7 June 1970 – 7 May 2013
On Saturday 11 May 2013 at Takaparawha Marae, Ōrakei, Melissa’s final call sheet was published and she was laid to rest at the Urupa, Okahu Bay, Auckland. With over 500 gathered to farewell her; she is survived by partner Neil James and their whānau, Manaia and Waka. For all of us present on the cloudless sunny day it was a bittersweet occasion. Melissa was too young, talented and had just begun a new pathway in Rongoa Māori, convinced that this was the answer to her cancer. We mourn her passing and yet are grateful for the time we were lucky enough to spend with her, our colleague, our friend, and our sister, our beloved Mel.
Melissa in her short 42 years had attained her dream professional and personal life goals. She lived with her darling partner Neil on his papakainga in Ōrakei, their sons Manaia and Waka were doing well at school and their extended whānau rejoiced in their success.
In her professional life, Melissa was a programme Commissioner at Māori Television (MTS). A powerful position in NZ broadcasting (there being only 12 in total across all national channels) that her colleagues also held her in high regard was a rarity. This was due to her experience and expertise in all facets of production and also to her quiet, calm, practical approach. Melissa was universally liked, no mean feat in the fiercely competitive screen production sector.
Raised by her Mum Marion and step Dad, Tuia Brell, Melissa lived in a close knit and extended whānau household. It included five uncles and four generations, and as the oldest mokopuna, it was natural that Melissa after doing a rare media studies option upon graduation from Penrose High in 1987, gravitated towards a Māori focused film pathway.
1987 was a critical time in Māori screen production Ngati directed by Barry Barclay starring Wi Kuki Kaa and associate-produced and written by Tama Poata with John O’Shea had become the first NZ feature directed, written, produced and starring Māori to be selected for International Critics’ Week at Cannes Film Festival. This success enabled funding be made available for training young Māori in film & television careers, including Don Selwyns’ He Taonga i Tawhiti course that Melissa entered in 1988.
He Taonga I Tāwhiti was run at Waiatarau Marae, Freemans Bay in Auckland. It was a six-month course funded by the then Māori Affairs (now Te Puni Kōkiri) Tu Tangata programme. Her classmates of the time have said theirs was the third six-month intake. Don, a founding member of NZ Māori Theatre trust and also a trained primary school teacher had made the switch to acting and was already a household name on NZ screens (TV – Pukemanu, Mortimers Patch; Film – Sleeping Dogs ). Don used all his contacts to get the best working film & television makers of the time for his trainees, some of these tutors included the legendary Dick Reade (Sound).
Melissa was one of only two women in her class of 10 trainees that included Dell Raerino, Lee Allison, Ted Koopu. After completing her training, at 18 years of age she landed her first three-month job on a feature film in Wellington, working as Continuity or Script Supervisor. This is a ‘self-charge’ position that demands an eye for minute detail and the ability to work closely with crew. From that first film, she worked hard to excel in that position, freelancing in mainstream and the fledging Māori film and television industry for ten years. She trained many of the current NZ continuity workers and before she was 30 years old, told me she had worked with 100 different directors.
At the same time as Melissa was starting her career, Don Selwyn encouraged all his trainees to engage in Māori film and television hui that Te Manu Aute were organising. Melissa attended the 1988 Te Manu Aute Hui at Hoani Waititi Marae in Auckland, and met Karen Sidney and Kara Paewai. These three were to become influential partners in later projects.
In 1989 Melissa was appointed to Te Ara Whakaata the first and only Māori film and television committee of Te Waka Toi, former Māori arm of Creative New Zealand. Her fellow committee members included Gabrielle Huria Wi Kuki Kaa, Anne Keating, Kara Paewai and Whetu Fala.
In their short 12 month existence the committee published three issues about Māori films and filmmakers in the Te Ara Whakaata magazine edited by Karen and Gabrielle and ran a national Māori film and television hui at Turangawaewae Marae, Ngāruawahia.
Melissa volunteered in Auckland and Karen in Wellington as the secretaries for Te Manu Aute and when Karen moved to Auckland in the late 80’s Kara Paewai took over in Wellington.
In 1993 Melissa and Kara published a world first – The Brown Pages a directory of Māori film & television crew. This is now an online directory that is edited by Iuelia Leilua.
1993 Te Manu Aute Production Managers’ Course run by Jane Gilbert at Pacific Films, Wellington NZ L – R Helen Morris, Karen Sidney, Melissa Wikaire, Sharon Hawke, Christina Asher, Kara Paewai, Ruhia Edna Stirling, Jane Gilbert.
In 1994 Melissa travelled to Dreamspeakers Festival Canada with writer Karen Sidney to screen and present the Don Selwyn drama ‘Kahu & Maia’ starring Cliff Curtis and Vanessa Rare . It won the top film award for Karen and earned Melissa the title of ‘Iniskimaki – Buffalo Stone Woman’ gifted to her by elder Joe Croweshoe, of the Blackfoot Peigan people.
In 1996 Melissa co-founded with Kara Paewai, Ella Henry and others,Ngå Aho Whakaari – Måori in Film and Television Melissa served as the secretary for the Executive till 1999 when she was appointed to the Short Film Fund of Creative NZ co-financed by NZ Film Commission. Her fellow committee members included, Sima Urale.
In 2000 Melissa stepped down from the Ngā Aho Whakaari executive and was selected to represent Māori filmmakers at the South Pacific Festival of the Arts in Noumea, New Caledonia. Melissa and Ella raised the funds and organised the screening programme they called ‘Wāhine Whitiwhiti Ahua ki Kanaky.’ Filmmakers that attended included Karen Sidney and Ruhia Edna Stirling. Screenings were held in the festival village next to the Māori moko stall and also in the art gallery.
In 2001 Melissa co-produced the ‘Aroha Māori language 6 part half hour drama series. This series screened to critical acclaim in the 2002 NZ International Film Festival, Dreamspeakers Canada, Hawaii Film Festival, Message Sticks Australia and won Best Drama at ImagiNative film festival in Toronto, Canada. Also that year, Melissa was selected along with Lisa Reihana to represent Māori filmmakers and screen their work at the FESTIVAL DE CINÉMA DE DOUARNENEZ in France.
In 2006 she joined Māori Television where she produced several popular in-house series and trained a new generation of Māori broadcasters, before becoming a programme Commissioner.
Her 500 production credits include crewing on television 1989 E Tipu e Rea (First Māori drama series), feature film 1993 Once Were Warriors, second television Måori drama series 1993 Ngā Puna series, television 1995 Xena Warrior Princess, first Måori language feature film 2002 Te Tangata Whai Rawa a Weneti – Måori Merchant of Venice 2006 Māori Television series Tau ke and 2012 Songs from the Inside.
Hoki ki ō matua tupuna, kua wheturangitia koe! Haere e hine, haere atu rā!