Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sundance with Abe: MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the sixth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

MERATA: How Mum Decolonised the Screen
Directed by Hepi Mita
Documentary Premieres

Filmmaking is such an immense, international industry that it’s often easy to forget how many countries there are out there with their own unique cinematic identities. Each nation’s contributions to film bear some traces of their cultural context, and that’s especially true of documentaries, which are usually inspired by life experiences and a desire to unmask and broadcast phenomena not properly explored. A particular documentarian’s heritage may play a large part in the type of subjects they choose, bringing to the screen stories that feel personal to them and inherently will feel intimate on the screen as a result of their close connection to the material.

The life and work of Merata Mita is presented in this film by her youngest son, Hepi, who looks at the many films she made over a thirty-year span in New Zealand. Merata faced many obstacles due to her being Māori, a member of her country’s native population, exposing racism from her fellow New Zealanders. Being a working mother and a working woman proved just as difficult, but Merata persevered, seeking to find a voice for indigenous people across the world that felt honest and represented the society that those on the sidelines knew well.

Though this film was made after Merata’s death, which happened without much warning in 2010, she is very much a central presence whose many recorded interviews offer ample footage of her commentary on the work she did. Hepi describes how his mom having worked as an archivist means that she is truly with him in every frame, and this film provides the opportunity for her story to be told almost entirely through her own voice. Presenting most of the footage within a physical filmstrip on screen is a visual device that mirrors what Merata did, but the true strength of this film is in the narrative it follows throughout Merata’s career.

This tribute to Merata is a rich and moving exploration of her struggles to achieve success on multiple fronts, fighting against the subjugation of women within Māori culture and discrimination against the Māori people within New Zealand society in general. Merata jokes about how her international travels, which included the starting of a program through Sundance to help indigenous filmmakers, showed her that some regarded her as a valuable resource rather than the nuisance that those from her home country considered her to be. What Merata declares as her goal at the start of this documentary is to “decolonize the screen and indigenize a lot of what we see up there,” and this film offers a spectacular look at how much she persevered and helped to open up the notion of diverse and truly representative filmmaking to many different communities at home and around the world.


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