Cinema Scholar Leah Vonderheide Receives NEH Grant

May 22, 2020

Amanda Nagy

Woman smiling.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies Leah Vonderheide has received a summer stipend award from the National Endowment of Humanities.
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies Leah Vonderheide has received a $6,000 summer stipend grant from the National Endowment of Humanities (NEH) that will support her research and manuscript on the works of Māori filmmaker Merata Mita.

Merata Mita was a leader in the film and television industry of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) for more than three decades.

“There is currently no book dedicated to the works of Merata Mita, despite her being hailed as the first and only Māori woman to write and direct a dramatic feature film—and despite a chorus of indigenous film artists such as Taika Waititi, along with recent recipients of the Sundance Institute’s Merata Mita Fellowship, who attest to Mita’s invaluable impact on their work and careers,” says Vonderheide. She first learned of Mita when she was studying at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she received a master’s in theatre and film studies in 2009. 

In 2019, with the support of the H.H. Powers Travel Grant from Oberlin, Vonderheide went to New Zealand to conduct initial research on the “feminist fourth cinema” in Wellington and Canberra, and she recognized the need for a comprehensive study of Mita’s contributions.

Vonderheide’s book project considers Mita’s body of work in its entirety, revisiting her groundbreaking documentaries such as Bastion Point—Day 507 (1980), Patu! (1983), and Mana Waka (1990), and connecting the filmmaker’s cinema to her later works on self-determination and social justice, as well as offering in-depth analysis of her sole dramatic feature film, Mauri (1988). Exploring Mita’s myriad on-screen roles alongside her early collaborative projects, the study also considers why, and demonstrates how, some of Mita’s foundational contributions to the global cinema of indigenous peoples—deemed the “fourth cinema” by fellow Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay—are overlooked.  

Vonderheide explains that Mita’s entry into filmmaking is intimately connected to the global feminist movement of the 1970s. 

“Rejecting the conventional lifestyle of many Polynesian women of her generation, Mita chose instead to embrace the ‘women’s work’ of the film industry, leading to a career filming and documenting landmark moments of protest and resistance in Aotearoa New Zealand. I am honestly in awe of her legacy, and I consider it an honor to be able to amplify her work and contributions to a global indigenous cinema.”

Vonderheide says the recognition and support from the NEH for her project will not only allow her to complete significant writing on her manuscript this summer, but it also draws attention to the importance of intersectional and decolonized approaches to film and media analysis informed by critical race, gender, and feminist studies. “The entire project is made stronger with the NEH summer stipend.”

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