Mauri (1988) is the only feature-length fiction film that Merata Mita (1942–2010) made across her decades-long engagement with audio-visual narrative. It may also not be the work for which she is best remembered today. Drawing on autobiographical elements, the film is set in a 1950s rural coastal community in the eastern Bay of Plenty of New Zealand’s North Island. The rather obscure plot and episodic narrative revolves around a case of identity theft and the crushing weight that this deception has on in Rewi/Paki (Anzac Wallace)’s interpersonal relationships as he seeks redemption from two distinct jurisdictions, Maori and European. He has violated a traditional tapu through impersonating a dead man and has also engaged in urban criminal activity.1 His later acts of atonement include an avowal to an agonising Kara (an impressive Eva Rickard, who embodies her lived experience) that he is not her nephew and a willingness to be arrested by the local cops for past criminality. Rewi’s violation of tapu prevents him from marrying the woman he loves, Ramiri (Susan Ramiri Paul). Ramiri loves him in return but is so frustrated by his inability to commit that she marries Steve (James Heyward), the son of the district’s largest landowner, Mr Semmens. Semmens is played to absurdly grotesque effect by Mita’s then partner, the seasoned filmmaker Geoff Murphy.2 

In the era in which Mauri was made, the domestic New Zealand film industry was in a phase of significant expansion. Between 1940 and 1970, only five feature-length films were made. But from 1977, with the release of expat Australian Roger Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs, until the end of the 1980s, 70 feature-length fiction films were produced in New Zealand. Merata Mita’s good fortune was twofold: she was in the midst of a boom and the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC), established in 1978, was granting public money to nurture the local production of films that reflected Kiwi culture. Her contribution to this efflorescence should also be seen as part of a sea-change when a younger generation took possession of the cinema as a means of personal expression, livelihood (albeit precarious), and unconscious tool of national cinematic self-definition.3 

Mauri attracted a budget of nearly $2,000,000 of which roughly half came from the NZFC, keen to be the first to fund a feature directed by a Maori woman.4 At the time, such a budget was very generous. Ngati, released in 1987 to positive critical acclaim domestically and internationally (unlike Mauri),5 was made for half that amount, and, like Mauri, was a historically significant production as the first feature film to be made by a Maori (Barry Barclay).6 A lot could be said in comparing these two films, both in terms of their nostalgic coastal settings and for advancing what was then an uncommon filmic perspective: the primary migrants’ (Maori) view of the disruptions that the arrival of secondary migrants (Pakeha) wrought on their culture. Mita later spoke of her film as “a parable about the schizophrenic existence of so many Maori in Pakeha society. Our psychological prisons are sometimes worse than jail, and only by breaking free of colonial repression and asserting our true Maori identity can we ever gain real freedom.”7 But for all their similarities, Ngati and Mauri are very different films tonally, as Bruce Babington has noted: “Ngati’s slow-paced serenity is reminiscent of classical Hollywood’s small-town communalism, while Mauri is structured by melodrama’s psychic violence.”8

This violence is located in several figures: the racist ravings of the aforementioned farmer, Mr Semmens; Kara’s favoured nephew, Willie Rapana (Willie Raana in an impressive debut), who is killed by his ambitious gang lieutenant, Herb (Bernard Rua); the existential torment of Rewi/Paki; and the thwarted romance of Ramiri, who hurls insults at him when he refuses to confirm his love in the way she desires: “What are ya? Queer or something? Come on, let’s see if you’re man enough to get it up!” The largely non-professional cast is taxed, at times, with dialogue that is overwritten and overwrought, especially when captured in closeups, where subtle inflections of tone would be more effective than an explosion of emotions. Such histrionics detract from performance and are probably best understood as expressions of Mita’s inexperience in shaping the varied parts of a dramatic film into a coherent and consistent audio-visual narrative. Prior to making Mauri, Mita was (and would remain) a documentary filmmaker. This was at a time when documentary film commonly did not, as it does now, creatively blur the boundaries between the two key modes of cinematic practice. Consequently, she was still finding her way as the director of a dramatic feature insofar as scriptwriting, casting, shot breakdown, and the coaxing of performances from non-professional actors were concerned.

These lacunae combine to produce a work with imperfections that are impossible to ignore. But this does not mean that Mauri is bereft of cinematic art or craft. Indeed, there are several powerful moments and sequences. One involves the camera simultaneously tracking in while zooming out (as also seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, for example) to signal Rewi’s psychological dislocation when Kara announces that his “mother” has died. Another occurs when Rewi, now an active fugitive from the police, enters Steve and Ramiri’s home and discovers photos of her family that are then cut to produce a series of looks that seem to penetrate the fraudulent mask he has worn for the past seven years. Their edited gazes challenge him to reveal who he truly is. (It is worth noting here that the way the community he joins accepts the false Rewi is odd but may be due to the late deletion of explanatory material in the process of editing).9

Another instance of a formal element positively contributing to the film’s narrative relates to the staging, in depth, of Kara’s agony. Her close family and friends are positioned around her bed with Kara occupying the foreground: staging that recalls a John Ford western, where community is positively pictured and opposed to individual ambition – figured in Mauri in both the younger local cop (Temuera Morrison) and the aforementioned smiling assassin, Herb, who betrays Willie. There are also, at least for this viewer, echoes of Vigil (1984), Vincent Ward’s debut feature, in a couple of scenes. The first involves Ramiri and Rewi cavorting in the mud in front of the campfire when their mutual exasperation and sexual tension are carnally released as elemental eros, a coupling that may even have a telluric component (tangata whenua [people of the land] is a self-descriptor used by many Maori). In Vigil, Toss’ mother, Elizabeth, and Ethan, the hired farmhand, similarly cavort but in postcoital celebration situated in a diurnal rather than a nocturnal setting. The second potential nod to Vigil occurs when a group of kuia crest a hill, rising into the frame, coming collectively into view to meet the Minister of the Crown during a hui. The symbolism here is reminiscent of the central character, Toss, in Ward’s coming-of-age tale, where, on several occasions, she emerges from the bottom of the frame, signalling her impending metamorphosis, or transformation, from one state of being into another. In Mauri, it signals mana wahine. Another example of cinematic intertextuality may also be read in the name of Rewi’s character and his predicament, which references Rudall Hayward’s sound version of a film he first made in the silent era, Rewi’s Last Stand (1925 and 1940).

To return to the title of this review: “Of What is Merata Mita/Mauri the Name?” For many in Aotearoa New Zealand Mita is an icon of considerable mana who helped decolonise the screen and forge a pathway for Indigenous voices to be heard in different territories through her teaching (at the University of Hawai’i) and passionate advocacy.10 Her sudden death (from a heart attack) led to the creation of memorials that included the establishment of the Merata Mita Fellowship at the Sundance Institute where she had been a mentor for aspirant Indigenous filmmakers. In a theoretically dense tribute to Mauri and Mita, Bruce Harding argues that the film text “might be regarded as the distinctive work, the defining text, of a postcolonising New Zealand cinema which interrogates the damaging legacies of the colonial era”, and that Mauri

acts as a diachronic marker of an evolving ethnic sensibility in Aotearoa New Zealand as it taps into the narrative langue of that culture and enacts ideological shifts in the representation of inter-personal and intimate relations between Māori and Pākehā individuals which act as conceptual shorthand for changing social values as Mauri, being something of a nationalist film, revisits and refurbishes John O’Shea’s Broken Barrier [1952] as a potent cross-cultural (or educultural) text.11

Be that as it may, Harding treats Mauri, essentially, as a sociological subject of study, the object of sophisticated analysis rather than as film or art; its virtues are to be found outside of the film’s diegesis and the formal means with which it is constructed and conveyed. While any work of art may be used as a springboard for broader thematic or ideological musings, I have primarily focussed on a neo-formalist analysis to outline a few of the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

The significance of Mauri in Aotearoa New Zealand film history has less to do with its impressionistic, halting narrative, occasionally risible acting, and intrinsic merit as a film, and more to do with criteria that fall under broader rubrics: ethnicity, gender, decolonisation.

Mauri (1988 New Zealand 101 mins)

Prod Co: Awatea Films Prod, Dir, Scr: Merata Mita Phot: Graeme Cowley Prod Des: Ralph Hotere Mus: Hiroini Melbourne

Cast: Anzac Wallace, Eva Rickard, James Heyward, Susan Ramari Paul, Sonny Waru, Rangamarie Delamere, Willie Raana, Geoff Murphy, Don Selwyn, Temuera Morrison


  1. The film’s temporality speaks to the post-World War II urban drift experienced by many Maori and the ruptures in, and reconfigurations of, tribal affiliations.
  2. One contemporary film critic described his character as “an amalgam of Frank Spencer, Worzel Gummidge and Bruno Lawrence at his most unhinged in Utu (Geoff Murphy’s 1983 puha-western, loosely based on the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s). Brian McDonnell, “Mauri”, On Reflection: New Zealand Film Reviews from North & South, 1986-1993, London, Kakapo Books, 2007, 24. This review was originally published in October 1988. Most of the other characters in Mauri are only partially realised individuals and have a largely emblematic presence.
  3. Space prevents a fuller exploration of the construction of a national cinema here, but my journal article explores this phenomenon along with the film culture of New Zealand, including the contribution of Merata Mita: http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/2020/04/simon-sigley-programming-bicultural_28.html.
  4. Geoff Murphy, A Life on Film, Auckland, HarperCollins, 2015, 310.
  5. It was selected for competition at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week.
  6. We should not overlook To Love a Maori (1972) – as is often the case – made on a very modest budget on 16mm by Ramai and Rudall Hayward, a bicultural couple whose filmic career spanned 50 years, beginning in the 1920s.
  7. Merata Mita, “The Soul and the Image”, Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa, Wellington, Victoria University Press, 1992, 49
  8. Bruce Babington, A History of the New Zealand Fiction Feature Film, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007, 231.
  9. Babington, 241
  10. Hepi Mita, the son she had with Geoff Murphy, received funding from the NZFC to make a documentary entitled Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018), a moving tribute from a loving son and film archivist.
  11. Bruce Harding, “‘The Donations of History’: Mauri and the Transfigured ‘Māori Gaze’: Towards a Bi-national Cinema in Aotearoa”, Interpreting the Past: New Zealand Cinema, ed. Alistair Fox, Barry Keith Grant, and Hilary Radner, Bristol and Chicago, Intellect, 2011, 219 and 221.

About The Author

Simon Sigley (PhD) is an Auckland-based writer, educator, and producer who taught screen studies for many years at Massey University’s School of Humanities, Media, and Creative Communication, where he is now a Research Associate. He has published on film culture, film reception, authorship, and documentary film. His work focusses on the symbolic role and function of film in the cultural imaginary. At present, he is working on the French reception of Peter Jackson’s oeuvre and a history of New Zealand’s National Film Unit.

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