By Nicole Pavia
Hepi Mita, 32, revives his mother’s spirit years after her death in his homage to her. Having an abundance of resources, Hepi Mita rummages through archival footage of his mother and interviews his older siblings to discover Merata’s story and to understand her journey as a Māori filmmaker, social activist, and mother.
As the youngest of her sons, Hepi acknowledges his privilege; he had not been exposed to Merata’s time as a frontliner fighting for women’s rights and the rights of Indigenous and Māori people. Merata was from the Māori tribes of Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāi Te Rangi. His curiosity to learn what motivated her on a personal level is what led him to make the film.
“For me, as her son, what fascinated me, not having seen that part of her life, was what were the elements, what were the situations that motivated her, what drove her to do the things that she did and to become the person she became,” he told Howl For Change.
Hepi wanted to tell his family’s story through his own point of view and through the perspectives of his older siblings. “We threw objectivity right out the window. I was unashamed in the sense that everything was gonna be from my perspective. I wanted to be really clear on that,” Hepi states. He did not want to impose his own perspective on his mother in order to respect her ideas and her legacy.
As a single mum of five kids, Merata didn’t become involved with film until her late 30’s. “I looked at that situation being a dude in my early 30’s, well late 20’s at the time we were working on this, and no kids, and I was like, that’s crazy! You know, how can anyone jump into the industry in the situation she was in, but the key was she really had a strong voice and something to say,” says Hepi.
Through the process of uncovering his family’s history, Hepi discovered revelations in his mother’s past and how her work impacted his family. There was “massive backlash against her and against my entire family…from insults to direct violence against them.” He shares that his mother was very honest about "her loneliness as the only indigenous filmmaker."
His older brothers and sister were with Merata through her entire journey as a social activist. Hepi was unaware of how bad the social stigma was at the time, who grew up mostly in Hollywood with Mita and his father, New Zealand director Geoff Murphy. “I’m the youngest, and I’m sitting face to face with my brother talking about police brutality, speaking eye to eye with him, someone I see as an authority figure, who I’ve always looked up to, talking about memories that he’s long suppressed. He told me ‘I’ve never talked about this with anybody in my life.’”
But it seems clear that Hepi , like his mother, is committed to shining light on injustices and partaking in creating a more just world. Merata used to say "As an indigenous person your very existence is political. There is no escaping it."
However, in pursuit of discovery, Hepi came to realize that his mother's intentions, motives, and goals as an activist came from her motherly instinct "to build a better future for her kids," and not some grand, lofty aspirations as he might have initially thought. This realization showed him, “you don’t have to have great ambitions to affect social change. You can come from a place that’s very close to you, and I want to carry that in everything I do.”
The conclusion of the documentary relates Merata’s story across cultures as an inspiration and solace. "The issues she dealt with apply to any colonized society." Hepi intends to continue to carry on the same issues of advocacy for indigenous people that are still present and to keep spreading his mother’s message. “You can achieve beyond the situation that you are in... you don’t need to have a great ambition to achieve great things.”
As his film premieres at Sundance, Hepi has paralleled its journey with that of his mother’s. Her genesis as a filmmaker began in New Zealand, and as her career took off, she moved to the United States, where she then brought three films to the Sundance Film Festival and also served as a mentor of the Sundance Institute for many years. It only seems fitting that a film about the famed filmmaker premiered in New Zealand last year and now had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. Ava DuVernay’s distribution company Array purchased the film only days after our interview with Hepi.
When asked to give advice to people who feel they are not seen, expressed, and heard, Hepi responded, “When you are honest with yourself and true to yourself, fears about being misunderstood go away.” It is this authenticity and sensitivity that allows people to relate to Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen on many levels.
Hepi has reason to be hopeful for the future of indigenous filmmaking and is encouraged by the need for diverse stories. “My mother’s work was originally hated on in New Zealand because she was kind of exposing the nasty underbelly of New Zealand society... now as time has gone by through her documentary work and her narrative work, and her advocacy, there’s been a strong shift, and there’s a lot of international interest in indigenous stories. It’s fresh, it's unique, it’s breaking the mold."
He ends on the note, which could come straight from his mother's lips, “You can overcome prejudices through the art of storytelling. That is the key; you can overcome these things by sharing your story.”
Listen to or watch the full interview on https://www.howlforchange.org/speakerseries
To find out more about the movie and when it will be available to the public, visit http://www.meratathemovie.com