Monday 31 May 2010

Herstory: Merata Mita

I had planned on writing this first Herstory post about a different incredible woman who has made film history but instead I would like to begin this series paying tribute to one of New Zealand's indigenous women filmmakers. Merata Mita (Ngati Pikiao, Ngai Te Rangi) died yesterday suddenly and of yet unknown cause.

Mita was one of New Zealand's leading filmmakers and the first woman in New Zealand to direct a feature length documentary, Patu!, recording the clashes between protesters and police during the 1981 Springbok tour. Mita was also the first woman in New Zealand to write and direct, and only the second Maori woman to direct a feature film, Mauri (1988), which won the prize for best film at the Rimini Film Festival. Her latest achievement was the co-production of Boy,  a smash hit at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, and at the New Zealand box office alike. Merata received a New Zealand Order of Merit in the New Years Honours list earlier this year.

As a woman, Merata told stories through the eyes of women. As a Maori woman, she told stories from a Maori perspective and in a Maori way. As a woman story teller Merata faced the same prejudices about the merit and value of her stories as other women the world over. As a Maori woman she also faced a cross-cultural dilemma. Her stories, in particular Mauri, employed concepts of life and the world non-existent in Pakeha (white NZ) culture or at least very different from that culture. Her storytelling was different from the mainstream not only because she was a woman writer and director but because she consciously rejected Pākehā traditions of storytelling, focusing on the oral traditions of layered storytelling so inherent to Maori cultures. She once said that "These are differences that Pākehā critics don't even take into account when they're analyzing the film." Similarly, women storytellers in general are faced with analyses of their films by mainly male critics. Mita has argued that Pakeha are 'not qualified to assess' her films. Perhaps men aren't best suited to assess, analyse, critique women's films and stories either? Men will continue failing to understand and see the inherent value and the economic potential of women's stories* until they learn to empathise with women, to look at the world from women's perspectives.

Meryl Streep in her recent commencement speech at Barnard College, Columbia University, made an interesting observation. One of the first characters Streep played, Linda in The Deer Hunter, 'a lovely, quiet, hapless girl' was often mentioned to her by men her own age as their favourite of all the women she had played. Streep went on to say, 

'Now, as a measure of how the world has changed, the character most men mention as their favourite is Miranda Priestly, the beleaguered totalitarian at the head of Runway Magazine in The Devil Wears Prada... They relate to Miranda... They can relate to her issues... This is a huge deal because as people in the movie business know the absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman protagonist to feel themselves embodied by her. This more than any other factor explains why we get the movies we get and the paucity of the roles where women drive the film. It's much easier for the female audience because we were all ... brought up identifying with male characters... There has always been a resistance to imaginatively assume a persona, if that persona is a she. But things are changing now... Men are adapting... for the better of the whole group. They are changing their deepest prejudices to regard as normal the things that their fathers would have found very very difficult and their grandfathers would have abhorred and the door to this emotional shift is empathy.'

Merata Mita asked of her audience not that they liked her films and her stories, but challenged people to view her films with an open mind.  She knew that to really understand a film, it isn't so much important to view it with your intellect but to view it with empathy.

Rest in peace Merata.


*Oh the cries of surprise at the huge economic success of Sex and the City: The Movie and MamaMia!?, two films predicted to bomb at the box office because they were targeting a mainly female audience.

See here what Wellywood Woman has to say about Merata. 

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