Framing ourselves, Sean Redmond

A Coming of Age: Thirty Years of New Zealand Film
Duncan Petrie and Duncan Stuart
Random House, $44.99,
ISBN 9781869790196

Images of Dignity: Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema
Stuart Murray
Huia, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869693282

The two books under review provide a startling contrast in the ways a national cinema can be imagined, represented, and contested. Petrie’s and Stuart’s beautifully produced, largely contemporary history of New Zealand film heralds its artistry, ability to foster cultural cohesion, and international translatability. By contrast, Murray finds in the poetry and politics of Barry Barclay’s film work the call to resist and reappropriate the very notion of what can and should constitute a national cinema in a postcolonial world – in a contemporary New Zealand – where racial difference and power inequalities still split the soul of the nation.

A Coming of Age: Thirty Years of New Zealand Film maps the establishment and development of the New Zealand film industry from 1977 onwards, locating Sleeping Dogs (Donaldson, 1977) as the breakthrough feature film that led to greater investment, better organisational structures, and more imaginative or accomplished storytelling. The book is divided into six themed chapters that explore the industrial, formal, aesthetic and cultural qualities of filmmaking. There are two further sections, the first including interviews with key filmmakers, and the second supplying production details for 30 iconic New Zealand films. Uniquely, the book provides responses from “ordinary” film-going New Zealanders, “to assess the broad sweep of local movies in a bid to pinpoint how we see ourselves reflected in cinema and to identify just what gives New Zealand films their distinctiveness.” What emerges from such responses is an often fascinating account of identity, belonging, and the complex relationship between film, reception context, and viewer. Exploring these accounts, for example, Petrie and Stuart point to the “shock of recognition” as a particular New Zealand trait. The book suggests that to hear a Kiwi accent and to see one’s local town on screen for the first time, or to have the eye of the camera move over the contours of the land that one has been born into, has provided and still provides many people with a reflective sense of individual, local and national identification and pride.

In terms of the distinctiveness of New Zealand films, A Coming of Age suggests that Kiwi humour, authenticity, inventiveness, artistry, and a mood of darkness define the films that are made here. For example, Kiwi humour is understood to be not only an aesthetic device but one that has a cultural dimension: “Pakeha humour is more laconic, Pasifica humour is more openly funny. Because it is Kiwi, it gives us ownership of our movies.” The responses that one finds in the book are themselves laced with this playfulness, so in what becomes a potent circular relationship, Kiwi humour emerges out of the pages of the book as much as the screen examples drawn upon.

Nonetheless, there are problems with the way New Zealand filmmaking is framed. The book reproduces a rather clichéd and reductive sense of what can be profitably thought of as a national cinema, and it ignores or glosses over the contests and collisions that exist between art and mainstream film, digital and guerrilla filmmakers and funding bodies, and Pakeha and Maori filmmaking. For example, Whale Rider (Caro, 2002) is particularly praised for its authenticity and creative artistry; no mention is made of the criticism made by filmmakers such as Barry Barclay, who lamented and lambasted the film’s stereotypical representations of Maori culture.

A Coming of Age is a coffee-table book for ordinary New Zealanders to feel good about their cinema, and their images on screen. It stories the history of New Zealand film so that it often resembles a heroic, mythic journey through which its people find their place in the world. This is not a bad thing per se, but the book could have better cultivated its sense of cinema so that rather than a utopian “coming of age” rejoicing, more of the battle and more of the continuing struggle that is filmmaking in New Zealand was aired.

If one wants to understand the struggle that is filmmaking in New Zealand, particularly for marginalised, indigenous filmmakers, then Images of Dignity: Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema is a wonderfully insightful and sometimes moving account of Barclay’s radical and rebellious cinematic eye. The book is theoretical in tone, and driven by the close textual analysis of Barclay’s major documentary and fiction works, including the six-part television documentary series Tangata Whenua (1974), the documentary feature The Neglected Miracle (1985), and his two feature films Ngati (1987) and Te Rua (1992). Images of Dignity is largely an auteurist study, with Barclay identified as the visionary film director whose films display common themes and stylistic touches, all of which can be unearthed or excavated through the deep reading of the light, setting, images, sounds, stories, and structuring oppositions found across his oeuvre. However, the book more broadly considers his work in relation to what counts as indigenous or Fourth Cinema, Barclay’s activism and wider involvement in community and national politics, and it is very usefully connected to Maori identity and community, law and governance. As Murray suggests, “the films he made carry the full sense of New Zealand as a multiple and complex culture”.

The book begins with a critical introduction to Fourth Cinema, a term that Barclay coined to better define and foreground the films that emerge from indigenous artists in (largely) post-colonial nation states. Fourth Cinema “constitutes an intervention into the debates of cultural authenticity and commodification that surround the contemporary presence of Indigenous peoples in a globalised world.” Murray suggests that for Barclay “community traditions and protocols” are at the centre of his work although these are not to be seen as essentialised or static formations but “occasions” for gathering and belonging, and for multiplicities in identification in the “live” spaces where the film text greets the viewer. Barclay, we learn, was ever mindful of the tourist gaze that reduced Maori culture to exotic objects of interest, and of laying claim to an identity as if it were frozen in time. Identity is always a matter-of-becoming, something to be struggled over, respectfully observed and negotiated, shared and reciprocated. Barclay’s films speak to the Maori people they are focused upon, and they speak back, in dynamic streams of engagement and identification. For Barclay a film is a hui or a glorious “gathering on film”.

In the chapters that examine the films closely, Murray skilfully identifies a number of recurring themes and stylistic traits in Barclay’s oeuvre. For example, there is the signalling of religion and transcendence, particularly through images that look beyond themselves, reaching beyond the story in question: the final images to the fifth episode of Tangata Whenua, for example, in which “the new marae buildings being moved into place, signal regeneration and hope, the reactivation of cultural traditions possibly thought lost.” Murray’s examination of Barclay’s documentary work is particularly insightful. He emerges as an activist and mediator, interested in the talk of his subjects, in finding them “on their own terms” so that they appear as empowered and self-defining communities. In summation, Images of Dignity is a richly rewarding study of one of New Zealand’s most important filmmakers, recently deceased, but whose conversations reverberate in the folds and flows of cinema time, as they do in this valuable new book.

 

Sean Redmond teaches film studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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