Story: Hayward, Ramai Rongomaitara

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Hayward, Ramai Rongomaitara

1916–2014

Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tahu; photographer, actor, director

This biography, written by Deborah Shepard, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

Ramai Hayward was a pioneering documentary and feature film-maker. She trained as a photographer in the mid-1930s and had established her own studio in Auckland when she starred in Rudall Hayward’s landmark film Rewi’s last stand (1940). This was the beginning of a 34-year film-making partnership with Hayward. Ramai was the driving force behind a series of educational films in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the first western film-makers to visit Communist China. Some of her films explored Māori society and highlighted discrimination against Māori. As a Māori woman, she was a doubly unique figure in an industry dominated by Pākehā men.

Early life

By her own account, Ramai Rongomaitara Te Miha was born at Pirinoa in Wairarapa on 16 November 1916, though some sources suggest she was born a year earlier. She was the daughter of Roihi Te Miha of Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāi Tahu, and Frederick William Mawhiney, a farmer of Irish descent. The couple had a second daughter, Wikitoria (Vicky), born on 6 August 1917, two months before Frederick was killed in action in Belgium on 13 October 1917.

Roihi Te Miha married soldier James (Jim) Miller in December 1917 and moved to Christchurch, where she had five more children. Ramai spent some of her early years in Canterbury and some with her grandmother Huria Te Miha in Martinborough, moving in with her great-grandfather Hemi Te Miha at Pirinoa at the age of six. She was fluent in te reo Māori, although she was forbidden from speaking it at Pirinoa School. On her grandmother’s death towards the end of the 1920s, she returned to Christchurch and attended New Brighton School with her siblings. As the only Māori pupils at the school their experience was blighted by further racism, poverty and hunger.

Ramai, then known as Patricia Miller, was an intelligent pupil. At New Brighton she performed in A midsummer night’s dream and, significantly for her future career path, she was mentored by a neighbour, the author Mona Tracy, who introduced Ramai to the world of books and persuaded the family to send their clever daughter to Queen Victoria College for Maori Girls in Auckland. During that year Ramai thrived artistically, not only starring in The merchant of Venice but painting the Italian garden backdrop as well. Called home to help her ailing mother, she spent two years at Christchurch West High School (now Hagley College). There she acquired the dressmaking and design skills she later utilised in the creation of her stylish wardrobe.

Training in photography

In 1935 Ramai moved to Wellington, where she was apprenticed to photographer Henri Harrison for two years. At his Cuba Studio she received a comprehensive training in all aspects of photography: lighting, developing, retouching and hand-tinting black and white photos. At the same time she attended night classes in art and photography at Wellington Technical College and became a competent painter, a talent she later channelled into set designs for Hayward Films, graphics for their film posters, and educational teaching notes. She also joined the Ngati Poneke Young Māori Club and learnt waiata and haka from Āpirana Ngata, which reinforced her pride in her Māoritanga.

In 1937 or 1938 Ramai moved to Auckland, where she used a small inheritance to open a photography business, the Patricia Miller Studio, in Devonport. The studio thrived through the war years; many of her clientele were British and American officers from the nearby naval base. In 1940 she opened a second studio in Queen Street, and by 1946 she had eight staff on her payroll.

Rewi’s last stand and marriage

Ramai met pioneer New Zealand film-maker Rudall Hayward in 1938, when she auditioned for the female lead in his film Rewi’s last stand (1940). Her casting as Ariana was her lucky break, although she always maintained that she owed her success to a combination of hard work and ‘destiny’.1 With her many talents and her eye-catching beauty, Ramai – billed as Ramai Te Miha rather than Patricia Miller – was ideal for the role. The film was well received and attracted an international sale to the United Kingdom, Rudall’s first. A review compared Ramai to Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour, predicting: ‘Given a chance she will make a name for herself in films’.2 Ramai did make a name for herself, but not as an actor: instead, she became the film-maker directing the action from behind the camera.

Ramai and Rudall Hayward were married in the Auckland registry office on 29 November 1943, seven days after Rudall’s divorce from his first wife. This marked the end of Rudall’s creative partnership with Hilda Hayward, a collaborator on his early films, and the beginning of a productive and creative partnership with Ramai. The marriage also enabled Ramai to gain custody of her younger siblings, Hera, Rangimarie and Tahi, who had been in foster care since their mother’s death in 1935.

London and Australia

The 1940s was a lean period in New Zealand film-making and thus, in 1946, Ramai sold both her photographic studios to fund the couple’s travel to London to seek their fortune in a bigger market. Rudall, who had one of the few portable sound cameras, was immediately in demand for newsreel and documentary assignments for the BBC. Ramai initially assisted him by operating cameras and doing voice-overs, but she was soon proficient in all aspects of film-making and acted as his creative partner. They also shot two features, The Goodwin Sands (1948) for Warner Brothers and A Yank comes back (1949), and were involved in an unfinished documentary on race relations. This experience planted a seed in Ramai’s mind for future film projects in celebration of Māori.

The couple would have remained in London, where job prospects appeared limitless, but were called home in 1950 to arrange care for Rudall’s ailing mother. They then headed to Australia, where they spent three years working on less commercially successful projects before returning permanently to Auckland. In 1954 Ramai used an inheritance to purchase a nine-roomed Victorian villa at 55 Esplanade Road, Mount Eden, which they converted into a film studio with a darkroom, editing suite and theatrette. It was to be their production base for 13 happy years.

Ramai as film-maker

The creation of the film studio in Mount Eden provided Ramai with the ideal conditions, a ‘room of one’s own’, in which to develop her film career. Very soon she spied an opportunity to make her first film. In 1956 the couple were invited by their friend, the poet R.A.K. Mason, on a three-month tour of China under the auspices of the Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. They were one of the first film crews from the outside world to gain access following the communist revolution and the closing of China’s borders in 1949. On that trip Ramai made history when Rudall filmed her wearing a piupiu and presenting a korowai to Mao Zedong, a gift from King Korokī and the Māori of New Zealand. ‘We are the smallest nation in the world, giving this gift to the largest’, she told the Chinese leader, who replied, ‘The smallest is as great as the largest.’3

In China they shot the documentaries Inside Red China and Wonders of China together, and Ramai made her first educational documentary, Children in China (1961), which attracted an international audience for its glimpse into family life in a closed society. In preparation for the trip Ramai had purchased her first movie camera and discussed the new educational documentary format, its content, style and structure, with Walter Harris at the National Film Unit library. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful association with the Unit. It also ushered in a period of greater financial security for the couple. The timing of Ramai’s foray into educational film-making coincided with the ascendance of the genre worldwide, which gave the Haywards access to the international market and subsequent sales to the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, West Germany, Belgium, Italy and Australia.

Between 1960 and 1971 Ramai made 12 more educational films, each of them demonstrating her ability to seek out engaging subject matter. The content was further enlivened and informed by a combination of expert input and commentary, entertaining footage that frequently involved children, and occasional dramatised sequences illustrating events from history. The majority of the films focused on aspects of New Zealand society and culture. Three highlighted aspects of rural life: The little shepherdesses (1960), about high-country sheep farming; A North Island dairy farm (1964); and Alpine shepherds of New Zealand (1967), about Mesopotamia Station in Canterbury. Two more focused on New Zealand fauna: Eel history was a mystery (1968), on the life cycle of the eel, with dramatic scenes of Ramai's Māori aunt smoking eels at Kaitorete Spit, the finger of land between Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere and the Pacific Ocean; and This living fossil: the tuatara (1963), about Poor Knights Islands and its famous endemic reptile. A village in Samoa (1964) and A French family in New Caledonia (1967) explored life in the Pacific, while The young Albanians (1972) examined modern Albanian society. Playing safe in small boats (1963) provided water-safety advice.

Throughout her film career Ramai sought to bring Māori into the frame, to celebrate aspects of Māoritanga and to raise awareness of discrimination and the impact of racism. Several of her films focused on Māori specifically: Eel history was a mystery, Arts of Maori children (1962), English language teaching for Maori and Island children (1971), and Matenga: Maori choreographer (1972), produced by Ramai and directed by Arthur Thompson.

The feature film To love a Maori (1972) emerged from Ramai’s work on a Māori youth employment scheme at Auckland Technical Institute. The film, in which she also acted, was her most autobiographical project. In portraying the obstacles facing Māori when they married Pākehā, she was dramatising her own struggle for acceptance and recognition in a white, male-dominated society. These critiques of societal discrimination along with the revaluing of Māori arts, crafts and culture positioned her as part of a new developing tradition propelled by her Māori creative artist peers Barry Barclay, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Selwyn Muru, Don Selwyn and Jacquie Sturm.

A pioneering figure

As a Māori woman film-maker active during a ruggedly masculinist era of New Zealand film-making, Ramai Hayward was doubly discriminated against. Her design for the Hayward film logo, featuring the pair in profile with Rudall holding the camera and Ramai in her signature headscarf in the foreground, symbolises her own internalisation of the gender bias and her ongoing struggle for recognition. Along with that of her peers, the film directors Margaret Thomson and Kathleen O’Brien, her contribution was often marginalised and diminished in the media and subsequent historical records. In 1970 a journalist described Ramai as Rudall’s ‘indispensable assistant.’ A more accurate representation of their partnership is to view them as collaborators on each other’s films, filling interchangeable roles that, as Rudall aged, were increasingly performed by Ramai. Rudall’s assessment in a 1970 New Zealand Listener interview provides the most reliable estimation of her contribution. Referring to the making of Children of China, he said: ‘She has been behind a camera since then … We have worked together as partners for the last twelve years making the educational films she started.’4

Later years

Rudall Hayward died from a heart condition on 29 May 1974, while touring to promote To love a Maori. This marked the conclusion of a dynamic and important film partnership, and the end of Ramai’s career as a film-maker. She shifted her attention to Māori land campaigns in Wairarapa, where she had grown up. She was a long-serving member of the Maori Women’s Welfare League and president of the Maori Artists and Writers Association for five years.

She also performed small roles in television and film, including The Billy T James show, the Front Lawn film Linda’s body (1990), and as the kuia in Roimata: E tipu e rea (1989), directed by Riwia Brown. In the same year she was the subject of a Koha documentary, ‘Ramai: ray of light’, which reveals her shimmering vitality, resourcefulness and sharp intelligence. At this time she was working on an autobiography, just one chapter of which she deposited in the New Zealand Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision) in 2006. There, in keeping with the Māori custom of acknowledging whakapapa, Ramai focused her account of her life, much abbreviated, on an early and significant relationship with a favourite cousin, Mihi Te Whaiti.

In 2005 Ramai received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Māori film-making at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival, and in 2006 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Ramai Hayward died on 3 July 2014, aged 97, at Forrest Hill Home and Hospital on Auckland’s North Shore.

Footnotes:
  1. Ramai Hayward. Interview by Deborah Shepard, 5 May 1990. Transcript, pp.33-34. Nga Taonga Sound & Vision. Back
  2. 'A new look at Rewi', New Zealand Listener, 3 April 1970, p.9. Back
  3. Tom Newnham, New Zealand women in China. Auckland, 1995, p.98. Back
  4. New Zealand Listener, p.9. Back
How to cite this page:

Deborah Shepard. 'Hayward, Ramai Rongomaitara', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6h2/hayward-ramai-rongomaitara (accessed 18 November 2019)