Merata Mita: Pioneering Maori film-maker who charted social and political upheaval in New Zealand

Over an infamous 56-day period during the southern winter of 1981, New Zealand was starkly divided over a tour by South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks. To show their opposition to the apartheid system, which these sportsmen were effectively ambassadors for, campaigners mobilised throughout the country to stop the matches – with some success. These bitter protests saw unprecedented civil disobedience, sometimes sparking violent clashes with police and rugby fans, as well as mass arrests.

Two years later, Merata Mita's gritty documentary Patu! recalled the turmoil, since recognised as a landmark in the country's approach to race relations (both abroad and at home), and in reshaping attitudes towards the "national sport" and its links with politics.

Like the Springbok tour, Patu! was the subject of heated debate, and while mainstream cinemas shunned it, the film received a standing ovation after its premiere at the 1983 Wellington Film Festival, as well as international acclaim. It was the first feature-length documentary ever made by a female director in New Zealand, and Mita's best-known work in a career that included roles as a reporter, presenter, director, editor, narrator, actor and soundtrack designer over nearly three and a half decades.

Whether working in historical and contemporary documentary or fiction, she chose her subjects in an uncompromising effort "to reflect a Maori point of view of our changing society. To see as a Maori sees it, to write visually as a Maori would write it."

In her chapter for the book New Zealand Filmmakers (Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray, eds, 2007), Geraldene Peters defines Mita's inherently political, collaborative films as being about communities, often characterised by a strong focus on women as leaders and activists, and the use of layered cultural references, echoing the Maori oral tradition of whakapapa (geneology).

Of Ngati Pikiao and Ngai te Rangi Iwi descent, Mita had a traditional Maori upbringing, as the third oldest of nine children in the picturesque coastal village of Maketu. One of her salient early memories was of seeing films projected onto the walls of the local wharenui (a Maori community meeting house). During eight formative years' teaching at Kawerau College, she began to understand the power of images through using film and video in her lessons with local youths – many of them also Maori.

In 1977 she began working in the film industry as an assistant on a documentary, but soon became dissatisfied with the way Maori were represented on film, and the subordinate roles they found themselves performing for Pakeha (non-Maori) film-makers.

Within two years she had made her own debut, as director, co-producer and co-editor (with her partner Gerd Pohlman) on Karanga Hokianga Ki O Tamariki (1979), a documentary about a papal delegation visiting a rural community in Northland. She took on the same roles for Bastion Point: Day 507 (1980), a documentary about a dispute over land between its traditional Maori owners and the Crown, and in 1982 completed The Bridge: A Story of Men in Dispute – another documentary, focusing on industrial action.

During this period, she also worked as a researcher and presenter for TVNZ on the current affairs/magazine programme Koha. While there, she began what was to be a 25-minute documentary about the campaign against the Springbok tour. When this was deemed to be too political, she left TVNZ and completed the film independently.

Just before its release, she took part as an actor and casting director in the historical feature film Utu, which led to a lengthy relationship with its director, Geoff Murphy. It was not until 1988 that she directed, wrote and produced her own fiction feature film, Mauri, which won a prize at Italy's Rimini Film Festival.

In 1990, she completed Mana Waka, another key work, based on restored archive footage from an unfinished 1940 film about the carving of ceremonial canoes, and the vision of cultural and spiritual leader Princess Te Puea Herangi. From this time onwards she was based in the US, where she often worked alongside Murphy, and later taught film production at the University of Hawaii. She returned to New Zealand for projects such as Hotere (2001), a profile of the artist Ralph Hotere.

She was most recently in the spotlight again when she received an Order of Merit in New Zealand's 2010 New Year Honours List, and for her role on the production team of the hit feature film Boy (2010). She died suddenly after collapsing outside the studios of Maori Television in Auckland.

Merata Mita, film-maker and activist: born Maketu, New Zealand 19 June 1942; six children; died Auckland, New Zealand 31 May 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'