Sundance officially wraps up on Sunday, but we’ve already seen a host of buzzy attention-grabbers. Think Mindy Kaling’s theatrical screenwriting debut, a buzzed-about study of gentrification in San Francisco, and the Netflix-bound re-teaming between Jake Gyllenhaal and Dan Gilroy. But one of the most fascinating ripples among so many big-name splashes is the Merata Mita Fellowship, awarded annually during the festival by the Sundance Institute to honor and support indigenous artists in film. This year, the institute awarded two Māori filmmakers, producer Ainsley Gardiner and writer/filmmaker Briar Grace-Smith.
Ainsley, of Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, and Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui descent, is a veteran producer who already sports some notable credits in her filmography, such as Eagle Vs Shark and Boy, the directorial debut and follow-up of Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok).
Briar is less well-known outside her native New Zealand, but she’s amassed numerous writing credits for television, stage, and film—both short and feature—and also landed a New Zealand Writers Guild Award in 2010 for her feature The Strength of Water, which Briar developed at the Sundance Institute Screenwriters lab. Ainsley and Briar recently collaborated together on Waru (2017), a celebrated anthology film that unites into a single narrative. Ainsley produced, and Briar was one of eight female Māori directors who contributed a sequence to the film.
The fellowship is named in honor of Merata Mita, the first indigenous woman to make a film in New Zealand. She was the artistic director and an adviser at the Sundance Institute Native Lab from 2000 to 2009. A new documentary about Merata premiered at this year’s festival.
“Now in its fourth consecutive award year, this special Fellowship pays tribute to the immense artistic contributions and memory of our beloved colleague and friend Merata Mita, who was an activist, documentarian and the first and only Māori woman to write and direct a dramatic feature,” says N. Bird Runningwater, director of the Sundance Institute’s program to support indigenous artists, in a release. “The Merata Mita Fellowship reflects Sundance Institute’s ongoing commitment to supporting Indigenous artists around the world. The selection of Ainsley and Briar as the 2019 recipients exemplifies the creative work and the efforts that Merata championed throughout her life.”
Past fellowship winners include Amie Batalibasi, of the Feralimae and Kosi tribes, who has mentored young filmmakers, produced several short films of debut filmmakers, and is developing a feature-length adaptation of her award-winning short film, Blackbird, inspired by the under-told story of sugar slaves in Australia, and Vancouver- and Norway-based actor and director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, of the Blackfoot and Sámi people, whose works included the 2011 abstract short film Blood Land, about Canadian fracking practices.