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.
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?
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.
…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)
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.
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.
*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:
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