Frame by frame, Paul Wolffram

New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History
Diane Pivac (ed) with Frank Stark and Lawrence McDonald
Te Papa Press, $85.00,
ISBN 9781877385667


It is rare to find a non-fiction book that offers such a fascinating and comprehensive view of its subject. New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History is a substantial volume with many stunning plates and a DVD containing extracts from more than 50 major New Zealand films. It is the first attempt at a wide-ranging history of New Zealand film, covering 115 years of cinema. Beginning with the first ventures into film in the 1890s, the book examines all the major works and trends across the decades to 2010. The contributors include 24 leading film writers, historians, practitioners and industry associates. The arrangement of the chapters, in a chronological sequence across decades, with inserted single-page asides that detail events, film makers, actors and particular films, is an easy and logical arrangement for the reader. As Frank Stark acknowledges in his preface, the book is timely, with Nga Kaitiaki O Nga Taonga Whitiahua The Film Archive celebrating 30 years. Without the archive, the majority of films to which the book refers would no longer exist.

The foreword by Sir Ian McKellen provides the perspective of an outsider looking in on a history and industry of film production that is perceived as quite remarkable and worthy of this detailed and carefully documented book. While McKellen’s involvement in New Zealand’s film-making is strongly linked with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, he is quick to point out that they too are products of a land and a film-making tradition that is quite exceptional.

In the introduction, “A Small Room with Large Windows: Film Making in New Zealand”, Roger Horrocks manages to sum up the history of New Zealand film-making in a compelling chapter that leaves the reader anxious to explore the details of the decades in the chapters that follow. Horrocks successfully sets the tone by placing the history of New Zealand cinema in an historical, cultural and political context. Throughout the book, the authors do well to describe the socio-political elements that contribute significantly to the ways in which the cast, crew and audience came to make and view New Zealand film. The introduction briefly explores the ways in which Hollywood has historically and more recently come to view New Zealand film and New Zealand film-makers: from exotic land of Maori tribes and scenic background for the affirmation of ideas of racial superiority, to potential competitor and significant player in the global film production market. The chapter introduces local film-making from the beginnings of the National Film Unit (NFU) and the Pictorial Parades that reached a national cinema-going audience, through to the eventual establishment of a burgeoning industry in the 1970s.

The introduction documents the rise of the first independent film companies and their relationship with the growing television market. Within this context, Horrocks points to the role of a counter-culture, the second and third wave of film-makers, and the part played by Maori culture on screen. This chapter also covers key themes that preside over our film-making history, the delicate and often fickle terrain that films in New Zealand must traverse if they are to succeed nationally and internationally.

The first three chapters address what might be considered the “pre-history” of New Zealand film, the period from 1895 through to the 1930s. This is an era that few readers will have knowledge of, and it makes for fascinating reading. The energy and passion for film that existed in New Zealand is evidenced by the fact that it was only a few years after the invention of the medium that locals were making their own films. From early on, New Zealand landscapes were attractive to cinematographers and the rapid spread of cinemas across the country saw the eventual establishment of New Zealand’s first professional film-makers in 1912. By 1916, New Zealand had become a nation of regular cinema-goers, and there was an increasing interest by foreign film crews in New Zealand and our landscapes. The emergence of the first local film-makers with Rudall Hayward and a focus on dramatic and comedic stories set firmly in the New Zealand landscape established a format that echoes through the decades and continues to resonate in modern New Zealand films.

Throughout the book, the reader is able to gain a clear sense of the importance of short-form non-fiction films in our national filmmaking heritage. Also emphasised are the ways in which the political views and prejudices of the ruling political party have had a profound impact on the films produced. Chapters four and five cover the 1940s through to the 1960s, when documentary rose as the dominant film-making activity through the establishment of the NFU. While the NFU was initially a government propaganda tool, it was to become central to film-making in New Zealand for the next few decades. Geraldene Peters effectively demonstrates the role of the NFU, detailing the ways in which a skilled pool of film-makers began to emerge. The NFU acted as a talent incubator, and innovative and experimental practices developed through the Weekly Review. Longer format documentaries eventually began to emerge, and some remarkably liberal topics and innovative approaches to film-making developed in what was a comparatively conservative national setting. The 1950s and 60s are detailed in the chapter “From Holland To Holyoake”. Lawrence McDonald continues to examine the role of the NFU through these two decades as the major production house in the country along with the arrival of the first independent production houses.

Chapter six, “Waking from a Fretful Sleep: Film in the 1970s”, chronicles the emergence of a New Zealand feature film industry and the films of the period that had an important impact on the decades that followed and on audiences of the time. McDonald skilfully captures a period of film-making that is foundational and remains familiar to many New Zealanders. In Bruce Babington’s chapter, the 1980s are described as “Boom Times” in which the tax laws, or rather tax loops, stimulated private-sector investment and caused an explosion in the number of local and foreign films made on our shores. The second half of the 1980s and the 1990s are dealt with in separate chapters in order to accommodate the growing number of films produced in these periods. The success and failure of New Zealand films and their various funding bodies is well documented through this fascinating section.

The book quite rightly dedicates a chapter to “The Jackson Effect: The Late 1990s to 2005”, years in which Peter Jackson’s emergence as an international film-maker began to have a profound impact on the film industry and New Zealand culture as a whole. Geoff Lealand makes an excellent summation of this period, giving Jackson his due without the adulation that sometimes dominates accounts of the man and his work. The chapter provides an account of Jackson’s production history and successfully situates him both inside and outside a New Zealand film-making history.

The final chapter is equally impressive in the way it covers major films of the period and the emerging proliferation of independent and low-to-zero budget productions. Frank Stark, in a relatively short section, accurately captures the feeling, passions and production aesthetics that drive the low-budget digital feature-makers in New Zealand in the early part of the 21st century. The persisting presence of documentary as a dominant form throughout our film-making history is recognised, and the ongoing success (and failure) of the feature film industry is well captured, ending with the recent success of Taika Waititi’s Boy. This final chapter looks backwards and forwards, suggesting the new directions and pre-empting the familiar problems of film-making in a small country with large ambitions.

New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History rewards reading from cover to cover. It will become a reference text for years to come and, together with its well-authored DVD, constitutes a landmark publication from the Film Archive.


Paul Wolffram teaches in the Film Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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