Kōrero Ki Taku Tuakana: Conversation With My Big Sister
Merata Mita and Mauri, by Cushla Parekowhai
2016 edit. First published in Illusions, 1988:9: December. VUW, Wellington.
So you heard eh? Went to this hui at Taiwhakaea Marae round Whakatāne way where there was all this talk about Māori making Māori films. Hooked up with the director Merata Mita. It was full on. Kōrero going, hammer and tongs. Merata decided she needed a break so the two of us went outside and sat in the sun, not doing nothing. Well maybe thinking a bit, taking care of the baby and listening to the sound of the sea. Was nice, relaxing even, but eventually I switched on the cassette recorder, opened up the notebook and asked, ‘So what do you reckon about the honky film industry then?’
Merata plucked at a wayward strand of late spring grass.
You know I find it tragic that Māori aren’t left to make our own stories, ourselves. We just don’t get a chance to address our own problems, our own personalities and our own ways of looking at life.
She rolled the long, lanky stalk between the palms of her hands.
Somehow Pākehā film makers feel free simply to take Māori characters and take Māori stories—
Merata bit into the stem and spat out the end.
Because Pākehā film makers take Māori character and stories out of a Māori context what they present is an interpretive or derivative view of our people rather than an authentic one. There is so much about the Pākehā Māori need to know but firstly Pākehā have to explain what this might be for themselves.
She paused briefly.
I mean I don’t understand them. I don’t understand the Pākehā mentality that has brought so much destruction to our land. This is not to say Māori are entirely blameless, but any damage we were responsible for was not on the scale or at the speed of that done by Pākehā.
Merata looked thoughtful.
There is so much in the Pākehā psyche I want to know about. I want to know what motivates their destructiveness. I want to know what motivates the neurosis they have about living here. I want to know about their relentless need to cut everything down to size, to destroy the kauri forest, to shape the land not for people but for sheep and cows to live in. I want to know about a mentality which manicures its grass and builds fences. I want to know about what motivates Pākehā because I don’t understand them. I think if Pākehā made films about themselves and addressed their own issues then Māori would be much better off.
She studied me intensely expecting a response so I said, ‘Guess the buzz word right now justifying Pākehā inaction turns on their anxiety about appropriation. As long as there is only talk about what is a Māori image and who controls this, Pākehā think they don’t need to do anything at all’.
Merata was pleased and then she said––
That’s right. Pākehā in New Zealand have always had an excuse to stand still and take two steps back. But if you talk to them and ask why, you are never given a reason or shown a motivation that recognises any need for progress. Pākehā will always find an excuse not to change. So-called appropriation anxiety is simply a means to justify the status quo. Misappropriation is what I call it, of Māori image and influence.
Merata chewed on her paspallum cigarette.
I think Pākehā film makers would do well if they cleaned up their own backyards particularly with regard to what they present to the public firstly as a story and secondly as a story with a statement or a message. Damn cheek. Insult actually. I don’t accept it. I refuse.
She inhaled luxuriously.
I don’t want to put my energy into making stories about Pākehā because I don’t know them well enough. I never saw any of them on the marae except those that were invited. I never saw any of them at the hui we held. I never saw any of them at tangi we attended — so how the hell do Pākehā film makers who presume to tell Māori stories know what it is they’re telling stories about?
Merata threw back her head and blew a lazy stream of imaginary smoke into the air.
Pākehā film makers are just not up to it. They should just leave Māori concerns alone. That’s what I say. I really think Pākehā are avoiding having to deal with themselves, their own crises, lack of action and flawed social analysis.
Merata discarded the weedy switch and then casually flicked off some stubborn fallen seed.
That’s enough about them, let’s talk about us.
Not quite sure what to say next I wondered vaguely about the increasing number of alienated Pākehā relocating to Australia and asked her if she saw this movement as some desperate occupation of a cultural non-space.
Definitely. Often I have to deal with arguments justifying the existence of Pākehā based merely on the fact of their being here. They say, ‘I’m a fourth-generation New Zealander. I belong’. But Pākehā say this with such incredible defensiveness. Its amazing. I feel if they actually believed this claim they wouldn’t be so angry or closed.
We were quiet for a time and watched while Merata’s little boy Hepi hauled himself up on the bench and sat next to his mother. I wanted to know what she thought was needed so that Māori were more able to make images for ourselves. Merata began to talk about her experience working on Mauri where on location, right in the middle of the shoot, major effort was put in to giving Māori young people skills by teaching them the technical aspects of filmmaking.
We got excellent results running a training programme parallel to the making of Mauri. I make no apologies for what we did. There were a number of inexperienced young Māori people working on our crew. Many Pākehā say, surely you sacrificed quality by embracing your belief about the need to provide opportunity. As a filmmaker my response is that although I might sacrifice quality in relation to technical expertise or perhaps range of performance because on Mauri we used mostly untrained actors, all these objections are stupid and end up being refuted by the achievement of the film itself. For me what a director could lose in supposed finesse by choosing to employ untried Māori people you certainly gain in intensity and commitment for the work being done. From a professional crew you get professionalism. From a Māori crew you get passion. It’s their one chance in a million, and it’s a chance not offered to them by many Pākehā directors. Young Māori know they are always up against it. They know that when given an opportunity they have to prove capable of doing the job. I’d say the success of the trainees who worked on Mauri made our decision to go with a Māori crew totally worthwhile.
As the baby wrigggled free from the hard wooden seat and made ready to escape, I asked about the way Māori people view films. Did she think moving pictures could be seen as a form of whakapapa or geneaolgy able to connect generations? Was Māori interest in film making a reflection of the cultural power of cinema? Merata observed the little boy attempt some tentative steps.
First remember where Māori have come from. Our people have a strongly oral tradition of story telling with emphasis on the spoken word. This tradition has evolved over generations and brings to life the deeds of the ancestors and their spiritual insights in fairy-tale, myth and legend. Our language is rich, complex and able to speak in pictures. It is a means of communication not only between people but also of our inner most values and beliefs. As a film maker what this means for me is that when Māori make films what we do is essentially different from what Pākehā film makers do.
At this point Merata insisted I take notes.
Unfortunately criteria for criticism of Māori film has not yet been understood or developed. This is mostly because it’s Pākehā people who are assessing Māori film. They approach the work of Māori film makers from a kind of polarised scale that can’t even address the language used in a film.
I was distracted by the baby being unbearably cute. Merata waited until she was sure she had my full attention.
If we look at Mauri as an example, particularly the treatment of plot and narrative. I remember people kept walking around the set, commenting on lack of narrative thrust and absence of plot, comparing what we were doing to films by Hitchcock and other able-bodied Pākehā men. And I thought what a load of shit, that’s only one way to approach filmmaking. In my experience if you tell a story where your starting point begins with an oral tradition the narrative is presented to you in a series of layers. As a director I pull back layer after layer until more and more of the story is revealed. That’s how narrative in oral tradition works. Each layer adds new dimension and depth to the story. This process is not possible if you have to function in a purely technical or literal construction. I quite consciously and unconsciously destroy plot as taught to me through Pākehā literature. In Mauri I deliberately went for a story told in layers because that’s how I think. I feel comfortable with this approach because it’s my natural way of expressing what it is I want to say. When making a film I wasn’t going to allow myself to be constrained by artificial Pākehā convention.
Merata checked I was on task. Satisfied, she gave me a chance to turn the page.
When Mauri was screened at this year’s New Zealand Film Festival few Pākehā actually understood my use of layer rather than thrust to create narrative.
Merata lifted her pelvis off the bench, made a provocative movement with her hips and grunted suggestively. I didn’t know where to look. She giggled with delight.
These are exactly the kind of differences Pākehā critics don’t take into account when analysing the film. So, when they are forced to confront their own confusion they try saying it is the film that is confused not them. When confronted with their own lack of knowledge, Pākehā critics say the film isn’t offering any knowledge. When confronted with their own lack of direction they try to say it is the film that has no direction. But of all people who have seen Mauri I haven’t heard any Māori say they couldn’t find the direction of the film. Admittedly some of them had to sit down and think about it for a bit, but in the end Māori knew what was going on.
Suddenly Hepi returned from the exercise of freedom, crumpled but happy.
When Pākehā people talk about Mauri they ask really dumb questions like ‘Why did Willie die?’ Obviously Willie died because he was shot, and why was he shot? The reason to me is irrelevant. What is important is that every Māori family in New Zealand has been effected by sudden and violent death, whether it’s in a shooting or an accident, a road fatality or whatever, we’ve all been touched by grief. It is a Māori experience. All of us have lost some young person about Willie’s age. That’s why violent death is in the film. Every Māori knows what this feels like and can relate to the pain. But Pākehā critics want reasons that are more reassuring than the ones I’m giving you here. Pākehā want reasons that tell them they are not racist or violent toward us. They want reasons that tell them they know a lot about Māori and that they have Māori friends, who will look out for them, pander to their guilt and maybe get them off the hook. Pākehā want reassurance. They want a simplistic, patronising, condescending easy little story able to lull them back into a safe and pedictable, timeless, happy kind of dreamscape. Ask them to step out of that environment into some harsh reality and Pākehā are instantly uncomfortable.
Merata set the baby on his way again. Hepi was off.
I must say that when Bill Gosden [Director of the New Zealand Film Festival] sent me the reviews of Mauri from Wellington I rolled around the floor in hysterical laughter because the comments said so much about the critics themselves and so little about the film. In particular there was one reviewer, can’t remember his name exactly but I know I saw a film that he’d made. It dealt with a pre-adolescent white boy’s fantasy — he imagined that a man friend of his family’s was Stalin.
Think that’s Costa Botes and his film Stalin’s Sickle, I said helpfully. Ah yes, Merata nodded. She continued.
OK so what we’ve got here is a New Zealand film that tells a story of a little white pre-adolescent boy who has fantasy about an ogre with a big, hairy, moustache that lives a million miles away. It’s never one of our ogres, it’s always Russian, or Chinese or some other reviled race in the world from some other reviled country. And yet the director of this film about a distant Russian ogre sets himself up to be a critic of Mauri. I ask you. I wouldn’t even attempt to try and deal critically with the issues in his film because these tell me only about a white fear of the ogre centred overseas, in another country or somewhere else. It is never a statement about the ogre which is in fact the Pākehā male New Zealander right here. Responses like these not only reveal quite a lot about the Pākehā psyche but they also demonstrate how little Māori know about this mentality. I wouldn’t even deign to step into their kind of screwed up territory. This is why I found New Zealand critical reviews of Mauri pretty hilarious really but sadly ignorant.
Merata frowned with dismay.
For instance Mauri won a prize at Rimini Film Festival which is mostly attended by directors, and was also very well received at Vancouver. After the screening in Canada the question-and-answer session went on for over an hour. People there were sincerely interested in the issues Mauri presented. Audiences were not defensive or threatened. I really enjoyed talking to people who wanted to know what I thought and were willing to be challenged by my answers. It was refreshing to engage with an audience who could discuss rationally with me my ideas about deconstruction of plot, because overseas more and more films like Mauri are being made where the range of film language is much more extensive so that as a director you are not confined to such narrow thrusting.
Merata made even more obscene gestures simulating sex and cracked up laughing. Hitchcock would not have thought this funny.
Overseas I talk about my use of layered narrative and am understood. When this happened I was really taken aback and thought, Good God, is it only me who knows about this at home? Here in New Zealand I feel like some kind of fringe minority, cut off and isolated from the rest of the world. However in international contexts there is this discussion but at a completely different level.
Many of those Pākehā reviewers who offered their critical opinions on Mauri know nothing about the film. They zero in on Geoff [Murphy]’s character, Mr Semmens, and take aim at it but actually Pākehā can’t handle the function of this character at all. Yet when I was overseas a member of the audience once stood up and said, they really liked the portrayal of the racist in the film. I said heaps of people actually hate him and this guy replied he was glad I made him a total nut-job because this kind of representation takes the sting out of how hurtful racism is. I told him some Māori think turning Mr Semmens into a lunatic was a cop-out, but this tauiwi said as a white person in Canada he wanted to thank me for making the film because from his perspective he was enormously relieved that the racist was shown to be mad. I was asked, how many of my views of the racist were in the character of Semmens. I said all of them. Racism is irrational and illogical just like him. I then wondered, if a film like Mauri is acceptable to a Canadian audience, what was wrong with Pākehā audiences at home and everyone laughed.
Merata reflected. She watched a lone gull fly in with the turning tide and said–
Later indigenous Canadian filmmakers told me their experience was exactly the same as mine. Where my film was acceptable in Canada, none of their films were. Seems to me wherever the indigenous population is the conscience of the nation it’s very difficult for settler people to be comfortable with or accept our views.
The solitary grey and white bird made a low effortless sweep of the horizon.
What I wanted to do in Mauri was to destroy the massive sentimental view of Māori, that says we’re the sort of people who have this lovely mystical thing called Māoritanga and that we go on marae and commune with the ancestors and who occasionally have meetings and engage in political action with the odd unlikable character but not one that is so racist and insane as Semmens. I wanted to destroy all this rose coloured cosiness because Māori eat, drink, live, fuck, fight, do all the normal things that other people in vibrant, contemporary living cultures do. I wanted to break out of a particular characterisation Māori people find themselves stuck in particularly in relation to our representation on film. Look at all the early films that feature Māori. Here indigenous people are all cute, caper about in piupiu, batting their eyelids, being mischievous and coy. I thought, no, bugger this. Māori are not like that. We are real. We are alive. We have passion and we deal with the everyday drama of life and death. In Mauri that’s what I set out to show. I know a few Māori had difficulty with the film because often you become so colonised you automatically accept the image that the Pākehā projects of you. For instance unconsciously you accept that the assumption that the lead character in a film has to be white all the time. Actually this was an observation made about Mauri because Jeez — how strange it was for an audience to see a film where the leading man and leading woman were Māori. And I said no it wasn’t strange at all because this film was made by a Māori director, like me. We’re so conditioned to seeing that other kind of hero like the ones in commercials where the characters are all white and they’re the only ones who use Lux. As a film maker you’ve got a hard road. You’re not only creating disturbance among Pākehā but you are also provoking a response from Māori, particularly those who are just as colonised as the colonisers.
Then just as quickly as it appeared, the sharp-eyed bird on border patrol was gone. Merata hardened her tone.
In fact I think the process of decolonisation had better take place soon and it had better take place fast. We need to reject the view of Māori Pākehā has always presented to us so we can accept as being ‘correct’, the authentic image of ourselves — as we see ourselves.
I was wondering what Merata thought about land issues and alienation of the whenua. All separation at 24 frames a second. I thought perhaps when Māori film makers tell stories in landscapes these images actually talk about people. She smiled.
Mmm, that’s very true. When I want to shoot the land I have to contend with really superficial assumptions where my view is understood as just another pretty panorama or arty location shot. If you work with professional film crews that’s what they see — selling the scenery — that’s their level. If you talk to valuers or real estate agents they see property to be bought and sold. This is not how Māori see land. We are tangata whenua — people of the land. Land is a living part of us. It is where we work and play, build homes and dig gardens. In Mauri I never ever separated the land from the people. I tried to keep the signs in nature, that figured largely in my childhood — such as the moon and the phases it went through, the rising and the setting of the sun identifying all the stages in the movement across the sky, as well as the inescapable effect that light has on the land and the people. At a very young age I learned about interlinking in nature and developed a connected, holistic view of the world. So again I end up having to ask myself why should I break with traditional Māori teaching when I make a film. My ideas about the importance of land in Mauri appears in a Māori context and not a Pākehā one.
I thought Merata’s film was like consciousness playing on the imagination. Maybe that was why film can help Māori to get free of the process of colonisation because it is an art form able to teach people about mauri, or wairua or whenua. I asked her if she ever saw cinema as belonging to te ao mārama or the world of light where the wisdom in moving pictures often allow us to see more clearly in the dark.
The world of light is an analogy that never dies. It’s perpetual. No matter what the generation it holds true, whether you’re talking about films or whether you’re talking about a search for insight and knowledge. Our old people, weren’t dumb. When Māori make films we need to draw on the strengths we have consciously and subconsciously inside us. Take hold of these internalised Māori disciplines. Lean on them. Refuse to replace them. Leave Pākehā film theory to Pākehā. Māori have nothing, absolutely nothing, to be ashamed of, if we want to present new perspectives to the world of film.
I wondered what she thought about early ethnographic films of Māori. Although the people in archival images might never have seen a camera before they seem to know there was something more to the moment than just being filmed. I asked if Māori still had that awareness. Merata agreed.
Athough some people get hōhā when you put them in front of a camera and some are obviously frightened of it, many are not. Māori watch television every day but what we see is a distortion and an abuse of power perpetuated by the camera and the white power behind it. I’d say there is in fact a high awareness of this kind of distortion not only at a human level but also at the supernatural level and the effect that this abuse has on us as well. I mean there is something very supernatural in a technology that can steal your image. Let’s face it. There’s nothing natural about what the camera can do at all. And anyone who thinks it’s natural to be able to see yourself projected on a wall is stupid because this is so not the real you. There are Māori people who are very aware of such a danger. Film and television flunkies say, ‘Be natural, be yourself’. And you can’t be because someone is spying on you, someone is removed from you, not looking at you but looking through something at an image of you. Being filmed represents a very real fear, the knowledge that something is not quite right, and for Māori instinct is our guide.
Merata flexed and shook out some stiffness in her legs.
Often you will see our people playing up to the camera and in the early films they poke their tongues out and do mad dances. They perform antics to hide their true self. They think that by acting in this way they successfully conceal their image from the camera, but we all know the camera breaks through such subterfuge and steals the image anyway. That’s why it’s so important to take a film back to where you shot it. As a director you’ve done a despicable thing, you’ve gone in to a place, and intruded on the past and the privacy of people and helped yourself to their mauri or aura. You’ve reached in and taken something sacred. So you must go back and return this to where it came from and that is among the people you stole the image from in the first place. This is a really important principle. I haven’t yet met a Māori filmmaker who doesn’t believe this to be necessary.
Merata shot me a conspiratorial look.
When people are put in front of the camera of course they are intimidated and are afraid.
Then she leaned forward and whispered––
Because you know, the camera can make even a virgin look fucked.
Merata slapped her thigh and laughed out loud.
No sorry. I think this discomfort with the camera that many Māori people feel is because film has the power to bring people back from the dead. It has the power to project an image of the past into the future. It has the power to make the present eternal. So we’re not just talking about the effect of a gadget here, we’re talking about significant consequences. Māori people know this. We’re not stupid.
As if on cue I said something stupid. Fortunately Merata did not respond so I moved quickly on to talk about images on film where the past is the present is the future.
You know I really love this quote from Walter Benjamin. He says the present is really a flash between the past and the future. I thought to myself that’s a very Māori way to look at time.
Attempting to keep up with her train of thought, I wondered if Walter Benjamin could have been Māori. Merata laughed and said ‘No, he was a bloody German’.
Mind you Benjamin was quite a unique man in his brain. He talks about the power of speech making and how as words are ejected up into the sky the impact they have on the people assembled is as if suddenly there is a bolt of lightening or a flash of insight. And I thought of those who do whaikōrero and make speeches on the marae. I thought how best to explain what happens in these highly charged situations. Pākehā who don’t know anything about what is going on sit back and are very detached from the proceedings, whereas if you are inside what is happening and are part of it, you experience what a theorist like Walter Benjamin describes. His idea becomes very meaningful. That’s the tragedy with images of Māori on film, so many people are only too willing to dabble in glib representation, they have never had the shock of insight, or experienced the charge of illumination and can’t understand that the present is merely a flash between the past and the future.
Although concepts of time intrigue me I was not really concerned with them in Mauri because Māori time is timeless. Now when Pākehā tried to approach the film they were all saying, OK, so this is day one but we’re going to day two and Oh my God! there’s no effective bridge.
She clapped her hands to the sides of her face in horror.
You know I am reminded of this saying eh: for Pākehā people time is the master, whereas Māori masters time. I think everyone should see it that way. I don’t want time to be my master. Actually there are other film makers like the French director Alain Resnais, who do this successfully. So Māori film makers are in good company. We don’t have to be ashamed or change our concepts. Crikey. We’re streets ahead. We’re talking about enlightenment here.
Merata became serious.
I think one other important thing about Māori filmmaking is that when you make a film from an indigenous perspective, as an indigenous person living in a colonised country, you can’t help but have allegory in your films. What fascinates me about films that I’ve seen of third world people and films that Māori people have made right here — and most of them are really unaware of this — is how, in a single a story, many other stories are being told. Sometimes you can’t count them. There is always an allegorical dimension in films minorities make. I think it’s because the kind of social, political and cultural factors which determine the way we have to live our lives makes it impossible for us to ignore what is happening to us as minorities in colonised white societies. Every time we tell a story, we can’t help but tell or translate this experience into the stories we’re telling on film. Our films are so full of allegory. They are quite different from stories told in parallel narrative where you might have three thrusts at the same time.
Merata rolled her eyes. God forbid the ejaculation, she said.
The thing with all this thrusting is that often you don’t have a climax. In our films allegories are turning circles all the time. I think this is interesting because even in short films made by Māori I know there are always other little stories going on. It’s got to the point now where I’m now more interested in these stories than the big story being told in bold letters on the screen.
I asked to her to explain.
What I mean is Māori have a narrative tradition and should be building on it. We should be proud of our way of story telling. Don’t destroy it or substitute it with some other superficial and senseless kind of bloody film language. Imagine what Russian films would be like if they copied the Americans. Imagine what French films would be like if they copied the Americans. These people are proud of their own stories, their own languages, customs and culture, and because of this they make films.
The afternoon was coming to an end so I wondered where Merata was going to from here. She shielded her eyes from the sun.
Well after I finish with this documentary I’m going to have a little reassessment of the situation and make some decisions because it’s being made abundantly clear to me that it’s going to be quite difficult in the future to get money to make films, whether they’re documentaries or whether they’re features. Chances are that every argument will be used against me, like ‘You’re making films that are not commercial. You’re making films accessible only to Māori people. You’re making films that are too obtuse for even a specialist audience’. But if you look at what has been defined as a commercial New Zealand film — take Queen City Rocker, for example . . . . I still get denied the money. It’s exactly what you talked about right at the beginning of this interview — an excuse for inaction.
Sensing we were nearly done I asked if she had any jobs for an unknown Māori director and would-be script writer? Merata yawned as the baby lurched back into the conversation all smiles, with sand in his hair.
Write me a script. I’m tired of writing scripts. I’ll look at any story that’s put in front of me.
I started to gather up my notes and thinking this could be my one big break wondered if a director like Kurosawa could do it with Ran what could Māori do with Lear? Considering her reply, Merata brushed Hepi down and lifted him up on to her lap––
Now there’s a film maker who took someone else’s story and made it totally Japanese.
And I said, the point is, Lear should be wearing moko. Merata liked this idea and said––
Yeah that’s nice.
Then getting carried away I said, in the Lear story, the characters, the power struggle within the whanau, rangatiratanga and who has it, the tension between tuakana, teina older and younger siblings are all essential dynamics in Māori drama where although the historical Lear springs from some ancient kind of Pākehātanga located somewhere over a Shakespearean rainbow his struggle still feels very familiar. Merata listened to me. It could be when telling a story of a Māori Lear we in fact give Pākehā the chance to learn more about their own tipuna but on our terms and with reference to our way of seeing. Besides, I said, really going for gold and trying my luck, there hasn’t been a New Zealand director who can ‘do’ crowds. And she said––
You know if you submit a script like that the Film Commission will say it’s going to cost thousands, but this is mostly because someone in Hollywood tells them it will. There is no effort to weigh up the proposition, that maybe you could get all these Māori schools out in the middle of a football paddock and shoot battle scenes where it costs nothing.
I unpacked and struggled with an unfamilar camera borrowed from the student office. Merata suggested I take off the lens cap. ‘Imagine it, heaps and heaps of people’, I said, peering into the viewfinder. As inexperience and a failing battery were about to overwhelm me I fumbled hopefully with the aperture and, almost in focus, photographed Merata and Hepi sitting together. Merata said––
Kurosawa is a really interesting filmmaker, how in Throne of Blood, he took Macbeth and turned it into a very Japanese story was absolutely brilliant, but Japanese cinema has had time to develop eh, so that they can be that innovative and bold and steal off Shakespeare and culturally adapt the story to suit themselves. Māori filmmakers are only on the first rung of the ladder but white filmmakers who use our stories continue to frustrate us.
Merata stood and swung the baby on to her hip.
Māori film-makers will be pushing shit up hill for a long time yet but we’ll get there. We’ve already got films like Ngāti and Mauri and now Barry [Barclay]’s on his next one. It will happen. Just you wait.
I thanked her and began to stash away the camera and recording gear. Merata looked down at me and asked Kua mutu. Finish eh? I said, yep. And that was the end of that.
An online Māori dictionary is here.
‘Merata Mita’ at New Zealand Onscreen.
You can see an excerpt from Mauri here.