Skip to main content

DUET for MERATA MITA 1942-2010

Years and years ago, before Cushla Parekowhai and I met and wrote scripts together as Not Amused (we love to laugh), Cushla interviewed Merata Mita for Illusions and wrote about Merata’s Mana Waka for a major art catalogue. So when Merata died I thought of Cushla immediately. Texted her. We talked at length, wrote in our separate cities. Here’s our duet: me first, a little tentatively, and then Cushla with the grand finale. Please feel free to add your canto, in the comments.

There’s so much to celebrate about Merata Mita’s life. ‘Extraordinary’ is the word I’ve heard most often this week, as people express their sorrow that Merata died so soon, and search for words to explain what she meant to them. She was (alphabetically because her many roles seemed to integrate so seamlessly into a whole) an activist, a film director, a generous friend and partner, a grandmother, a globally-oriented mentor, a mother of six, a performer, a philosopher, a producer, a television presenter, a writer. I never met her, but I sense that she too loved to laugh. And I’m sure I’ve missed many other aspects of her extraordinary life and work. She worked in New Zealand and around the world.

Merata was fearless. I read this week that she once said  “Swimming against the tide becomes an exhilarating experience. It makes you strong. I am completely without fear now”. And she needed to be. In Rangatira: Making Waves—a documentary that Hinewehi Mohi made about and with Merata in 1998—one of Merata’s children talks about the cost of her work to their family; it kept them in poverty and caused frequent separations. Another tells how they were unsafe at home because of her filmmaking. The family lived with verbal abuse, state surveillance, and death threats while Merata made Patu! about New Zealand’s civil unrest during the 1981 Springbok rugby Tour, the culmination of many years’ protest about sporting contact with South Africa, then living under apartheid rule.
 If I could choose one New Zealand-made film to keep for ever Patu! would be the one, because every time I see it Patu! makes me think and feel as deeply as I did when I first saw it, almost thirty years ago. But I didn’t watch Patu! this week. I’m waiting for a retrospective long weekend when Wellington movie-goers can sit together and watch everything she ever made, up on a big screen. Down the road at the Embassy maybe, or the Paramount.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about the final sentence in the NZ on Screen Merata Mita biography: “Her long cherished dream of adapting Patricia Grace novel Cousins into a feature remained unfulfilled”. I understand that it’s at least seven years since Merata started to develop Cousins; I imagine that she read it when it was first published way back in 1992, and thought: Yes! This would make an extraordinary film, and I’m the one to make it.

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Patricia Grace is arguably New Zealand’s pre-eminent living writer, the only one to have won the Neustadt Prize, often referred to as the American Nobel Prize for literature, also won by writers like Gabriel Marcia Marquez and Octavio Paz. There have been twenty-one winners, only four of them women: Assia Djebar, Claribel Alegria, Elizabeth Bishop and Patricia. None of Patricia’s novels has yet been adapted for film. (Local male novelists are more likely to have their work adapted: Alan Duff (2); Maurice Gee (2); Ronald Hugh Morrieson (2); Witi Ihimaera (2); and Mike Riddell—I’ve probably missed some. Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck; Joy Cowley’s The Silent One; and Renee’s Does This Make Sense To You? as Piece of My Heart are I think our only women’s novels to reach screens big or small, although we have as many strong women fiction writers as men.)

Cousins is about three Maori women’s lives, over about fifty years. The word most often used to describe it is ‘powerful’. And it is. After I started to re-read it last weekend I couldn’t stop until I finished. And I marveled at it all over again, its characters, its structure, its language, its lamentation, and finally its hope. Like all Patricia’s work, it’s full of striking visual images. I believe that Merata would have made a remarkable movie, a classic that would resonate with audiences around the world. So why didn’t she, with her strength, her self-confidence, her fearlessness, her assertiveness, her vision, her creativity, her technical skills, her problem-solving skills and her capacity for alliances?  
 And why was Merata’s only fictional feature Mauri, which she wrote, produced and directed? Mauri was released in 1988, twenty-two years ago. Why has no Maori woman written and directed a feature since, although Riwia Brown wrote Once Were Warriors (1994) and Flight of the Albatross (1995), and Briar Grace-Smith wrote The Strength of Water, released last year? This week I tracked back through some of Merata’s television appearances and her writing to see if I could find out about what may have delayed Cousins, or at least take an informed guess.*

I’m a little embarrassed that until now I didn't know about the depth and range of Merata’s engagement with film. When Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh were children, before Gaylene Preston arrived back from England, Merata was part of the influential Alternative Cinema Co-op in Auckland. Later on, as I understand it, she was the only New Zealander ever employed as a Sundance adviser. She was also an academic at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. What an extraordinary breadth of experience she had, what an institutional memory. She was a parent of modern New Zealand filmmaking who, like few others in the Alternative Cinema Co-op, kept on trucking, making films right until the end.

Understandably, her daughter Awatea Tuhura Mita said in Making Waves “I resent that my mother will never get the recognition she deserves in this country”. Yes, she was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. But why wasn’t she a Dame? Did anyone offer her an honorary doctorate? Why did she not chair the NZFC Board? Did Peter Jackson and David Court fly to Auckland to consult her for the NZFC review?

Merata’s writing and recorded interviews reflect the analysis she brought to her filmmaking. In 1979, she wrote about 'women’s history of misrepresentation in…a male-monopolised film industry' in “The Celluloid Image”, the most detailed examination of women and film that ever appeared in the feminist magazine Broadsheet–
…women…have never been honestly shown in the popular cinema. The possibilities remain limited until women become active in script writing, directing, producing and as part of the technical crew…There is a real need for women to make films by women, about women, with women, for society at large.
But she was first of all Maori. A Broadsheet review criticized Patu!, which Merata made to communicate  with 'PEOPLE rather than to reach factions…I don’t like…a kind of ghetto thing where you forget that you’re part of the broader family of humanity', but she found that–
…in Europe when I looked at women’s films, I was more impressed by the films of black women in the Third World…the films from Western feminists were indulgent to the point of reflecting phony, pampered interests…Here in New Zealand the problems Maori women have to face are different from the problems white women have to face…We have more to fight against, and our struggle is spread more broadly across the line. I’m a Maori woman and my perspective is Maori and if white feminists criticize the lack of focus on them and their issues in my films then those criticisms are not valid from my standpoint. Besides, my responsibility is to my own people first…There are more privileged white women who make films that the white feminists can call on if they want a higher celluloid profile. (Alternative Cinema interview with Roger Horrocks)
No surprise then, that according to Ella Henry in Making Waves, Merata’s work was always “an absolute celebration of mana wahine…celebrating, acknowledging and affirming us…We are here. This is our turangawaewae. And this is the gift she gives to me and my daughters”.
 And it’s also no surprise that Merata pleaded for diversity in her "Film Maker’s Manifesto" in the Alternative Cinema magazine, in 1984. I love what she says, because it’s so relevant nearly thirty years later. Except for the way she spells women, it could have been written this week–
The trend in our feature film industry has been towards a ‘Think Big—Think Bucks’ policy. The reality of a cultural richness in our nation is being forsaken for the illusion of a commercial market overseas littered with bank notes…Let the feature film industry grow and flourish but not at the expense of our other types of film. The industry has a responsibility to Aotearoa’s tradition in documentary film making, its small but exciting experimental film group, the new development in wimmin’s films, Maori films and even the new band clip films.
Then, in 1987, Barry Barclay’s feature Ngati was released, and Merata completed Mauri, as the first Maori woman to write and direct a feature, although Ramai Hayward had co-directed To Love a Maori in 1971. Ngati’s and Mauri’s casts and crew were mostly Maori. Late that year, in a KOHA programme on Maori filmmaking, Merata spoke out about the prerequisites for a Maori film and television industry and with optimism for the future–
We have to have more self-assurance and be more assertive in the film industry...We do have to have the confidence to say that we are capable of making films. Ngati has proved it. Mauri will prove it… We are capable of doing what many have believed we couldn’t do and what many people say we still can’t do… Maori film-making is emerging…It’s a slow birth. It’s been a long period of gestation...The future is very healthy. The future’s bright. I feel confident after Mauri and with the number of trainees that have come through this film that we’re on a very positive path that will lead us to success anywhere in the world with the films we make. We have the stories to tell. Brilliant stories to tell that have never appeared on the screen and never will unless we’re making the films and telling the stories.
Somehow that year’s filmmaking momentum did not continue or was thwarted. Some of it may have been channeled into television. Most significantly, Merata never made another feature. Merata’s essay “The Soul and the Image”, in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand (1992) perhaps offers some clues as to why–
Using history as a guide, it was clear that we would have to…determine our own place in an industry that had firmly locked its doors on us. Finding the way has not been easy…Maori film makers have to address the demands of the cinema, the demands of their own people, the criteria of a white male-dominated value and funding structure, and somehow be accountable to all. 
In spite of her courage and strength and talent, and even though she was making documentaries to the end, did the multiple accountabilities and the structure Merata refers to prevent her from making more (and more expensive) features, like Cousins? Or was she simply self-protective? My guess is that the accountabilities and the structures, and the stress of managing them may have meant that sometimes Merata made other choices. After Patu! came out, Julie Benjamin and Helen Todd interviewed Merata for Alternative Cinema. Merata had started on a script that seems to have been the script for Mauri, and was thinking of making it in a 'nice quiet intimate way'–
I think for me it’ll be a regenerative process, because I need one. You get times when you’re so fragile that you think one more thing is about the last thing you can take any more. It’s what turns me off  going into film making in that big feature film sort of way, because every second person you deal with is a wanker, and they’ll pull all these technical ‘know how’ and ‘expert’ stunts on you, because I’m not that schooled in that aspect of film making. I don’t know as much as I should about the technical aspect of the craft. But I do know more than most about other aspects of it. They’re not prepared to concede it. It’s not give and take. If you can put down someone, if you can make a fool of that woman there, and if you’re on top all the time, then that’s the way the game is played. And that can make you sick! I mean, that can make you physically ill, if you have to keep countering it all the time. There are exceptions to it…But as a general rule it’s cut-throat and that’s why I don’t want to put myself in there. I’m not a masochist either. There are other things in life that are equally as good…There’s a lot of areas in my life that give me something back, that offer me a lot, like the kids…When you have got your own kids to go home to, it’s much more fertile ground. There’s a lot of love there and that’s regenerative as well. And then there’s that network of friends who are a real support, that you know you can go to at any time of the day or night and call on…I’ve found that my friends and the people I love and who love me are probably the most valuable resource I’ve got.
Merata may have withdrawn to regenerate over some of the years after she made Mauri, to be with family and friends and to work with the next generation of filmmakers. But she was a filmmaker still, and as she says in the same interview, “I always feel that my ancestors are looking over my shoulder…I know it to be true. There’s a strong cultural thing that comes into it…it’s not so much motivation as feeling driven.” Julie asks “So there’s going to be no rest?” And Merata answers “No. And the sooner I come to terms with that the better. (Laughter)” So, what else may have prevented her making Cousins?

I’m always a bit uncomfortable with words like ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ because they transform patterns of behaviour into something abstract. The use of compendium words like ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ can make it harder to identify and discuss the often unrecognized, often unconscious and often subtle mechanisms we use when we support and offer resources to some human beings and not to others. But I think they’re appropriate here.

In the interview with Julie and Helen, Merata her expresses delight in risk taking and its role in her filmmaking, especially when she works with women like editor Annie Collins and Gaylene Preston. Later, Julie asks her if it’s been harder for her as a Maori woman than it has been for Gaylene.   Merata pauses. Then she says–
I would say so. I would say it has. I think she agrees too in the talks we’ve had about it. It’s harder because you have less credibility if you’re a Maori. It’s bad enough having less credibility if you’re a woman but you’ll have even less if you’re a Maori one. (Laughing) And it’s something that they notice as well—Gaylene and Annie have picked it up.
Nothing had changed fifteen years later, in 1998. At the end of Making Waves Merata stated that she was “so far not tempted” to make films in the States, where she was living. Accompanying that statement there are two wonderful ‘show, don’t tell’ scenes, of Merata and others on set, during Merata’s stint as second unit director on The Magnificent Seven. They illustrate racist and sexist behaviours and her “I’m so far not tempted” comment succinctly records their effects. As earlier, she wasn’t a masochist and had other more rewarding things to move on to.

A little segment shown after Making Waves appeared on television was included after the Making Waves in the video I saw at the New Zealand Film Archive, and it also highlights the challenges Merata faced as a Maori and a woman. Here, Derek Fox and Hone Kaa discuss what they’ve seen, and Merata herself. 'She doesn’t just make waves, she upsets the waka', says Hone. He refers to women as the 'pain bearers of our society', and to Merata as having broken through barriers. But he also talks how being Maori and being a Maori woman worked against her with the gatekeepers, in the funding structures that work best for white men and in recent years for Maori men, too. Twelve years further on again, I remember a comment one of Merata’s contemporaries made to me last year. 'There may be a celluloid ceiling for white women', she said, 'but for Maori women there’s a concrete wall'.

On the evidence, it’s not too hard to imagine that racism and sexism are precisely why Cousins has not yet reached the screen. Nor is it hard to imagine the ‘justifications’ for the long delay. It would be very easy to say 'Well, Cousins has three protagonists and that’s two too many (though it’s also possible to argue that conceptually there’s just one); it has too many locations, in the city and in the country; it’s spread over too long a time period; it would be too expensive. Cousins has created its own concrete wall', you could say. 'It’s Cousins’ own fault'. But I think it’s more helpful to acknowledge that there may have been other causes of the long delay. And to search collectively for a solution, a way round one concrete wall, at least.

I think that it’s too expensive not to make Cousins. We in Aotearoa New Zealand need this film. The world needs this film, especially the half of us who are female. As a tribute to Merata, to her extraordinary life and work, would it be possible for everyone concerned to put everything aside to make Cousins? Could the NZFC declare a moratorium on all other features until Cousins goes into principal photography? Search internationally for a script expert or two if necessary, if managing the three-protagonist/single protagonist narrative is too challenging locally? Search the highways and byways of international and local funding, for people and institutions who understand the human rights elements that underpin Merata’s vision of brilliant Maori story telling, whose contributions could supplement the NZFC’s? Could we all donate a dollar for each of our own cousins? Could the government request a wee Cousins tithe from cinemas for a year, and from patrons at next year’s rugby World Cup?

And since Merata cannot direct, what about an international director? I think Cousins is probably too complex a project for a first-time feature director, and now there’s no second- or third-time Maori woman director amongst us. Ramai Hayward said on that KOHA programme: 'We need filmmakers with authority who can interpret our emotions, our feelings, because that’s some thing no-one else can do for us. No Pakeha can do it for us'. But it’s possible that a director with authority and with experience of colonization processes could relate to the girls, the women, and the story, and make the necessary interpretation. Someone like Gurinder Chadha for instance, now writing a script about the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India. Or Samira Makhmalbaf. Or Wanuri Kahiu, currently researching a narrative film about the Kenyan land freedom army.

Merata, I imagine you’re well pleased with the fine success of Taika Waititi’s Boy, which you helped produce. And like many others I’m waiting impatiently for your last doco, Saving Grace. But what about those girl cousins, Makareta, Mata, and Missy? Will you be back in some way, to guide their story into cinemas around the world? I hope so.

And for now, here’s some violets for you, from me, from a little bundle of plants that Cushla P gave me, a few years back.

Today, when the great, grey, winter sky burst open and the rain fell, I received a txt.  Without even reading it I knew the message was not good.  “wd like to talk re: Merata”,  was all the communication said.

That afternoon Marian phoned long distance from Wellington.  I asked if she was keeping warm.  Although Marian claimed she was wrapped up well, we both felt the cold and still struggled with the existential chill that grips at the heart when unexpectedly you are told there’s been a mate.

Just like the long opening sequence in Merata Mita’s complex but often under-rated feature film Mauri when in the small hours of the morning, the kuia—played by an aged and arthritic Eva Rickard, roused from sleep, shuffles slowly down a darkened passage to answer the insistent ring of the telephone, picking up the heavy, black, bakelite receiver with a nicotine encrusted, “Ko wai?”  There’s no hello or how are you? Nope, nothing like that.  All of a sudden we’re in to it.  Wham!  The story begins here.  Someone has died and the kuia wants to know “Who?”

And actually sitting in the cheap seats you get it.  No subtitles necessary.  The dimly lit interior, the old woman’s work worn hands, the flare of the paraffin lamp.  These were the intense and emotionally charged kinds of images that in powerful shorthand introduced us to the iwi centered stories Merata the passionate and absolutely dedicated filmmaker knew she needed to tell.  There, as the mystery of reel life unwinds and spirals gently off the spool in her one and only feature film, fearless Merata offers us a glimpse of her audacious but enduring vision of a bold new Maori cinema.

Mauri ora, e Whae.  Mauri ora.

Cushla Parekowhai
1 June 2010

Parekowhai, C. “Korero Ki Taku Tuakana : Merata Mita and Me”, Illusions, Wellington, September 1988.
Parekowhai, C. “Puea o Te Ao : Rise to the Surface of the World, Merata Mita’s Mana Waka”, Alter/image: Feminisim and Representation in New Zealand Art 1973-1993, City Gallery, Wellington, 1993.
We plan to reprint Cushla’s articles here and as notes on Development’s Facebook page, will tweet etc when they’re available.

*With thanks to NZ on Screen, the New Zealand Film Archive, to references in Deborah Shepard’s Reframing Women, to Merata’s and Roger Horrocks’ chapters in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa, to Broadsheet, and to Alternative Cinema. The Alexander Turnbull Library is closed and the National Library does not hold a complete run of Alternative Cinema so I was unable to source Merata’s full ‘A Film Maker’s Manifesto’, but here’s the references to the two interviews, which we also hope will be widely available soon:
“Meshes of an afternoon: An interview with Merata Mita, Julie Benjamin & Helen Todd.” Alternative Cinema Summer 1983/84 37-42.
“PATU! Merata Mita, the director of Patu! is interviewed by Roger Horrocks.” Alternative Cinema Winter/Spring 1983 11-21.

More tributes
The most recent Nga Aho Whakaari newsletter "pays tribute to Merata Mita and all the other Maori women who work in the many craft areas of our industry". It includes tributes to Merata from Tearapa Kahi, Kath Akuhata-Brown, Hinewehi Mohi, Ella Henry, Briar Grace-Smith, Chelsea Winstanley, Sharon Hawke and Hineani Melbourne.
Anne Else in The Hand Mirror 
Dominion Post obituary, including tribute from Tearepa Kahi, chair of Nga Aho Whakaari
Joanna Paul on Horiwood
KOHA-Nga Pikitia Maori (1987) Merata and others on Maori film-making from the silent era to Mauri
Merata Mita at NZ on Screen
Ophelia Thinks Hard
Philip Matthews in Second Sight


  1. *Sigh...* This is a painfully gorgeous tribute to a filmmaker I'm sorry to say I don't know much about, but who, based on what I've read of her over the years, was a central force within indigenous and female storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the development of Patricia Grace's "Cousins" into a film, as I was first introduced to Grace when I watched a documentary film on her at the NZ Film Archives in November 2009. (Wonderful free service they have!) I have been planning since that time to get my hands on one of her works, and of course, now, I will choose Cousins!

    I'm always interested in the intersection of racism and feminism, (for me, one of the most important things I've read on that has been Audre Lorde's "Sister Outsider"), and was very excited to read your excerpts of her comments, in particular: "There are more privileged white women who make films that the white feminists can call on if they want a higher celluloid profile." which I think so deftly sums up a major problem within feminism -- ignoring racism and class. Feminism often falls victim to classism (though I feel it's getting better!) The confluence of race, sexism, feminism and classism is more prevalent than many people understand (I only claim to notice, and attempt to understand its manifestations). Merata's comments so brilliantly bite back at a contingent which tries to impose its perspectives.

    Beautiful, woeful, yet ultimately hopeful piece! Thank you for it!

  2. Kia Ora,

    What a wonderful discussion on Merata Mita's life and work's. Tomorrow i am going to stand up in front of my Pasi 301 class at Victoria university and give a presentation on how Merata Mita's works have resisted and/or participated in particular framings of the Pacific. It gives me great strength to stand up and speak about Mita's works and hopefully inspire others to seek out her works, to understand some of the messages she was trying to convey and to take the courage to tell our stories for our people.

    Nga Mihi,

    Komako Silver

  3. Kia ora Komako. Thanks very much for this message. I loved reading it. I'll be thinking of you today, and hoping that your presentation goes super-well. If you have a link to it later, please feel free to post it here. Every good wish to you.

  4. Kia Ora ano,

    Thank you so much for your positive feedback, presentation went well.
    I am writing an essay right now that will expand further on the presentation i did on Merata Mita if would like me to post that once i have finished? also i made a short film about the Pasi 301 class which was influenced by Mita's works. I have also made a small 3min doco on Albert Wendt's essay 'Towards a New Oceania' too.
    Am happy to share these with anyone interested in seeing them.

    Nga Mihi,


  5. Thanks, Komako. Could you email me please, if you have a minute? wellywoodwoman[at] Look forward to hearing from you.


Post a Comment