She made the Queen’s Honors List for New Zealand, so you can’t say Merata Mita wasn’t part of the establishment. The filmmaker became a mentor for many indigenous filmmakers, including many from well beyond Australia and NZ. She was also no stranger to Sundance, so it is fitting her son Heperi Mita’s documentary profile tribute Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen has its international premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Merata started from humble but politically radicalized roots. In archival footage, she often uses the word “revolution” without irony. Her start in media was modest, hosting a public affairs program and self-producing a short doc, but it was still counted as experience within her community when Mita resolved to tell their stories.
The intimacy of Mita’s film is both its main strength and its greatest weakness. Many of Merata Mita’s films were family projects that H. Mita and his siblings witnessed in production first-hand. However, this also means there is little to no critical distance to be found anywhere in the frequently hagiographic film. Certainly, none of Mita’s 1970s-era politics are ever challenged.
A good number of clips from Mita’s film are incorporated into the doc, but they mostly look very much like time capsules of their era. They might be historically significant films, but the snippets are not so enticing (lots of marching and yelling). Perhaps the best case for Mita is made by the filmmakers she mentored and championed, notably including Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows and the latest Thor). The Sundance connections also continue with Sterlin Harjo. Walking Dead fans might be interested to know Cliff Curtis serves as executive producer, but does not appear on camera (which seems like a lost opportunity).
There is definitely an appealing Horatio Alger-ish up-from-mean-circumstances aspect to Mita’s story. The film is all very nice, but it often feels like a family reunion of sorts, It is definitely a small-scale affair, at times veering perilously close home movies. Heartfelt but not essential, Merata: How Mum Decolonised [Kiwi spelling] the Screen screens again today (1/29) and Friday (2/1) in Park City and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, during this year’s Sundance.