Mita's troubled waters (1989 interview)

By Peter Calder

Ahead of the Mana Waka screening at the New Zealand International film festival, we've pulled out from the archives this interview that Peter Calder did with Merata Mita in 1989. Mita passed on in May 2010.

Merata Mita in 1989. Photo / NZ Herald archives
Merata Mita in 1989. Photo / NZ Herald archives

Film-maker Merata Mita is not surprised that her latest project has be dogged by more than its fair share of controversy.

The venture has been characterised by confusion, accusations, claim and counterclaim and even included a brief guerilla raid when a silent print of the uncompleted film was "borrowed" by the descendants of the man who made it.

But, says Mita, such trauma was to be expected. "When I started making the film I saw the power of the images, and I said this is going to be difficult. This film will bring out the best and the worst in people.

"There are those who will seek to covet it and others who will want it given wide exposure.

"Anyone who thought it could be trouble-free must be stupid."

The film, called Mana Waka, is made up of footage shot by R.G.H "Jim" Manley, of a canoe-building project carried out under the aegis of Princess Te Puea Herangi in the late 1930s and completed for the country's centennial in 1940.

Te Puea arranged for the lifting of tapu so that Manley, a Pakeha, could be allowed into the inner sanctum of those working on the canoes: for the ignorant, the alien, the ill-intentioned or, indeed, anyone unconnected with the project to trespass could defile the mauri, or ethos, of this deeply spiritual task.

So the footage - about 20,000 feet shot over a period of 18 months - was inevitably imbued with a profound spiritual significance and Mita knew before she looked at it that it was dynamite.

The film traces the development of the three great canoes which Te Puea ordered made "to uphold and uplift the spirit of the Maori people."

Scenes recorded with startling clarity the felling of a massive kauri in the Puketi forest near Waitangi in the far north for the main canoe, Ngatokimatawhaorua, which would be launched at the Waipapa inlet and make its maiden and only voyage to Waitangi in January 1940.

Further South, Manley filmed in even greater detail the selection and felling of two totara in the Oruanui forest near Wairakei. Like the Northland kauri, the trees are hollowed out on site by canoe builders wielding adzes with apparent nonchalance belying their precise skill.

Later the hollowed-out hull sections are hauled from the bush by bullock teams and transported by road to Ngaruawahia where they are finished and spliced together to the river as Aotea and Takitimu, two 18m wakataua which are still at Turangawaewae.

The two canoes are now renamed Tumanako and Rangatahi. Te Puea's original concept had been to rebuild the entire fleet of seven canoes which had taken part in the Great Migration but a shortage of funds aggravated by Government unwillingness to support the project meant only three were built.

Lending the mana of the original canoes' names to a project which was not completed according to its original vision was considered a bad omen and so the names were changed.

Manley's filming was dogged throughout by financial problems. The pioneering cameraman was no businessman and by the time his Eppic Films Ltd was forced into voluntary liquidation in 1940 he had merely processed - rather than printing into a format that could be projected - the film he had shot.

Some was given in the 1970s to Television New Zealand, where it remained as archive footage for "flashed" - inserts used to illustrate news or documentary stories.

But most of the footage languished in obscurity - even after Manley's death in the 1970s until 1983 when the when the New Zealand Film Archive with the blessing of Manley's family and the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangi-kaahu, took on the task of preserving the surviving unedited and silent negatives.

Their job was an urgent one. Like all 35mm film shot before 1952, the Manley footage was made with cellulose nitrate film stock - a kind of film which, while it recorded superbly clear images, was highly inflammable and, worse still, chemically unstable.

Even carefully stored - and these reels were kept in anything but ideal conditions - the negatives inevitably decompose, fading and, through a remorseless chemical reaction with air, frothily dissolving to a sticky mess, reducing eventually to dust.

Archive staff spent about 350 hours and $40,000 of their ever-scarce funds restoring the surviving negatives frame by painstaking frame.

Then in August, Merata Mita (whose earlier credits include Patu!, the documentary record of the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour and Mauri, the first feature by a Maori woman director) set to work to create a coherent documentary narrative from the jumbled welter of images Manley had recorded.

It was, admits Mita, a daunting professional challenge. For a start, Manley's filming style reflected his background as a still photographer. (He used to operate a studio in St Heliers doing portraits which Mita describes as "magnificent".)

But he took to moviemaking as many still photographers do - creating film which was essentially moving photography.

Static camerawork and an average shot length which made Manley's movie footage look like a long succession of stills added up to a near impossible task for Mita.

"The thing about moving pictures like that is that the continuity is missing. It is hell of a hard to cut because there is no continuity from one image to the other."

(Mita uses the word "cut" here to refer to the process of editing a film into sequence, rather than removing pieces. Throughout work on Mana Waka she has striven to use at least part of almost every image that Manley came up with. In the case of the stirring footage recording the voyage of Ngatokimatawhaorua, even the "out-takes" are pressed into service as backdrop to the end titles.)

When Merata Mita first laid eyes on the film she says she was stunned by its wairua, or spiritual potency. Apart from the sense that it was going to "bring out the best and the worst in people," she was also seized by the conviction that it could not adequately be edited in her Herne Bay home. She resolved to move the project to Turangawaewae and work on the film there.

It was easier said than done. A Steenbeck editing bench covers the floor area of a king size bed, stands about 1.5m high with its viewing screen in place and weighs several hundred kilograms.

Nevertheless, the move was made and Mita, who had "spent two months sitting and staring at the film, trying to make sense of it" was in the nest possible place to start cutting its disjointed profusion into a coherent whole.

She and her assistant Annie Collins were greatly helped by working with Tainui kaumatua (elders) including the now venerable carvers who had worked on the canoe project at the time Manley shot his footage. The thousands of feet of film were blessed before work began and for four weeks Mita and Collins worked in a room on the marae as interested and expert advisers came and went.

The restorers came to look at the film to seek guidance in their labours and the filmmakers were able to see, touch, and feel the canoes whose genesis they were documenting.

The two women used as their guiding light Te Puuea's kaupapa - here translated, says Mita, as raison d'etre - for the project: to uphold and uplift the spirit of Maoridom for the benefit of all Aotearoa, Maori and Pakeha alike.

The film - edited to a spare 83 minutes - was viewed and approved by Tainui elders before being taken up Taupiri mountain, the Tainui's most sacred place, for final benediction.

Such a send-off should have guaranteed success for the enterprise which had given New Zealand what was intended to be its official film for for 1990. But not everyone was happy, and last month at its first Auckland screening, the discontent was to flare in a brief flash which smouldered till this week.

The small audience that joined Mita and Collins at a private screening of the still silent film on November 13 was drawn from a variety of backgrounds. Bob Harvey, the chairman of the Auckland 1990 Trust, which is organising the arts festival which would launch the film was there along with two representatives of corporate Auckland, being courted for extra funds to allow the soundtrack to be recorded in Dolby.

From Turangawaewae came several representatives, Rena Ngataki, the secretary of the marae's trust board and the personal representative of the Maori Queen was accompanied by Tumokai Panapa and Tom Moana.

Also present were Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, a Waikato University academic who had been serving as a liaison between the Film Archive (of which she is a trustee), and Dame Te Ata. Jonathan Dennis, the director of the Film Archive, was also on hand.

The crew that would work on the film's sound mix was there, to see for the first time the finished print on the big screen and get to grips with what Mita calls "the magnitude of the task before them."

Just as the screening began, it was stopped for the late arrival of the Manley family representatives.

Moana Manley Whaanga, Jim's daughter, led a group of four, one of whom stayed outside the projectionist's booth during the screening.

Tumokai Panapa rose and addressed them in greeting. The Tainui representatives, he explained, "arrived in a mantle of mourning."

They had been on the verge of not making the trip from Ngaruawahia where a tangi was in progress for an elder but they had left the gathering as a mark of how important they considered the film to be.

They explained that they would be leaving straight after the screening," says Mita, "and they did not want the Manleys to feel insulted if they left with what appeared like unseemly haste."

The screening took place to murmurs of appreciation, but Mita says she felt a little uncomfortable - she was not sure why - throughout and her suspicions increased when when one of the Manley's left the theatrette moments before the end.

As the screen went dark, Moana Manley Whaanga stood and announced, in what Mita calls "a commanding voice" that no one was to leave the theatre. As her suspicions crystallised into alarm, Mita felt compelled to leap over the seat and rush to the theatrette door and as I turned the knob someone clicked the lock outside and we were locked in."

She could hear a commotion outside the theatrette and she began hammering on the door and working the lock back and forth. Suddenly, unexpectedly the door was unlocked and, as she bolted out, she saw Moana Manley's son-in-law, who had remained outside during the screening, disappear into the lift which had been held for him by the other family member who had left before the end of the screening.

She caught only a glimpse of the fleeing figure, but saw enough to note that he bore the yellow laundry basket in which she had brought the spools of film for screening.

"I saw him disappear into the lift with the basket so I raced for the button and pushed it, but I was too late. The door shut and down he went."

By the time the single lift which was working (the others were switched off after hours) ascended and Mita took it down to the ground floor, they had gone.

Inside the theatrette, Moana Manley Whaanga was handling a letter to Rena Ngataki announcing that "it is with deep regret that we now wish to withdraw all rights under the copyright which we hold and hereby declare that any and all work is to cease."

The letter listed a dozen different reasons for the action. Many of those reasons concentrate on a tiny detail, but the eighth is typical. it reads, in part: "It is felt by the Manley Whanau Trust that there is very little communication existing between the directors (Mita and Collins) and the producers (the Manleys) as to the directions or wairua of the film.

Once Moana Manley had delivered her message and left, Tumokai Panapa insisted on having a prayer "to calm things down and remove any bad feelings that may have been left there by people's frustration and anger."

Repeated attempts to elicit an official comment from the family in the course of researching this article were met by a stony silence. An official pronouncement was always promised "later" after a "meeting" (whose date and participants remained a closely guarded secret) had taken place.

The official comment, when it came, was inconclusive. Dr Buck Nin, of Hamilton, was identified as the family's official spokesman, and he professes himself delighted to announce that the entire problem had been solved. Two meetings had reaffirmed the partnership between the Tainui people and the Manley whanau and the film would be completed in time for its scheduled screening next month.

had the family returned the film which was taken?

"The film was never taken," Dr Nin replied. "It was merely borrowed to ensure that we could negotiate a fruitful solution to the problem."

The family had engaged the services of a "well-known and experienced film-maker" to look at the technical aspects of the film-maker" to look at the technical aspects of the film and ensure it is completed.

"Merata and Annie were employees of the partnership and we have reluctantly and unfortunately asked them to step down. "

Mita and Collins did not stop work. Nor did they return to the materials - including the film negatives to the Manley whanau. The loss of the print screened on November 13 was more of an inconvenience than a disaster. It was a so-called work print - scarred and worn after being run through the editing machine and, in the memorable words of the archive's Jonathan Dennis, "tape-spliced to within an inch of its life."

The work print, as its name implies, is simply and cheaply produced in order for the film editors to do their work. It is not graded for exposure levels and it has no future beyond the preliminary editing stage when a new, edited print will be make - from the negatives, according to the edit plan logged during the print phase.

Yet it was with this battle-scarred veteran alone that the Manley whanau intended to pursue its independent plan.

Merata Mita continued her work. But, following a phone call a few days after the events of November 13, she returned all the sound material which she was planning to use in the sound mix to its owners. The explanation, she says, was simple. The phone call - she will not say who it was from, but does say the source was at Turangawaewae- said "we must complete and protect the film and on no account was I to change anything that appeared in the print screened on November 13."

A solution to the imbroglio seemed as far off as ever until this week. The Manleys said they were unimpressed by a 1971 letter in which Jim Manley surrendered all rights over the film, which had become Te Puea's property when Eppics Ltd went broke.

Similarly, they did not recognise the right of Mita and Collins to proceed on a film for which they said only Jim Manley's descendants had the feel. They did not recognise the legitimacy of the of the three-way partnership between Tainui, the Manley whanau and the Film Archive - but for whose work Manley's footage would be rotting on a garage floor right now.

Then on Monday, as unexpectedly as it had arisen, the row blew over. A meeting of all parties was convened at Turangawaewae and, working on the Maori kaupapa of consensus, thrashed matters out for seven hours.

What transpired is not being discussed publicly, but some of the participants privately concede that the Maroi Queen herself "spoke firmly" to the Manleys and recorded her wish that the project be completed under Mita's direction.

Under that pressure, the Manleys seem to have retreated from their initial position to the point where Buck Nin could say yesterday that they family "never had any difficulty with the artistic approach, professionalism or competence of Mita and Collins" and that "a few problems of miscommunication had been completely resolved."

The fruits of the labour of everyone involved, from Te Puea and Jim Manley to Mita and Collins, will be seen at a gala premiere at Auckland's Civic Theatre on January 21.

More than one person there will be hoping that the differences of the past can be forgotten as the official film of 1990 is launched on its maiden voyage.


*Mana Waka screens 6pm Saturday at the Civic. Click here for the Mana Waka page on the Film Festival site.

- NZ Herald

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