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Telling their mother’s story

The children of pioneer Maori filmmaker Merata Mita are glad that her story has been told on film by one of them.

Awatea Mita was in Gisborne for the Mother’s Day screening of the film Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, and said she and her siblings wanted to tell their mother’s story before the idea was taken up by someone who didn’t know her.

Heperi Mita, the youngest of Merata’s six children, found archival film and travelled the world for interviews. He was encouraged by actor Cliff Curtis, who became executive producer for the project after being impressed by the footage Heperi had selected for a video tribute at the unveiling of his late mother’s headstone.

Merata Mita died in 2010, three weeks short of her 68th birthday. Her reputation as a pioneer of indigenous filmmaking — at home and overseas — had been secured by films such as Bastion Point: Day 507 (about the eviction of Ngati Whatua from their traditional land), Patu! (about the 1981 Springbok Tour protests) and Mauri (the first dramatic feature film written and directed solely by a Maori woman).

“We wanted to put a focus on her work and legacy,” Awatea Mita said.

“It has exceeded our hopes.”

After Gisborne, Awatea Mita flew back to Wellington and was at The Roxy Cinema in Miramar for a screening.

“Immediately after that, my brother (Heperi) and the film’s producer (Chelsea Winstanley) flew to Los Angeles for their Mother’s Day screening.

“We have dates in London, Vancouver, Toronto, New York . . . and the list is growing.”

The documentary was drawing the attention of a new generation of filmgoers to their mother’s work, Awatea Mita said.

In addition, she felt the renewed buzz about the films of Merata Mita would lead people back to the documentary to learn more about her.

“Our mother was recognised as the godmother of indigenous cinema internationally,” Awatea Mita said.

“She mentored not only Maori but also other indigenous filmmakers in their communities. After she passed, the Sundance Institute created a fellowship in her name to support indigenous filmmakers.”

In January, the Sundance Institute announced that Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith were receiving the Merata Mita Fellowship, comprising cash grants and a year-long programme of support from the institute. The Sundance announcement said that Merata Mita had served as an adviser and artistic director of the Sundance Institute Native Lab from 2000 to 2009, championing indigenous talent.

Awatea Mita said she understood Gardiner and Grace-Smith planned to adapt the Patricia Grace novel Cousins for film. It was a project her mother had wanted to take on but had not had the opportunity to pursue.

A feature of her brother’s documentary was the evocation of a period of activism in New Zealand society, Awatea Mita said.

Hone Harawira and others who had been part of that era enjoyed a “very rowdy” screening in Auckland.

As the daughter of a filmmaker, Awatea had a childhood different from that of most New Zealanders.

“We were part of a lot of the major films that were brought out in New Zealand, as extras or just as part of the set,” she said.

“We would travel overseas with our parents. My mother’s partner (and the father of Heperi) Geoff Murphy got Hollywood offers and red-carpet treatment, but back in New Zealand we had to get to the back of the queue like everyone else.”

Gisborne is close to home for Awatea Mita: “In Gisborne, I have seven siblings and two stepmothers.”

She and one of her brothers (in the family of Merata Mita) were the children of Mahuta (Beau) Tuhura, of Hiruharama near Ruatoria.

“I get called back home in sad circumstances,” Awatea Mita said.

“I don’t get home as often as I would like for the happy occasions.”

Four generations of males in the family are buried alongside each other at Hiruharama — her grandfather, father, younger brother and, after a swimming accident six years ago, her 13-year-old son. At the time, she was in prison for non-violent drug offending. She was eligible for three days’ leave to attend the tangi, got 12 hours, had 10 minutes with her son before the lid was put on his coffin and had four hours with whanau. This and other experiences inform her activism on behalf of prisoners.

Awatea Mita, 47, lives in Wellington, studies at Victoria University — in psychology, criminology and Te Reo Maori — and works for Restorative Practices Aotearoa, the national body for restorative justice providers. She is part of the campaign to remove the ban on prisoners voting, and in two weeks will present a submission as part of a Waitangi Tribunal claim on the issue.

Activism, it seems, is in her blood.

A television documentary about Merata Mita was made over 20 years ago, in 1998. Directed by Hinewehi Mohi and called Merata Mita — Making Waves, it was part of a series called Rangatira, which profiled the lives and achievements of five Maori leaders. The others profiled were decorated war hero Sir Charles Bennett, visionary educationist Professor Whatarangi Winiata, Maori Party co-leader Dr Pita Sharples and former Act MP Donna Awatere-Huata.

MOTHER’S DAY TRIBUTE: Awatea Mita outside the Odeon Multiplex in Gisborne before the Mother’s Day screening of Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen. Picture by John Gillies