A Magnificent Salvage: Mana Waka

Film Festivals, FILM,

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Acknowledging Merata Mita’s contribution to the nation’s film heritage.

Immediately following the New Zealand Film Archive’s presentation of Mana Waka, an audience member remarked that a waka would finally be making its way to Wellington, given the recent kafuffle on the waterfront. He congratulated the filmmakers, in part for demonstrating the significance of waka to Maori (something that gets lost in the media after an easy Maori-bashing story), and the sheer hard work and complexity in the construction process. And those present at the rare screening wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt his words. The late Merata Mita’s brilliant documentary, which salvages seminal 1930s footage of an ambitious waka project, received a makeover for the New Zealand International Film Festival, and remains an incredibly vital piece of filmmaking in New Zealand’s history.

Arguably, Mita’s importance has been grossly understated by commentators (including myself in other articles on ‘indigenous’ filmmakers). Mana Waka was an unlikely documentary—the footage itself came from the 1930s, when Princess Te Puea Herangi for the Treaty of Waitangi Centenary commemorations commissioned the building of seven waka. The film then languished in the basement of cameraman RGH Manley after the project didn’t quite deliver on target. The footage was only saved from destruction by Manley’s daughter, and in a piece of underappreciated foresight (Jonathan Dennis unfortunately lost his job due to his support of the film), the Film Archive decided to turn it into a documentary. Merata Mita was commissioned, and she and Annie Collins assembled the film at Turangawaewae Marae in the late 1980s, before its premiere a the Commonwealth Games Arts Festival in 1990.

The end result: an extremely fascinating document. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Some footage went missing, and filming in the 1930s ran out of funds, which invariably meant there were gaps. Given these hurdles, the narrative is a little disjointed. Mita, though, was undaunted, and her film pays tribute to the mastery of waka carvers; captures a society on the brink of entering the Second World War and in the throes of the Depression; and acknowledges the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Mana Waka’s construction was itself hard labour, in part mirroring the sheer effort we witness in the rescued footage. Almost all of the footage lacked sound, so the filmmakers had to create a soundscape. It was also jumbled, making it hard to differentiate between the various waka half a century later. Finally, with many of the participants now dead, second-guessing the filmmakers’ original intent became even more of a challenge.

As a depiction of the process, it’s enthralling. The waka are the characters—not any recognisable human being—and watching one glide through the water is spine-tingling stuff. From an ethnographic or social point of view, it’s impossible to overstate its significance in New Zealand cinema—few images have such power from so early on in the country’s film history. And as a cultural artefact, we as a nation are pretty starved of such a narrative. While the key figures of Mita, Dennis, and Manley aren’t alive to see it in its new resplendent print, let alone many of the people who were documented at work and play, Mana Waka feels as alive as cinema can be.

‘Mana Waka’, Dir. Merata Mita
NZ, 1937; 85 minutes
In Maori and English
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.