"If your films don't heal there's no point in making them" - Merata Mita
Shortly after I started work at Native American Public Telecommunications in 2004, Executive Director Frank Blythe said, “Pack your bags, we’re going to Hawaii!” We had a grant to do a mentorship project with Pacific Islanders in Communications. That’s when I met Donald Thoms, who was working at Discovery Channel, Hanay Geiogamah from UCLA and Merata Mita—a New Zealand filmmaker. The filmmakers that NAPT (now Vision Maker Media-VMM) brought were Brian Wescott, Lily Shangreaux, Julianna Brannum and Michelle Danforth.
These folks are still friends and all doing important work—except Merata. She died in 2010—far too young. She was New Zealand’s first Indigenous female filmmaker. The Sundance Institute established a Fellowship for Indigenous Artists in her name. I met some of her family at the inaugural award ceremony in 2016.
That Hawaiian trip was one of the first life-changing experiences I’ve had working for VMM, and my first introduction to Polynesian culture. Attending the Maoriland Film Festival last month, brought me full circle in appreciation for the island cultures of the Pacific.
Maoriland Film Festival happens every Fall in Otaki, New Zealand, which is located an hour north of Wellington. The festival is the brain child of Libby Hakaraia and Tainui Stephens. And it definitely takes a whole village (there’s 6,000 people who live in Otaki) to put on this amazing festival. They do much more than show movies—they nurture and fund young talent.
I was honored to represent two VMM films there: Ohiyesa: The Soul of an Indian and Dawnland. I moderated the Ohiyesa Q&A for Kate Beane (Flandreau Santee) and her partner, Hinhan Cetanhotanka (Oglala Lakota). Luke Moss, a young New Zealand filmmaker moderated our discussion after Dawnland.
Shirley Sneve (right) and her daughter Bonita Rickers (left)
My daughter, Bonita Rickers (Northern Ponca), came with me on this trip. We were able to arrive in time for the Powhiri—the very moving opening ceremony, which was conducted in the Maori language.
As a Lakota, who learned my language in college, hearing so many fluent Maori speakers—both young and old—was truly awe inspiring.
The opening keynote to the festival was given by Merata Mita’s daughter, Awatea Mita and son, Heperi Mita. His film, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and was also at Berlinale in February. It will be at Toronto’s HotDocs, April 26, 28 and May 5. It won best documentary at Maoriland.
In Wellington, we stayed with Jude McLaren (New Zealand Film Commission) and Jackie Hay (Nga Taonga Sound & Vision Archives). Jackie’s coworker is Hepi Mita—small world.
Jude McLaren, Shirley Sneve and Karen Te O Kahurangi Waaka-Tibble at the Step and Repeat.
My daughter Bonita has tattoos that document important places in her life. She got another tattoo in Otaki, by Tipi Wehipeihana. Both Kate and Hinhan sport new tattoos as well. Now, I grew up in an era where only sailors and criminals had tattoos, but after seeing these very beautiful Maori tattoos, I signed up! Tipi starts by asking you for a story. From there, he designs the tattoo. It’s small and on my shoulder—a permanent keepsake of my trip to this incredible place on the planet.