.
MERATA is Hepi Mita’s directorial debut. It premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival in 2018 and screened at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals.
Hepi was born in New Zealand in 1986, and grew up in the US. He is an archivist with Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, the nation’s film, television and radio archive — a career he began after his return to Aotearoa in 2011, following the death of his mother. He has a journalism degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
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