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Leya Hale on the Legacy of the Late Māori Filmmaker Merata Mita

2020 Merata Mita Fellow Leya Hale speaks at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. ©2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jen Fairchild

Leya Hale

In January during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, director and producer Leya Hale (Dakota/Diné) was announced as the recipient of this year’s Merata Mita Fellowship. Named in honor of the late Māori filmmaker and longtime artistic director of the Institute’s Native Lab, the fellowship cultivates a stage for Indigenous women worldwide to tell their stories and offers a year-long continuum of support, mentorship, and a trip to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Applications for the 2021 Merata Mita Fellowship are now open; submit your materials by October 26. Below, hear what Hale had to say during the 2020 Festival.


My name is Leya Hale. On my maternal side of my family, I come from the Sisseton/Wahpeton Dakota people, and on my paternal side, I come from the Diné Nation. I was born and raised in the Los Angeles American Indian community, and I now make my home in St. Paul, Minnesota, with my companion and three children.

When I say my home, it means a lot to me because it’s the original homeland of the Dakota people — and I’m just truly thankful to the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program. I can’t express what an honor and privilege it is to receive this special fellowship in honor of an extraordinary woman and filmmaker, Merata Mita.

I unfortunately never had the honor and pleasure of meeting Merata, but I truly believe that we are all blessed by the teachings, knowledge, and wisdom that she has left for all of us to follow in her footsteps. I must have watched her son’s documentary that premiered last year, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, at least 15 times.

Every time I watched it, I found something new and inspiring that she said. One of the sound bites that really resonated with me was when someone asked her, “Why don’t you make nice films?” Her response was, “I can’t make nice films because they’re doing ugly things to my people.”

Those words really meant a lot to me. Sometimes, as a filmmaker, we have to tell hard stories. So her words comfort me and give me strength to tell some of these tough stories that are happening in our communities. The project that I’m currently working on is titled Bring Her Home, and it’s a documentary that I hope will bring healing to the communities that are currently suffering from the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic.

Sometimes I doubt myself — if I’m the right person to tell this story. Then I think of all the people who are supporting me — the communities I come from — and I’m so thankful to the women who are entrusting me to tell their story in an authentic, nuanced way.

And I want to say I’m so thankful to the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program: Ever since I was introduced to them, they’ve helped me, and I now feel like I’m a part of a really strong Native community of filmmakers, and with that strength I’m able to tell the stories that are meaningful that need to be told from a Native perspective.

I would just like to thank the Indigenous Program for believing in me and providing me with opportunities such as this special fellowship, and most importantly, I want to thank them for keeping Merata Mita’s spirit and legacy alive


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