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Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

Merata deserves more than most to have her story and her work remembered, re-evaluated and celebrated

★★★★ - STUFF 

Merata Mita was maybe the greatest and the most influential globally of that generation of New Zealand film-makers who broke through in the 1970s and 1980s. While we rightly celebrate the group of blokes – one of whom Merata married – who are credited with our own takes on broadly American tropes – the western, the road movie, the man on the run etc – we too often overlook Merata’s far more revolutionary achievements. 

The films Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu!  – on the forcible removal of the occupiers of the disputed land, and the nascent protest movement against the 1981 Springbok Tour – were both absolute triumphs of observational documentary making in front-line conditions. Both films attracted significant international attention and praise. Her debut feature film Mauri (1988) was the first film ever to be solely directed by a Maori woman, or any woman from an Indigenous nation anywhere in the world.

Merata’s and Geoff Murphy’s son Heperi lays out his mother’s life in strokes that – though the film is quite appropriately warm and affectionate – never look to be rose-tinted or flirting with hagiography. Merata was a mother, teacher and wife years before she knew she should be making films. Her journey into film was no accident, but she did wait until she knew she had something to say that no one else seemed to be saying.

The present-day interviews are intelligently and wittily conducted, with the resulting reflections on Merata’s legacy well-worth hearing and occasionally very moving. Children raised by a parent who is the target of police raids have a different view of authority than most. It’s a perspective that Heperi’s film touches on often. Hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking about the impact of seeing Patu! in South Africa – “It said the world has not forgotten us, we are not alone” – is profoundly affecting. 

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen is a terrific achievement. Merata deserves more than most to have her story and her work remembered, re-evaluated and celebrated. Her own son has achieved all that.


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