Speaking for themselves: the legacy of Barry Barclay and Merata Mita
Mark Williams asked me to speak today about the influence of late Māori filmmakers Barry Barclay and Merata Mita. Can I just begin by saying that it is a daunting task. There are no other filmmakers I know of in Aotearoa who are so well known, respected and loved than Barclay and Mita. Indeed, that has been the starting point of my current research, to think through a particular spark that Barclay and Mita still have on contemporary moving image makers. I want here to focus specifically on Barclay and Mita’s work in documentary, where they produced the majority of their work, and to consider the development of a filmmaking philosophy that challenged both production processes and ethics of ownership. I then want to suggest the ongoing influence and relevance of their ideas on contemporary makers.
Barry Barclay and Merata Mita are widely regarded as the first indigenous man and woman in the world to solo direct feature films. While this speaks perhaps to the climate of film-making – both globally and locally - as much as their talent, their position as pioneers meant that Barclay and Mita were both operating at a time when film was failing Māori people. In her essay The Soul and The Image (1996), Mita traces the history of cinema in Aotearoa and observes the ways that Western perspectives and stereotypes were consequently imposed on Māori via the lens.(1) Mita notes two photogenic subjects that appealed to early cinema producers - the landscape, and Māori. Citing early 20th century films such as The Romance of Hine-Moa (1927), which presents Māori as the erotic ‘Other’ and a backdrop to the ‘real’ action, Mita notes that that aspects of Māori character and culture were either exaggerated or minimised to make the action more accessible and attractive to a foreign audience.
Similarly, Barclay would reference international films like Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) — also referenced in Tracey Moffatt’s satirical montage Other (2009) — as evidence of the colonial gaze. In one particular scene, men are ordered from the ship onto the shore to enjoy the flesh of indigenous women, a representation of indigenous people as passive objects that Barclay argued could only be maintained if the camera does most of its work on the deck, and the indigenous world is kept ashore.(2) It was through this example Barclay developed his metaphor of indigenous cinema as ‘a camera on the shore’ that reverses the direction of the colonial gaze.
Still from Other (2009) Tracey Moffatt
If both Barclay and Merata were concerned with cinema’s damaging portrayal of Māori, they were equally concerned with the potential for dignity when the camera was moved into indigenous hands. For both of them, filmmaking offered more than the ability to stem the commodification of the Māori image. Fundamentally, it also had the potential to be mana-enhancing. Barclay and Mita worked from the position that there was something affirmatively distinctive about being indigenous, that it was more than just a responsive, reactive position. The indigenous camera would see differently, frame differently, provide a different context. An indigenous approach then isn’t simply about indigenous content - it also serves a different philosophy of filmmaking.
Both Barclay and Mita grounded their approaches to documentary in Māori traditions of conversation and storytelling. Barclay notes, “to be any kind of Māori, you must first be a listener.”(3) His approach to filming was steeped in the notion of Māori conversation as distinctively democratic, and often occurring in a circular fashion. He observed that:
“On a marae, there is opportunity for all to speak … over the days of the hui, the little person, the ‘nobody’ is given room too. It matters little whether you happen to be a city lawyer or a breaker of horses. All have a voice…”(4)
Mita shared with Barclay this deep respect for Māori conversation and storytelling as a methodology. She wrote;
“Our people have a strongly oral tradition of storytelling with emphasis on the spoken word. .. As a filmmaker what this means for me is that when Māori make films what we do is essentially different from what Pākehā film makers do.”(5)
To look at how Māori listening and storytelling informed Barclay and Mita’s filmmaking processes respectively, we can perhaps begin with the television documentary series Tangata Whenua. Filmed in 1975, Communication lecturer Jennifer Gauthier describes Tangata Whenua as the “point of origin for Māori cinema”.(6) The series was directed by Barclay, and conceived by historian Michael King, who also served as interviewer for the series. Over six episodes, Tangata Whenua shared with a broad audience issues that concerned Māori communities around Aotearoa, such as tino rangatiratanga, land alienation and religion.
In order to allow conversations on these issues to develop organically, Barclay came into immediate confrontation with the documentary format. “As a Māori technician”, he writes, “the filmmaker is faced with the challenge of how to respect this age-old process of discussion and decision-making while using the technology within a climate which so often demands precision and answers”.(7) As editor Ian John similarly notes, “the bizarre dichotomy of Barry, is that he wanted to let people speak as they were, without editorialising”.(8)
To this end, Barclay developed a series of strategies to minimise the camera in the act of filming. He preferred long-lens cameras and eschewed using dollies. He end-slated scenes in order to allow conversations to begin organically. As Māori studies researcher Angela Moewaka Barnes notes, Barclay also valued the ‘talking head’, where you see the person speaking.(9) Voice over is consequently used infrequently, as is narrative. He also encouraged people to speak in groups or in settings where they felt less intimidated by the camera.
Merata Mita similarly was concerned with privileging voices over exposition. Notably, as a point of difference from Barclay, many of Mita’s documentaries were event-based, meaning that the footage taken was determined by recording things as they unfolded. Mita points to her documentary, Bastion Point: Day 507 (1980) as an example of this. She notes that Bastion Point: Day 507 was deliberately structured as if you’re sitting around the campfire and a grandfather or uncle or cousin is telling a story, and in that story they tell us the truth about our history.
“This film is the total opposite of how a television documentary is made. It has a partisan viewpoint, is short on commentary, and emphasises the overkill aspect of the combined police/ military operation.”(10)
Mita’s focus on people’s stories, along with Barclay’s approach of asking the camera to act as a listener, rather than as an intruder, are perhaps their most enduring contributions to documentary making. Over the course of future documentaries, the techniques developed in Tangata Whenua would cement Barclay’s proposal of “hui as filmmaking”. This central concept set out how conversation should unfold on film, as well as the role of the filmmaker in that setting;
“…the camera can act with dignity at a hui. There is a certain restraint, a feeling of being comfortable with sitting back a little and listening.”(11)
The results of these methods method can, paradoxically, be both partial and, dare I say, long-winded. The Kaipara Affair (2005) centres on disputes over fishing rights in the Kaipara Harbour, and Māori and Pākehā worked together to obtain government support to rescue their depleted fisheries. The film, however, is perhaps better known for the scandal that surrounded its editing. Barclay made the film as a freelance director for He Taonga Films. Intended for television, Barclay understood that the 113-minute film would be edited to 90 minutes, but a decision was later made, without his involvement, to edit it to 70 minutes to allow for advertising. In a 22-page letter to then prime-minister Helen Clark condemning the move, Barclay wrote that there was more at stake than the impingement of his directing decision.
“The cut is disgusting. It has betrayed the Tinopai community. It has made Māori mere protesters.”(12)
A respect for Māori forms of storytelling placed a strain on documentary convention but was important in ensuring that the voices of Māori are not reduced to soundbites, posterchildren for a predetermined politics. But there’s more to it than that. Mita goes further, suggesting that approaching documentary as the stories of indigenous people imbues the film with a particular emotional charge. She explains:
“The drama comes from the people in the film and people who are telling stories on film. Because of that, what you have is a very strong spiritual component of the film. When you structure a documentary dramatically, what you build with is that incredible spirit of the people.”(13)
A parallel can be found in Barclay’s healthy disrespect for reportage. “You can make a factual history, which may be useful”, Barclay suggests, “but then again it’s just moving text”.(14) Instead, Barclay offers an alternative position for documentary as something that might function closer to “a sincere, well-thought out letter to a close friend”.(15)
Locating the spirit or essence of film in people’s stories impacts on the ethics of the wider industry. Both Barclay and Mita believed that to understand and honour Māori modes of storytelling, it was important to train up Māori crew. There are also repercussions for the distribution and archiving of films. As Barclay wrote on the filming of Tangata Whenua, “overnight we become custodians of other people’s spirits.” The safe housing of Māori images became critical and Barclay was instrumental in drafting the Taonga Māori Deposit Agreement used by the New Zealand Film Archive. The agreement sought to provide a mechanism that offered inter-generational protection and guardianship of archival material.
The importance of guardianship is evident in Mita’s documentary Mana Waka (1990). The film was constructed from footage shot over a period of 18 months in the late 1930s by cameraman RGH Manley. Originally commissioned by Princess Te Puea Herangi, Manley’s camera followed the construction of three waka built to commemorate the country's centennial in 1940. While Manley’s raw material was never developed into a finished film, the footage remained in the possession of Manley’s family, before the New Zealand Film Archive took on the task of preservation and proposed turning it into a documentary. Merata Mita was appointed director. Together with editor Annie Collins and Jonathan Dennis, Mite moved to Turangawaewae Marae to edit the film with kaumatua advising on site.
Barclay and Mita developed conceptions of indigenous documentary that prioritised a responsibility to honouring indigenous stories, and storytellers. But how do those ideas stand up now? It has been 44 years since Tangata Whenua, and 40 years since Bastion Point: Day 507. Since then, some things have changed. Digital technology has mitigated the significant and prohibitive costs of film; organisations like Mana Aute and now Nga Aho Whakaari emerged to support the Māori film industry, and a wider proliferation of Māori and Pacific artists working with film has challenged any single definition of indigenous film.
And yet, Barclay and Mita’s philosophies continue to offer a useful foothold for contemporary makers. Recently I’ve been working on an exhibition project, From the Shore, which looks at the influence of Barclay and Mita on contemporary moving image artists. Notably, the show never began with Barclay or Mita’s own work; its’ roots began in working with artists already influenced by Barclay and Mita. The genesis of the project perhaps began with Tuafale Tanoa’i, aka Linda T., and thinking about the reasons why she makes the way she does. One of Linda T’s longest running projects is LTTV (2009-), a live installation in which a number of guests are interviewed and recorded within a makeshift TV set. Inspired by the work of Barry Barclay and Merata Mita, with Mita acting as an informal advisor for the project, LTTV responds to mainstream filmmaking processes and their monocultural exclusion of minority representation by prioritising Māori and Pacific voices on an interview set.
There is also a strong element of collaboration in LTTV. Though the guests are carefully chosen, the interviews are not pre-planned, and they take on a sprawling and spontaneous path. For the version installed at Te Uru, the footage is often uploaded raw. Editing is in fact close to non-existent in Linda T.’s work. In part, this is an active decision to refuse to shape the content that ultimately is the korero of other people. Leaving the data raw is also an acknowledgement that the content is never finished; it’s always being adapted into new compilations or grows with the addition of new recordings.
Amidst the research for From the Shore, Barclay and Mita continue to come up in artist conversations. Last year Te Uru commissioned a new work by Robert George entitled a memoir for falling light (2017). Barclay’s ideas of Hui as filmmaking and fourth cinema was a foundation for this new five channel work which was both communally-made and centered in an indigenous understanding of time and death. Elsewhere, Lisa Reihana would reference the idea of the camera on the shore in her work in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015) and Barry Barclay’s ideas of the camera in listener was a recurring reference in the research of Nova Paul. The concept of ‘the camera as a listener’ is particularly apparent in Nova’s recently commissioned films, Ko te ripo (2018), and Ko ahau te wai, ko te wai ko (2018), which have both been guided by her wānanga with her cousin, oral historian Dinah Paul.
Installation Shot, Nova Paul, Ko ahau te wai, ko te wai ko (2018). Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery (2018). Photo by Sam Hartnett.
The question for me is not if Merata Mita and Barry Barclay are still relevant — for some artists, they clearly are — but rather why. I want to turn to the words of documentary filmmaker Pita Turei, as recorded in Linda T’s commissioned documentary Merata Mita Memories (2018). Turei notes;
“Merata’s mentorship ran deeper than my colonisation. More than anyone else, she dragged me out of it. She became this anchor for our community because her way of thinking wasn’t colonised, so it became liberating in our conversations with each other to have an anchor who wasn’t colonised ... a voice that wasn’t measured by BBC standards.”(16)
I myself never met Barclay, nor Mita. My first encounter with them was through their writing. But I recall the clarity in their texts – a position that was nuanced but uncluttered, attentive not just to the colonisation of the camera, but moreover the ways it could be repurposed to work for indigenous people. While they looked back to criticise the past, they were both looking towards the future, and the potential of documentary to both honour indigenous content and guide indigenous makers. Barclay and Mita offer for us what they openly state they never had themselves; working models, teachers, a foothold to jump off from.
- Ioana Gordon Smith
This address was originally commissioned and presented by CIRCUIT at the 2018 Symposium The Time of the Now. For more texts and conversation around these artists, download our Symposium e-book here.
1 Merata Mita, The Soul and the Image, in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa, Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992 pp. 36-54.
2 Barry Barclay, Celebrating Fourth Cinema, Illusions, 2003, 35, pp. 7-11.
3 Barry Barclay, Our Own Image: A Story of a Māori Filmmaker, 1990, Auckland: Shaol Bay Press, p. 14.
4 Barry Barclay, Amongst landscapes, in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, ed. Johnathon Dennis and Jan Beiringa, Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington, 1992, p. 119.
5 Cushla Parekowhai, Korero Ki Taku Tuakana: Merata Mita and Me, Illusions, 1998.
6 Angela Moewaka Barnes, Ngā Kai Para i te Kahikātoa: Māori Filmmaking, Forging a Path, PhD diss., The University of Auckland, 2011, p. 93.
7 Barclay, 1990, p. 9.
8 Graeme Tuckett and Anne T. Keating, Barry Barclay: The Camera on the Shore, 2009
9 Barnes, p. 190.
10 Mita, 1992.
11 Barry, 2015, p. 18.
12 Mike Barrington, Film editing ‘betrays’ Tinopai’s brave stand, New Zealand Herald, 24 October 2011, https://www.nzherald.co.nz/northern-advocate/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503450&objectid=10941910
13 Peter Britos, A Conversation with Merata Mita, Spectator — the University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television, 23:1, 2003, pp. 53-62.
14 Tuckett and Keating, 2009
15 Barclay, 1992
16 Tuafale Tanoa’I [aka Linda T.], Merata Mita Memories, 2018