L.A. Asia Pacific Filmfest commemorates a memorable Maori moviemaker
May 10, 2019
LOS ANGELES—Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen is a terrific biopic about Maori moviemaker Merata Mita, the first Pacific Islander woman to direct a feature film (1988’s Mauri, which means “Life Force.” Mita also wrote it. This 95-minute documentary includes extensive interviews with Mita plus her relatives, colleagues and those she mentored, such as Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows). There are also clips from the nonfiction films she made and the fiction movies she acted in and helmed. In the process, we learn much about this Polynesian woman and the worldview she expressed onscreen, which aimed at debunking South Seas Cinema’s celluloid stereotypes by “decolonizing” and “indigenizing” motion pictures. As Merata told me when I interviewed her for the Honolulu Weekly (July 22, 1992):
“I still believe it, that the image of a person is a sacred part of a person, a sacred aspect,” she says. “When you deal with people’s images on celluloid or…on video, you actually have to be very careful, observant and understanding of the fact that you are handling images which are sacred. It’s part of my cultural belief and the way I was brought up. It makes your handling of images a lot more sensitive and different from how I have seen images handled in other places.”
Much of Mum’s strength is also the source of its weakness. The documentary is directed (and presumably written) by Heperi Mita, Merata’s fifth and final child. As such, he is certainly privy to private info, with an insider’s knowledge about that of which he speaks. At the same time, it’s virtually impossible for a close relative to be objective about his own parent, sibling, etc. This was as true of Making Montgomery Clift, which screened at 2018’s LA Film Festival and was co-directed/co-produced by the actor’s nephew Robert Clift, as it is of Mum. The balance, neutrality, etc., needed to render a complete picture of the subject is difficult to impossible to attain and analyze by those who have conflicts of interest due to their proximity to the topic.
Having said that, Mum paints a compelling portrait of a Native woman who broke barriers with pioneering pictures such as the 1980s Bastion Point: Day 507 about a Maori land struggle and 1983’s Patu! about the movement to resist a South African rugby team from competing in New Zealand during the apartheid era. We see Merata as both a committed filmmaker and as a mother, who brought (dragged?) her children to the locations where she shot her controversial docs, often placing them in harm’s way as the police battled demonstrators (and sometimes harassed Mita’s family, including at her home).
There are extensive clips from Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu!, which as a film historian of Pacific Islanders’ screen image I’ve always wanted to see, but never had the opportunity to. However, there aren’t enough clips from the features Merata was associated with, including 1983’s Utu, which was a John Ford-like Western substituting Maoris for the “Indians” and pakehas (white New Zealanders) for the “cowboys”—a truly great movie Merata co-starred in. Perhaps cost and other commercial considerations explain why there isn’t enough footage from Utu and Mauri (the only feature, regrettably, that Mita helmed).
Mum also follows Merata as she travels around the globe, linking up the Maori fight with other indigenous struggles (we get glimpses of South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) and filmmakers. A special treat was seeing Merata back in my old stomping grounds, Oahu, where she’s shown with activists I fondly recall, including the Hawaiian filmmaker Puhipau, whose “Eyes of the Land” outfit produced many powerful docs about the Kanaka Maoli struggle that are similar to Mita’s Maori chronicles.
I loved Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen, although to be accurate the struggle to decolonize and indigenize the cinematic and televised image of Pacific Islanders and other Natives is still being fought. But by making her own films, the groundbreaking Merata Mita paved the way, demonstrating that “self-determination” means: The self-determining how it is depicted to itself and the outside world. Bravo to LAAPFF for premiering this great documentary on the West Coast. It can be seen at the Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills starting May 10. For anyone interested in Indigenous cinema, don’t miss it!
For My Father’s Kingdom
On the other hand, Vea Mafile’o (the protagonist’s daughter) and Jeremiah Tauamiti’s For My Father’s Kingdom, which was screened at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, is a must miss. Although this 97-minute nonfiction picture is longer than both Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen and another of LAAPFF’s exceptional Pacific Islander documentaries, Sergio Rapu’s superb Rapa Nui film Eating Up Easter, Kingdom lacks the compelling characters those other films have.
Saia Mafile’o is a transplant from the Kingdom of Tonga who is now a poor pensioner living in Auckland, N.Z. Nevertheless, Saia’s limited existence revolves around what I believe is called the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga—although according to this film this religion is anything but free as it in effect tithes parishioners considerable sums of money. In order to stop renting a space and create and own their own church, members must contribute about $3000 NZ dollars each, and the overzealous Saia sets out to raise up to double that amount, despite his poverty. To do so he mooches off of his much put-upon children.
Scenes shot inside the rented Wesleyan church venue reveal mostly overweight holy rollers who at first glance seem like uneducated ignoramuses. In fact, this is untrue: Saia had extensive schooling, served as an educator, and in the film returns to Tonga to attend the 150th-anniversary celebrations of his college.
It’s revealing that the Bible thumpers discuss the church as an institution far more than they do the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Having been spared being born a Christian, when I lived in the South Pacific I marveled at impoverished people who lavished at least 10% of their developing nation’s GDP on building churches and, not coincidentally, funding the far more affluent lifestyles of the preachers and missionaries who lived largely off of their flocks’ donations—funds that could have been used for essentials such as electricity instead. I couldn’t help questioning the waste of resources and the skewed sense of priorities pursuing this version of Christianity, transplanted to and imposed upon the Pacific Islands by white missionaries. Was Western religion a persistent indication of forever remaining mentally colonized?
As an atheist, I found For My Father’s Kingdom’s characters to be totally dull, unsympathetic and uninteresting. The film unspools endlessly, with no sense of editing or drama. It just goes on and on about completely boring people, using a very basic naturalistic style—in marked contrast to the supernatural vibe ancient Polynesians used in their traditional storytelling. To tell the truth, I walked out of this disaster after about an hour, but in doing my job as a movie critic I am sparing you this waste of time, which should have been cut down to no more than 30 to 40 minutes.
Since the 35th Los Angeles Asia Pacific Film Festival was so great and provided such a prominent platform for Pacific Islander pictures, I’ll end this review on a more upbeat note. In addition to presenting moving pictures from afar that Angelenos may have never otherwise got the chance to see on the big screen, LAAPFF also mounted a number of panels as part of its Conference for Creative Content.
I attended the “Forever Changed: Impactful Moments That Shape Us” panel moderated by Set Hernandez Rongkilyo with three filmmakers of Asian ancestry screening nonfiction works at LAAPFF: Iraqi/Yemeni Nadia Shihab, director of Jaddoland; Taiwanese Tim Tsai, director of Seadrift; and China-born, Vancouver-raised Yu Gu, director of A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.
At a previous LAAPFF, I had seen an excellent doc Gu had co-directed, Who is Arthur Chu? about the quirky 11-time Jeopardy! champion who’d won almost $300,000 during his 2014 game show winning streak. Their panel impacted on me as an insightful, intelligent discussion by three nonfiction filmmaker about the current state of the documentary, especially as it pertains to minority filmmakers and topics.
Presented by Visual Communications, the LAAPFF runs through May 10. For more info see here.