Film in Aotearoa New Zealand
Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (eds),
Victoria University Press, 1992, $49.95
University lecturers have become very aware of the price of new books, especially if they are likely to appear on set text or recommended reading lists. This collection of essays by film-makers and film policy makers is a very likely addition to courses on New Zealand film, but students (an even more pragmatic lot than lecturers) will probably grumble about the price. In comparison with imported equivalents it is still reasonable.
This book deserves wide circulation, and to speak to those other than the converted. There is rich material here, but like all collections from disparate sources it is a mixed bag. Jonathan Dennis’s Time-line is disappointing, especially if the book seeks an international market. There is too much taken for granted in the choice of notable events, with statements or statistics offered without further explanation or acknowledgement so that their meaning could be contestable. Better to have just listed the films and discarded the potted history.
The real strength in this collection is in the opportunity to hear the voices of the film-makers. Geoff Murphy is particularly candid about the 1970s renaissance in New Zealand film, and the sometimes murky financial dealings which followed. In a very personal way, he describes how a film such as Goodbye Pork Pie was as much a consequence of astute opportunism and risk-taking, as it was creative film-making. Murphy also points out that more people saw Goodbye Pork Pie on television than at any other venue. Gaylene Preston also comments, ‘you can put a film on the telly, that’s a good way for them to see it, if you can put up with the vagaries of scheduling’. These are rare moments when the often symbiotic relationship between film and television are acknowledged; for the rest, television is dismissed in familiar, carping terms, ignoring the reality that only a minority of New Zealanders now go to the cinema with any regularity and even fewer go to New Zealand-made films. As a consequence, Mary Varnham’s piece on television sits rather awkwardly in this collection because it fails to make these connections.
Given that film-going is now a minor leisure activity for most New Zealanders, some of the rhetoric about identity building may be self-deluding. This possibility is only really addressed by Murphy and Preston; the prevailing ethos in the other pieces is of film as ‘art’ or ‘alternative’. But it is in these two essays, and to a certain extent those of Merata Mita and Peter Wells, that interesting contradictions are introduced. The book would have been stronger if the editors had taken the opportunity to further develop the issues raised (arts vs commerce; disagreements over representation of race and gender) in a longer introductory chapter rather than assuming that there is general agreement on all matters concerning local film-making. We have moved on from the notion of a ‘New Zealand identity’ in local film; now we have a set of competing identities.
But despite these shortcomings there is much to treasure in this collection. Peter Wells’ essay is a lovely, involving exploration of both film-making and film-going. Jane Campion is very open and revealing about her motives in making films. She talks too about her formative years in New Zealand, even though Australians now claim her as their own. The interview with Vincent Ward is more of a teaser than a fully-fledged conversation but obviously his skill is communicating through images rather than words. But it would have been more satisfying to have had more on why he now finds it impossible to make his films here.
Barry Barclay and Merata Mita provide strong voices arguing for the special nature of Maori film-making in Aotearoa, while John O’Shea, the elder statesman of New Zealand film-making, adds his own touches. Roger Horrocks (art film) and Russell Campbell (documentaries) provide very competent appraisals of particular film forms, to round off a not-perfect but very welcome book.
Geoff Lealand is a lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Waikato.