Film Reviews

Review: ‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen’

Hot Docs/DOXA 2019


Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen
(New Zealand, 88 min.)
Dir. Hepi Mita
Programme: Artscapes (Canadian Premiere)

In cinema around the world, there’s a fair and long overdue demand to see more women and people of colour behind the camera. In Canada, there’s an especially strong urgency to create space for Indigenous voices and ensure that the original inhabitants of this land have the opportunity to tell stories about their cultures and histories. While Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen isn’t a Canadian doc, it features a fair bit of Canadian content and provides another great example of how Australia and Zealand are ahead of the game in using the cinema as a tool for self-representation. The doc profiles the barrier-breaking Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, who emerged from both New Zealand and Aboriginal communities, to become a documentarian and then the first Indigenous woman to write and direct a dramatic feature solo. Merata, directed by Mita’s son Hepi, pays tribute to the filmmaker’s significant legacy while calling for greater diversity in cinema.

The doc admittedly takes a fairly by-the-numbers approach to biographical filmmaking, but what the film lacks in finesse, it more than gains in significance. Mita gives audiences a mostly chronological survey of his mother’s pioneering work as he chronicles her origins in journalism and education where she broke barriers as a Maori voice on both sides of the camera. There are many affectionate interviews with Merata Mita’s children, who speak to her dedication as both an artist and mother. Moreover, the film shows how Mita’s strong sense of the power of onscreen representation frequently motivated her to put herself on the line. The film smartly conveys this sense through a sequence in which Mita invites a camera crew into her home and speaks frankly about her abusive partners and how she had an abortion because her family was proving to be too big a burden for her budget, thus using her space on screen to advocate for better awareness and education of contraceptives.

As a slice of film on film, Mita dives into his mother’s most significant works including her groundbreaking first dramatic feature Mauri (1985). He shows the segment of her feature documentary Patu! (1983), which chronicled what happened when South Africa’s soccer team toured New Zealand during the apartheid era. Merata Mita showed the outbreak of civil disobedience as protests erupted in response to the tour and its insensitive racial undertones in a nation so affected by colonialism. Mita vividly conveys his mother’s ability to harness the power of documentary for speaking truth to power.

Canadian audiences will especially enjoy Mita’s exploration of Patu! and his mother’s work as he and several interviewees compare her to documentary legend Alanis Obomsawin. Noting that the Abenaki filmmaker’s Incident at Restigouche debuted at festivals alongside Patu!, the film conveys how both women introduced themselves as significant voices holding settler authorities accountable and capturing visible evidence of vehement systemic racism. The doc’s appraisal of Obomsawin’s work is appreciated and productive in illustrating how voices like Obomsawin and Mita are still far too rare when they have so much to say.

The doc draws in a number of peers who’ve been influenced by Mita and Obomsawin’s work, most notably Taika Waititi, whose breakthrough film Boy was produced by Mita, as well as cultural critic and Indigenous Screen Office executive director Jesse Wente, who comments upon the filmmakers’ influence. As the Mitas and Obomsawins of the next generation continue to fight for space despite the significance efforts of those who came first, this documentary is an effective reminder to support efforts like the Indigenous Screen Office and commitments to parity in order to keep open the doors that filmmakers like Mita and Obomsawin unlocked for future generations.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen screens:
-Fri, Apr. 26 at 3:30 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 12:00 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Sun, May 5 at 11:45 a.m. at TIFF Lightbox

It is also the closing night selection of this year’s DOXA Film Festival.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!