New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Andrew Horton

James Rolleston in Taika Waititi's Boy

James Rolleston in Taika Waititi's Boy

Edited by Diane Pivac, Frank Stark, and Lawrence McDonald. Wellington, New Zealand: Te Papa Press. 2011. 347 pp. Illus. Hardcover. $85 New Zealand dollars. (available from the Press at www.tepapastore.co.nz)

FADE INA young Maori boy (James Rolleston) stands up in his New Zealand countryside elementary-school class in 1984 and makes up a wild tale of how his father, whom he’s never actually met, plans to take him to see the greatest singer in the world, Michael Jackson. This hilarious scene is the opening of the highest-grossing film in the history of New Zealand cinema, Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010). It’s certainly significant that a film with a focus on Maori culture became a popular hit, a fact that sharply contrasts with American cinema, where films that highlight the Native American experience rarely receive commercial distribution.

Cross-cut to New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History. It’s apropos that this new volume, edited by Diane Pivac, Frank Stark, and Lawrence McDonald, has now appeared and includes a timely discussion of Boy in its pages.

Of course, to mention “New Zealand Cinema” outside of New Zealand automatically brings to mind Peter Jackson and his three Lord of the Rings films—not to mention King Kong (2005) and, several Hobbit-related movies currently in production. But these are merely Hollywood films shot in New Zealand and their huge international grosses are not included in New Zealand’s “domestic cinema” box-office statistics. European and American filmgoers are of course familiar with art-house hits like Jane Campion’s The Piano(1993) and more mainstream movies such as Roger Donaldson’s The World’s Fastest Indian (2005), as well as powerful Maori-themed films that have reached millions throughout the world—Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994), Niki Caro’s Whale Rider (2002) and, of course, Waititi’s BoyWhat such a brief “outsiders’ view” would miss, of course, is the rich and diverse cinematic history this nation with a population of under five million has had since 1896.

New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History, which has just been published with strong support and input from the New Zealand Film Archive (currently celebrating its thirtieth anniversary), is an extremely comprehensive survey that discusses many of the films mentioned above alongside a host of other highlights from New Zealand’s little-known film industry. This book is a carefully edited collection of essays and commentary from twenty-five of the best film critics and historians in New Zealand, which also benefits from a diverse selection of photographs and other images from the film archive itself. The book will no doubt have appeal for both academic audiences and the general reader; thorough filmographies and bibliographies as well as an accompanying DVD with clips from 1896 to the present are particularly useful.

There are several previous studies of New Zealand’s film history. New Zealand Filmmakers, edited by Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray (Wayne State University Press, 2007), for example, includes twenty essays on specific filmmakers and topics, and Jonathan Dennis’s and Jan Bieringa’s Film In Aotearoa New Zealand (Victoria University Press, 1992) features useful interviews with filmmakers such as Jane Campion, Gaylene Preston, and John O’Shea. But this new volume is the most all-encompassing, and the DVD clips only enhance the pleasure readers can derive from the book. Although not a newcomer to New Zealand cinema, I appreciated the presence of clips I had not previously seen, such as footage from 1901 of the Royal Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York’s visit, a 1925 Bathing Beauty Contest, documentary coverage of the 1935 Napier-Hastings earthquake, the 1975 Maori protest march to the capital, and an emotionally powerful scene from Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983).

I should add that my close personal exposure to New Zealand cinema began in 1998 when I had the opportunity to teach at Victoria University in Wellington. I was compelled to return to New Zealand with my family after an initial visit with my wife in 1995. During that sojourn, we saw some notable films, especially Gaylene Preston’s War Stories (1995), a moving documentary, which revolves around seven women’s recollections of World War II. My time spent in Wellington allowed me not only to see many New Zealand films from the 1950s to the present, but also to meet many of the filmmakers, critics, and film archivists and thereby experience firsthand the very special spirit to the cinematic world Down Under, a milieu small enough that most of the important figures usually know each other. In a normal week, I would teach at Victoria University with documentary filmmaker and film-studies professor Russell Campbell one day, view films with filmmaker Costa Botes, the codirector of Forgotten Silver, the next, and then meet with Gaylene Preston to hear of progress on her latest projects.

Ian McKellen’s foreword is tinged with irony since he states that his initial familiarity with New Zealand filmmaking came with his viewing of Forgotten Silver (1995), a “mockumentary” about a “forgotten” New Zealand filmmaker who actually never existed! We are then treated to a concise and perceptive overview of New Zealand film history by Roger Horrocks, a leading New Zealand screenwriter and academic. How can you not be inspired to read the book when Horrocks’s opening line reads?: “When growing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, I was so crazy about films, as almost all New Zealanders were in those pre-television, pre-internet, pre-PlayStation days.” He captures the development of New Zealand cinema from that of a minor “colonial” activity to present-day Wellywood—the Peter Jackson phenomenon of bringing Wellington studios and Hollywood together not only as an industry but as a tourist attraction as well (yes, there are HOBBIT CROSSING signs playfully sprinkled around the country on highways!).

Horrocks accurately notes that, although New Zealand now has an active film commission, before it existed, “film-makers were seldom motivated by money: their main qualities were determination and ingenuity.” His overview convincingly argues that any discussion of New Zealand film history must cover short films, documentaries, and even home movies, since, as is the case in many countries, most of the films on view in cinemas are Hollywood imports. He goes on to discuss the work of filmmakers from the Fifties and Sixties such as John O’Shea; his film, Broken Barrier (1952), to invoke one seminal example, reflected the biracial, multicultural aspects of New Zealand culture. He also foregrounds the emergence of Roger Donaldson and Geoff Murphy as major figures in the Seventies and Eighties; Donaldson’s Sleeping Dogs (1977) and Murphy’s Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) were major commercial hits. This fine introductory chapter also covers the development of Maori cinema from the work of Merata Mita to films such as Once Were Warriors and Boy. Horrocks also adds a cogent section that explores the question of what constitutes a good New Zealand film. His answer embraces both box-office hits such as the Lord of the Rings and “art-house” fare and critical favorites such as Vincent Ward’s Vigil (1984) and Harry Sinclair’s The Price of Milk (2000). But he also salutes films that have achieved both box-office and critical success such as Once Were WarriorsThe Piano, and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994).

Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs

Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs

The eleven chapters that follow, five of which are written by the three coeditors, offer lively assessments of each decade of New Zealand cinema. For example, in Chapter Seven, “Waking From A Fretful Sleep: Film in the 1970’s,” Lawrence McDonald provides solid coverage of careers ranging from those of Sam Neil and Ian Mune to those of Sam Pillsbury and Barry Barclay, while also explaining the origins of the National Film Unit and New Zealand’s alternative cinema.

With luck, this lavish and informative book will help to introduce New Zealand’s vibrant, although frequently overlooked, cinema to a new generation of filmgoers.

Andrew Horton is the Jeanne H Smith Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of Oklahoma, an award winning screenwriter, and the author of twenty-four books on film, screenwriting and cultural studies.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.