Rotorua's Cliff Curtis is a worldwide name. He has starred in many roles including the upcoming Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw, plus Avatar 2.

But these Hollywood roles are eclipsed by his love for homegrown stories.

When Leah Tebbutt sits down with Curtis she uncovers where this passion comes from and where it is leading him next ahead of the release of his next work - a special documentary that will be screen in Rotorua this weekend.

You might be an actor, a producer or a writer but are you a storyteller?


This is the question that frames Cliff Curtis' mind when he is tasked with a new movie, whether it be as an actor or executive producer.

"You can survive in this business with no particular allegiance to anything or no particular values in place, except, that you want to have a career.

"I've done all sorts of things but what grounds me as a producer is to choose projects which are significant and they're usually based at home, they're Māori content and they've usually got a great sense of heart."

Actor Cliff Curtis photographed at his family marae, Tapuaekura a Hatupatu, on the edge of Lake Rotoiti. Photo / File
Actor Cliff Curtis photographed at his family marae, Tapuaekura a Hatupatu, on the edge of Lake Rotoiti. Photo / File

The Te Arawa actor has always put te ao Māori at the heart of his work with films such as The Piano in 1993 to more recently The Dark Horse .

But he credits his values to Merata Mita who broke through the barriers of race, class and gender and with the 1988 release of her film Mauri , making her the first Māori woman to write and direct a feature film.

Curtis has produced a special film, Merata: How mum decolonised the screen, which is based on Mita's life. It will be screened in Rotorua this weekend on Mother's Day.

Curtis gained a mentor out of Mita back in the 1990s when he was starting his career, which is when she clarified the meaning of having a purpose as a storyteller.

"She helped to form my ideas and my practical approach to things.

"Merata was a staunch advocate for us telling our stories in our own voice. Otherwise, someone is employing us and then they own our stories.

"They tell us who we are, they put the words in our mouth and they sell us as a product and they buy and trade-off of our culture, which is fine because it is business but it is about participation in that process.

"Merata was about saying, what is it about being Māori that can only be told by us."

Maori film-maker Merata Mita and her son Hepi, 3 in September 1989. Photo / File
Maori film-maker Merata Mita and her son Hepi, 3 in September 1989. Photo / File

In 2010 Mita died suddenly. Subsequently, her son Heperi "Hepi" Mita began working at the Film Archive in New Zealand tasked with sorting through the two van loads of material he had collected from his mother's house.

He used some of the footage to cut together for a video tribute at her unveiling which sparked Curtis to ask Hepi if he would make a feature documentary film, that Curtis would finance.

"That was the beginning of a five-year journey. You have to get it right. This is a labour of love and a work of passion and obsession and nobody is making money.

"It is there to inspire other women and people to pursue the power of storytelling.

"She helped paved the way because you can be from Maketū, you can be from Te Arawa you can be a Māori from here and you can have a career internationally because she was the living proof of that."

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen is produced by Rotorua's own Cliff Curtis

While directing the film Hepi uncovered parts of his mother that he hadn't known through her 68 years of life.

"I never saw my mum as a filmmaker, nor was she ever an activist in my eyes. She was always a loving mum and as the youngest of her six kids, that was the only side of her I knew," he says.

He said it was only within the vaults of the film archive that she told him the story of her past.

Mita's groundbreaking documentaries include Bastion Point: Day 507 which in turn saw the return of land to the rightful owners, as well as Patu!, the political documentary on the 1981 South African rugby tour.

"But the suffering of my older siblings during those times was all too real," said Hepi.

"Her [Mita's] drive for social justice would have to be weighed against the dangers her work would expose them to."

Mothers Day Screening

What: Merata: How mum decolonised the screen
When: 10am Sunday 12th May
Where: Reading Cinema Rotorua
General Admission Tickets: $15. There will be a complimentary morning tea.

This special screening includes a Q&A with Richard Rautjoki, one of Merata's sons and Rotorua's own Cliff Curtis.