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'Merata Is Always With Us'

Merata Mita
Aotearoa New Zealand (mostly 'Aotearoa' in this post) held its annual Big Screen Symposium in Auckland last weekend, focusing on 'strengthening our collaborative spirit'. It's run by Script to Screen, a trust whose mandate is to develop 'the craft and culture of storytelling for the screen in Aotearoa New Zealand'.

Many women participated on panels. Jane Campion took a masterclass and spoke with her Top of the Lake producer Philippa Campbell in the final session. I was catching up at home, so followed as well as I could via tweets and tumblr posts. (If I've missed something vital, please let me know?)

In his 'state of the nation' address, Dave Gibson, the chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) referred to the NZFC's gender policy.

Big sigh. According to the latest figures I've seen, women are already in Aotearoa's industry: 44% of those who work there. The 'female' issue is that we're not often enough the storytellers, the writers and directors of feature films and long-form television. But here at the symposium, yet again, the official NZFC response to our women directors' low participation in feature filmmaking (and maybe as short film makers it funds?) places the responsibility for this onto them (us), because we don't apply. And it's dispiriting that Dave Gibson's address also highlights the NZFC's inadequate and 'deficit'-oriented programmes that imply that women directors are not yet ready to make a feature. 

In Aotearoa, we may have been first with the vote, but we're now waaaaaay behind in gender equity in film; the NZFC's erroneous assumptions that it's women's fault our film projects are not funded and that women are 'not ready' or 'not interested' are now out of step with the rest of the world, where many countries have responded to a flood of data that records women's low participation by acknowledging that there are systemic issues to be addressed. 

In Australia, the Australian Directors Guild recently proposed that Screen Australia establish gender quotas like the Swedish gender equity policy, the global model for best practice; and has itself set gender and diversity goals. The United Kingdom (as discussed here) and Europe are also engaging strongly with gender equity. The British Film Institute (BFI) requires diversity 'ticks' for every project that it funds and has just added further guidelines that 'put diversity at the heart of decision making'. There's the Swedish model. And in August 47 European countries signed a Declaration  re policies to reduce gender imbalance in the audiovisual industries.

Things are shifting in Hollywood, too. There's a federal investigation into discrimination against women directors; this is encouraging women directors who've been silent to speak out and I'm hearing stories about small and specific decision-making that benefits women directors. There's even The Ms Factor Toolkit: The Power of Female-Driven Content, produced by the Producers Guild of America with Women & Hollywood's Melissa Silverstein, including statistics that show how profitable female-driven content is. There's a new diversity programme based on this and other  information. And producers are even looking for a woman director for Star Wars!

Dave Gibson's statements, as reported in the symposium's tumblr post, sent me back to the NZFC's own research into gender and writers, directors and producers in its feature development funding from 2009-2014. I wish I'd examined it more closely when it came out, late last year. But I didn't. I was just so relieved that the NZFC was being more transparent and admiring of how good the publication looked, compared to the simple charts that recorded my similar research for the period before 2009. 

And I sighed again as I struggled through the publication yesterday, because it has gaps and raises questions, which I hope someone else will address (it could be you!). For instance, in the total applications for feature development funding, the gender of directors attached to 58% of the applications is Not Specified. This gap in the data profoundly compromises the research's value and is huge compared with the gap during the years I researched the same information from NZFC documents. Then, there were just a couple of individuals identified by initials only and unknown either to me or to NZFC staff.

At first I thought that this gap was because a project in early script development may not have a director attached. But I now understand that data is missing throughout the research because applicants for funding are asked to provide information about gender and ethnicity. But they often don't do so. To be serious about gender and other elements of diversity, the NZFC needs to make the provision of diversity information mandatory. At present, any application is incomplete without essentials like a script or budget. If these elements are not present the application cannot be considered. Why not include diversity information in the requirements? It would be so easy to do. And where funds are devolved, to programmes like the one for short films, why not withhold a portion of funding until diversity data is supplied? This half-hearted effort is a long long way from what's now required in international best practice, like the BFI policies which 'obligate and support funding recipients to reflect diversity'. 

There are nevertheless two findings in the NZFC's gender research that are easy to understand and arguably wouldn't be any different if we had the full data–
1. Men directors are more likely than women to become attached to a project between early development and advanced development, where men directors are attached to 82% of applications. From this I infer that projects with a man attached as director are more likely to advance because of bias at the NZFC or because of bias among producers, both women and men; and
2. Women writers are 'trending up', but their (our) participation decreases between script development (42%) and advanced project development (32%) (and of course even further as features reach late development and production). The upwards trend is, I believe, due to the excellent and NZFC-funded script development programmes of Script to Screen and the New Zealand Writers Guild and because both organisations use blind reading in their assessments. Is the decrease as the scripts move through the NZFC process because biases creep in once a gendered name is attached, as writer or director, or when a woman or girl is the protagonist (my research last year showed that around 80% of features New Zealand women write have female protagonists)?  Is it because feature producers (about half women) are less interested in women's scripts than men's? Is it because men directors aren't interested in women's scripts? I'm sure it's not because there's a shortage of competent women directors. 
These findings alone provide good reasons for the NZFC to investigate its gender equity issues at a much more sophisticated level, and to invest much more strongly in policies that provide better gender balance. 

So imagine my delight when, from the Global Indigenous Network session at the Big Screen Symposium (moderated by Karin Williams, a development executive at the NZFC who herself is a producer, writer and director) came a call for the NZFC to commit to funding men and women equally.  Partly, I think, it came because for the panel's participants 'Merata [and her work, her clarity and her courage] is always with us'.

(l to r) Karin Williams, Briar Grace-Smith, Libby Hakaraia, Chelsea Winstanley & baby

Merata Mita (1942-2010) was extraordinary, an actor, writer, director, producer, theorist and teacher. Mother-of-six. A visionary. Ramai Hayward (1916-2014) co-wrote and -directed To Love a Māori (1972) but Merata was the first and so far only Māori woman to write and direct an NZFC-funded feature on her own, Mauri (1988). 

For me, Merata had the most wonderful and inspiring focus. She knew what's what and articulated it in many different ways. For instance, back in 2003 – before features directed by Māori and Pasifika men took eight of the top 20 places in our list of highest-grossing features (other than Peter Jackson's) – she made these statements in conversation with Peter Britos, an academic of Hawaiian descent–
MM: We had the honor and pleasure of having a training session for Māori directors; ten of them and about half of them could step out now and direct a film. But there is not the opportunity for them to do it.
PB: Does the New Zealand Film Commission have any leverage in positioning people to be able to fulfill their talent?
MM: They do position and encourage people, but so far it seems, not Māori people.
These days, there's no doubt that the NZFC 'positions and encourages' Māori men, who direct highly diverse projects. But does it do the same for Māori women? Regardless, I believe that Merata would've have called for gender equity in allocation of NZFC funding, so I was not surprised when I read this series of tweets from a group where 'Merata is always with us'. 

O wow. Not surprised. But totally thrilled. I read. And re-read. Yes, this is what Chelsea Winstanley said–
The NZFC should make a commitment to funding as many female filmmakers as male... 
We should all be challenging the NZFC to support gender equality in the film industry.
And yes, this was a red-letter moment, a huge breakthrough. Except for Jane Campion, this is the first time in Aotearoa that any highly achieving woman producer and director has made an unequivocal and widely reported public statement that challenges the NZFC to support gender equality and thus encourages and emboldens others ('all' = women and men) to do the same. 

I'm full of admiration for Chelsea's action and I hope that many others will move to stand beside her. Soon. Regardless, her statement marks a turning point.

So who is Chelsea Winstanley? If you're reading this from outside Aotearoa – as is most likely – you may not have heard of her, nor of the others who spoke alongside her. Look out for them!

Karin Williams, Briar Grace-Smith, Libby Hakaraia, Chelsea Winstanley (photo: @multinesia on tumblr)
Chelsea Winstanley is a documentary director and a producer whose films include Sam Holst's Meatheadselected for Cannes and winner of the Crystal Bear in the Generation (14plus) section of the 2012 Berlinale and Zia Mandviwalla's multi-award-winning Night Shift, which premiered in competition at Cannes and Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement's What We Do In the Shadows. Her current projects include Te Taki A Merata Mita – How Mum Decolonised The Screen, Merata Mita's son Hepi Mita's feature documentary; Taika Waititi’s upcoming World War 2 drama Jojo Rabbit; and a documentary, Spray of Plenty.

Briar Grace-Smith is a distinguished playwright who also writes prose and for television and is the only New Zealand woman to have written three produced feature-length scripts, all in the last six years. The first, The Strength of Water, premiered at the Rotterdam festival and the Berlinale and received the New Zealand Writers Guild Award for Best Script in 2010. Briar's been a development executive at the NZFC, teaches at the prestigious International Institute of Modern Letters and in 2012 directed her first short film, Nine of Hearts.

Libby Hakaraia has worked in broadcasting and media for the past twenty-five years as a producer and director of current affairs, factual documentary, arts and entertainment series, corporate promotional films and drama. She co-founded the Māoriland Film Festival, NZ’s first international indigenous industry-focused film festival, has been a jury member at the world’s largest indigenous film festival in Toronto. Two short films she produced were shown at the Berlinale where she also participated in forums. She has many projects in development and the Māoriland festival has just opened submissions for next year's edition.

Each of these women is powerful in her own right and because of the history and networks she's part of.  For instance, whenever I see Briar mentioned, I remember her late mother, Miriam Smith, an award-winning writer of children's picture books, in te reo and in English; and think of her mother-in-law, Neustadt Prize-winner writer Patricia Grace.  

From here, it feels as though Chelsea Winstanley has chosen to take up Merata Mita's leadership role,    and that she has the implicit support of the others in the session, themselves also leaders.  In doing so has she (and the other two) become Aotearoa New Zealand's Amma Asante, our Ava DuVernay, a woman filmmaker of high achievement who accomplishes many things while fearlessly speaking out about inequities? I think so. I love it.

The final tweet in that series ('Women experience things...that men can't') perhaps implies that Chelsea Winstanley was extending a 'sovereignty' argument to films by and about women. I hope so.

Because of Te Tiriti o Waitangi/ The Treaty of Waitangi (our founding document, 1840) 'sovereignty' is a familiar concept to New Zealanders; those of us who are not Māori are well aware of the issues around who controls indigenous stories, 'our own story', in Aotearoa and in other parts of the world, whether documentaries or narrative features.

Merata Mita is historically the New Zealand authority on sovereignty in storytelling in film, with another Māori filmmaker, Barry Barclay (1944-2008) who wrote Mana Tuturu: Māori Treasures & Intellectual Property Rights. Their ideas have strongly influenced filmmaking and other arts. And as a New Zealander who isn't Māori and who longs for more features and other long-form work by and about women, I've been profoundly affected by Merata's and Barry Barclay's  theoretical framework – it's relevant to me as a New Zealander who lives in Aotearoa, and as a woman who works in a global context that argues for films about and by women.

In my understanding, Merata's commitment to preserving story sovereignty underlies this statement in her interview with Peter Britos–
...if you’re not hooked in to that globalization process, you still nurture your own stories, tribal stories, family stories, stories that give us identity and a place to stand. You want to make them unaffected by the loss of close ties and familial values which globalization destroys. Our stories are in danger of becoming dislocated and sanitized. The value of them as teaching and informing our people is disregarded. To us our stories were the means of preserving and passing on history...
And story sovereignty means that the way stories are told may be different, too–
It takes much more than a formula. And that’s the biggest difference of course. Countries like Australia and New Zealand when I first started making films were anti-formulaic just by the sheer chaotic way they developed as colonies. That kind of chaos is inherent to everything we do. So when you come to these tidy formulas that are designed for success... [Merata's Bastion Point, Day 507] is deliberately structured as if you’re sitting around the campfire and my grandfather or uncle or cousin is telling a story, and in that story they tell us the truth about our history.
So I wish I'd heard the full discussion around this tumblr report from the Global Indigenous Network session. In conjunction with Merata's comments, it seems to show that 'being in control of your own story' continues to mean that adherence to Hollywood-type imperatives may not be appropriate and will not necessarily attract some (large) audiences–

There's a question often asked by script assessors: 'Whose story is it?' meaning 'Who is the protagonist?' In this context, it has a second meaning: 'Who owns this story and has the right to tell it, using the structures/language/images of their choice?'

A 'sovereignty' framework, for me, extends to all kinds of 'own stories' by those who have been underrepresented and misrepresented and struggle to find the resources to tell their stories and distribute them widely.

I'm convinced that women should be in control of our stories, not men. 'Being in control of your own story' means that until we have resources to make and distribute our own screen stories effectively it's rarely appropriate for men to write and direct them.

With some exceptions (because a writer is a writer and a director is a director and there's an ungendered element to empathy and imagination) men don't portray women well and their portrayals harm us. So because we have so few of 'our own' stories on screen, I often feel irritated by films that men write and direct about women, and sometimes by films written and directed by women who appear to have made them according to 'Hollywood imperatives' and/or use an established genre conventionally. I feel irritated by the volume of well-resourced films about lesbians made by men. I also feel irritated when films made by men are included in women's film festivals – we have so few women-controlled spaces where we can watch and discuss work by women in the context of work by other women.

And as women, I believe that it's rarely appropriate for us to make films about groups we're not part of, especially if members of those groups don't have the resources to tell their own stories on screen and to the audiences of their choice. I feel irritated by the volume of films that we white women make about women of color, especially documentaries. Again, there may be exceptions. But whatever, these are issues that could be much more widely discussed than they are.

Because of all this I think it's imperative to pay close attention to what the Māori women on this panel said, because they work directly with Merata's and Barry's legacies and their work is key not only to indigenous and Māori film development, but to all of us, whoever we are and wherever we live.

Finally, I was riveted to read this tumblr post, coming after the tweet where Chelsea Winstanley refers to women's experience, which seems to have led on to a discussion about why there's been no Māori-woman-written-and-directed feature since Mauri.

This 'large' reason is supported by information in last week's Gender & Short Films: Emerging Female Filmmakers and the Barriers Surrounding Their Careersa report from the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, in association with the women's short film festival, Lunafest. Gender & Short Films shows that 64% of the group of the emerging filmmakers interviewed spontaneously identified Work/Life Balance as a barrier (closely followed by Finance at 61%; I wish they'd interviewed a control group of men). 

Nevertheless I was surprised. Twenty-seven years since Mauri is a long time, a generation. There must have been/be some Māori women who were or are ready to make a feature before having families, some without children or (grand)parents to care for and some who've had their time out and are ready to move forward?

The women on this panel – they've all directed already, so the logical next step is a feature – accomplish so much alongside motherhood; and Merata Mita did the same with a big family. They also have at least one family-friendly shoot as a model, Boy, New Zealand's highest-grossing-ever feature (again, other than Peter Jackson's works). Boy's producer, Ainsley Gardiner, another Māori woman producer, writer and director, who is writing an animated feature – The Song Jar – with Briar Grace-Smith, has explained how she did it (and incidentally provided evidence that family-friendly sets have commercial value) – 
With Boy my goal was to develop a way of working and shooting that suited people's families...So people were welcome to bring their spouses and children. We had a daycare set up. I had my own kids there, with Tammy and Mum.
So what's stopping these panellists from making a feature or other long-form work, among their other projects, while having a family? What's the element that's been missing all through this twenty-seven years and is still missing? With this 'large reason' for non-participation, what changes do they think are necessary to ensure that the NZFC commits to funding as many women as men and Māori women in particular? 

I hope the NZFC doesn't take the panel's statement as further evidence that women's own choices are to blame for our low participation as writers and, especially, directors.  They aren't. Yes, the 'career pause' is a 'large reason'. But there are other reasons. Some are large. Some are probably not yet articulated and many are not fully explored. The largest reason, however – and the major problem – is that gender equity is not taken seriously enough by the NZFC. 

Dave Gibson ended with this slide–

My responses to his questions are (in addition to my suggestions in The Activist Complex Female Protagonist Whispers, in New Zealand) –
  • A successful industry reflects the full range of New Zealand population in its screen writers and directors. 
  • In a small country a successful industry moves with agility between every kind of screen storytelling on every size of screen (combine the NZFC and New Zealand On Air! And, even though that 'Big' in 'Big Screen Symposium' has two meanings, could the symposium celebrate and affirm media convergence with a name change?).
  • A successful industry maintains and grows government support by enacting policies that ensure that it draws on the talents of all the population when aiming for commercial success, instead of a limited sector of it; and recognises that some of the population will tell their stories in different and sometimes surprising ways that audiences will find attractive. 
  • The NZFC therefore needs to embrace greater diversity in its decision making and to require all applicants for and recipients of any investment in any programme – including film festivals and other annual events – to supply diversity information. As the BFI states (in addressing a diversity that includes ethnic, disability, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status) 'Diversity supports economic growth, it taps into what audiences want to see and it makes good business sense'. It also says that 'tackling diversity issues needs persistent and sustained action as well as a change in behaviour over the long term'. Its own 'immediate commitments' are–
    1. To put diversity at the heart of decision-making
    2. To build support for diversity throughout the film industry
    3. To invest in key areas to help change happen.
  • The NZFC's diversity policies, already in place through the Maori/Pasifika intiative He Ara, should move on to robust gender equity policies, publicly supported by all guilds and all directors, writers and producers, now that the NZFC (and the rest of us!) know that women writers and directors are grossly under-represented.  
  • The NZFC needs to take note of the commercial success of women-driven films, acknowledge that the best people to tell stories about a particular group are members of that group and learn from and emulate what the rest of the world is doing in relation to gender equity. In particular, it needs to pay close attention to encouraging family-friendly film-making, perhaps through incentives (note in addition to the Boy experience, Avatar producer Jon Landau said during the symposium that his team-building included flying crew members and their families to vacation at his house in the Florida Keys, so 'family friendly' already manifests itself here and there. And in England, actor Romola Garai has just called for on-set child care).
  • The NZFC needs to identify and support local producers who are committed to making women's features and committed to reaching across the world to work with producers who are maximising opportunities from new gender equity policies and gender-based investment, to make features by and about women.
  • The NZFC needs to set an example of taking women seriously, every day. In his Lumiēre report about this year's Big Screen Symposium, director Doug Dillaman noted (good on him!)– 
    I am slightly embarrassed that, at an event that was notable for focusing on and providing voices for numerous talented women, I unconsciously found myself choosing sessions by men instead of women, and thus missed producer Liz Watts (Animal Kingdom, The Rover), What We Do In The Shadows publicist Anna Dean, and director Alison Maclean. Thankfully, key joint sessions featured women, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind for future events.
    This kind of 'unconsciousness' is endemic and must affect those vital development choices re scripts and directors and decisions about production and distribution; it needs to be addressed at the highest level.
  • The NZFC needs to seek advice re its gender stats, to ensure they have no gaps. Given the latest 'pathway' research referred to above, these stats probably need to include statistics re the NZFCs short film applications and funding and to repeat its research of a few years back that showed that women's short films did better than men's. 
  • The NZFC needs to consult with Ainsley Gardiner, Briar Grace-Smith, Chelsea Winstanley and  Libby Hakaraia about how it can fast-track their features as soon as their family commitments allow them to focus on their director work. And to ask how it can support them and others to develop their long-form work alongside their family commitments. A little while ago I spent a couple of weeks on my own in an internet-free artist's studio on Waiheke and thought how much I'd have loved it if I was starting a new script or doing a rewrite to meet a deadline. Would short residencies that include a per diem, travel costs and child care costs for children left at home be helpful? Again, this kind of problem-solving consultation would benefit all of us, whether we're in Aotearoa, or seeking solutions in other parts of the world. And I imagine it would lead to projects (maybe one called Girl and another called Kotiro?) with economic benefits that match those of Boy
  • The credibility of any NZFC film audience research underway is limited because of the paucity of local women-driven features; alongside investing in these, the NZFC most needs to explore innovative audience-building strategies for them, over an extended period.
21 October Here's a full report from the Global Indigenous Network session, by Helen Martin for SCREENZ.

22 October Yet another inspiring speech from Ava DuVernay, with another way of looking at 'diversity'. I love it.