The New Zealand film industry chugs along. With public funding (Film Commission, TVNZ, NZ on Air) and international co-production it has turned out, on average, four or five features a year since the effective demise of the tax-shelter regime in 1985. After the loss of the big money the industry took some time to adjust: this was the period when film-makers were urged to emulate the American product in order to break into the international market. Results were predictable and dire: marginal success with hybrid scripts locating second-string Hollywood actors in New Zealand for no good reason (Shaker Run, Never Say Die), disaster with all-local low-budget violent action movies (Bridge to Nowhere, Queen City Rocker, Dangerous Orphans).
Presiding over an industry failing on both the commercial and artistic fronts, and with private investment almost totally drying up, the Film Commission was finally impelled to reverse its longstanding policy of not providing more than 50% of a film’s budget. This was a turning point, and within two years the first features of Barry Barclay (Ngati), Leon Narbey (Illustrious Energy) and Merata Mita (Mauri), revived hopes of a cinema contributing meaningfully to an indigenous culture. Not fully assured, and no great money-spinners, these works were nonetheless marked by artistic integrity and a curiosity about the local condition which set them far apart from the pseudo-Hollywood genre products which immediately preceded them.
In form these films drew on the European art film rather than American commercial cinema, a tradition initiated by directors such as Geoff Steven, Paul Maunder and Vincent Ward. With the subsequent successes of Ward’s The Navigator and Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, which proved that modestly budgeted art films of uncompromisingly New Zealand content and attitudes could achieve remarkable international acceptance, this trend has continued. The attempt to out-Hollywood Hollywood on a tenth of the budget (which in addition to the action movies had led to the over-glamourised Constance and Other Halves, the over-romanticised Sylvia) was now left well behind. Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (Martyn Sanderson), Ruby and Rata (Gaylene Preston), Te Rua (Barclay) and The End of the Golden Weather (Ian Mune), along with two films due for release in 1992, Crush (Alison Maclean) and The Footstep Man (Narbey) all share qualities of respectful observation, quiet humour and a leisurely rhythm at odds with the fast pace, gloss, violence, broad comedy and high melodramas of Hollywood. Significantly our only successful directors in the Hollywood style, Roger Donaldson and Geoff Murphy, now work there rather than here.
When Donaldson and Murphy left, a whole manner of picturing the Kiwi male went with them. The moody, wry, laconic figure played by Sam Neill in Sleeping Dogs, Kelly Johnson and Tony Barry in Goodbye Pork Pie, Bruno Lawrence in Smash Palace and The Quiet Earth, who had given the new cinema an idiosyncratic but powerful sense of masculine identity, proved to be only temporary icons. In the aftermath of the failed imitation-Hollywood movies a crisis of representation ensued, and Pakeha men virtually vanished from the centre of our screens. Even in Murphy’s last local effort, Never Say Die, the process had begun: the traditional road-movie heroes were displaced by a Maori journalist and his American woman partner. Maori central characters featured, too, in Ngati, Mauri, Ruby and Rata and Te Rua; female protagonists in Mauri, Send a Gorilla, Starlight Hotel, Ruby and Rata and An Angel At My Table. Leads made up a cosmopolitan bunch: Canadian (The Leading Edge). Chinese (Illustrious Energy), Samoan (Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree), Irish (The Grasscutter), Welsh (Old Scores ), Cumbrian The Navigator). For two years running the best performance-male in the film awards was won by a child; once it almost went to Danny Mulheron (in Meet the Feebles) playing a female hippopotamus.
With the Pakeha bloke no longer the dominant figure in our cinema (though attempting to stage a comeback, perhaps, in Chunuk Bair and End of the Golden Weather), the field has been opened to a bracing diversity not only in subject matter but in aesthetic approach. Familiar modes of storytelling have been shaken up now that women and Maori writers and directors have at last gained access to the medium. Neither the startling sensitivity and depth in the depiction of a woman’s life in Angel at my Table nor the non-hierarchical, gently humorous study of a Maori community in Ngati would have been thinkable in New Zealand film of a decade ago.
But there is a caveat. These last four films, like many others in the recent crop, are period pieces, ransacking the past of personal or national memory in their quest to speak authentically of what it’s like to live at this end of the world. Nor is this a passing phase: the flood of historical settings shows no sign of abating. Of the films currently in production or development, Braindead is set in the 1950s, Potiki covers a span of years following World War II, Absent Without Leave and Taking Liberties are set during the war, while Piano Lesson, Desperate Remedies and I Shall Not Die – Titokowaru‘s War are all 19th-century stories. Certainly some of these projects approach history to interrogate it, but there can be little doubt that the phenomenon as a whole represents an evasion, a turning away from a troubled present to a past whose conflicts are muted by distance. A vital cinema can’t be steeped in nostalgia, and my hope is that Crush, which is set in the present (and is the industry’s latest success in being accepted for the competition at Cannes), is the true sign of directions to come.
Russell Campbell is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Film at Victoria University of Wellington.