History, memory and representation, Alfio Leotta

The Camera in the Crowd: Filming New Zealand in Peace and War: 1895-1920
Christopher Pugsley
Oratia Books, $80.00, ISBN 9780947506346

Filming the Colonial Past: The New Zealand Wars on Screen
Annabel Cooper
University of Otago Press, $50.00, ISBN 9781988531083

As most contemporary movie-goers around the world would know, despite its small population, when it comes to film New Zealand punches well above its weight. What is perhaps less known to most is that Aotearoa has a rich film-making tradition which harks back to the last years of the 19th century, when Auckland-based photographer Alfred H Whitehouse started producing the first films ever made in the country. During the silent period, New Zealand was home to a relatively vibrant film industry; however, in the late 1920s, a number of factors, such as the transition to synchronised sound, the economic depression and the government’s lack of interest in film, marked the decline of local cinema production. New Zealanders would have to wait until the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission in the late 1970s to witness the emergence of a sustainable local film industry. The resurgence of New Zealand national cinema culminated in the mid-1990s with the international success of films such as The Piano (1993), Once Were Warriors (1994) and Heavenly Creatures (1994), which put the country on the world cinema map. The production and release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s gave the New Zealand film industry even wider global media exposure, cementing the country’s reputation as a major film production hub.

The recent international success of New Zealand films, particularly those directed by Peter Jackson, has led to a revived interest in the study of the cinema of Aotearoa. Since the publication in 1997 of the first major comprehensive account of New Zealand film history, Helen Martin’s and Sam Edwards’s New Zealand Film 1912-1996, the scholarship on New Zealand cinema has been thriving. Since the 2000s, dozens of local and international academics have authored books on New Zealand cinema – just to cite a few: Bruce Babington’s A History of New Zealand Cinema (2007); Duncan Petrie’s and Duncan Stuart’s A Coming of Age: 30 Years of New Zealand Film (2008); Trisha Dunleavy’s and Hester Joyce’s New Zealand Film and Television: Institution, Industry and Cultural Change (2011); and Alistair Fox et al’s New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past (2011). Some of the books published during this period, particularly Duncan Petrie’s Shot in New Zealand (2007) and Diane Pivac et al’s New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History (2011), attempted to target both an academic and a general readership by combining meticulous research, accessible writing and a wealth of beautiful glossy illustrations. 

Christopher Pugsley’s The Camera in the Crowd: Filming New Zealand in Peace and War: 1895-1920 (2017) and Annabel Cooper’s Filming the Colonial Past: The New Zealand Wars on Screen (2018) represent a new peak of the literature on New Zealand cinema. Following in the footsteps of New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History, both books draw on a wealth of visual archives and are pitched at a readership both informed and wishing to be informed. Both books are written by academics who possess an in-depth knowledge of New Zealand cinema; however, the focus of the two texts is rather different. While The Camera in the Crowd is a meticulous account of the first 25 years in the history of New Zealand cinema, Filming the Colonial Past focuses on the cinematic and televisual representation of a key event in the country’s history, the 19th-century New Zealand Wars. 

The Camera in the Crowd makes a crucial contribution to a relatively under-researched moment in New Zealand film history, the early period between the emergence of cinema and the end of WWI. Pugsley, best known for his work as a military historian, developed an interest in New Zealand film history in the early 1980s as a by-product of his Gallipoli research. In the early 1990s, he was commissioned to do further research on New Zealand early films for the then New Zealand Film Archive, now Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. The Camera in the Crowd reflects the longstanding relationship between its author and the national film archive, as the book was published in collaboration with Ngā Taonga. Each time readers see a small projector image in the book, they can enter the Ngā Taonga website, type in the catalogue number provided and view the relevant film. The book also features a foreword by Peter Jackson, who relied on Pugsley as a historical consultant during the development of the Great War Exhibition at the Wellington National War Memorial. In his foreword, Jackson, a self-proclaimed old-film lover, defines The Camera in the Crowd as “the book that I’ve hoped someone would write” and a “vital key” to the unlocking of the mystery that the early cinema produced in Aotearoa still represents for most New Zealanders.

The Camera in the Crowd draws upon and expands on the content of the excellent chapter Pugsley contributed to New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History (“The Magic of Moving Pictures: Film-Making 1895-1918”). After providing a brief account of the history of pre-cinematic media, Pugsley focuses on the work of New Zealand film pioneer Whitehouse, who became the first person to exhibit motion pictures in New Zealand when he opened his Edison’s Kinetoscope exhibition in Auckland in November 1895. Pugsley devotes one full chapter to Whitehouse, who was also credited with both the import of the first film camera to New Zealand and the production of the first films ever made in this country. 

The following chapters (three to six) examine the important work of some of the other major New Zealand early film pioneers: Joe Perry, who produced some of New Zealand’s and Australia’s earliest films for the Salvation Army, and James McDonald, who was appointed in 1907 as the first official government “kinematographer”. Although Whitehouse, Perry and McDonald are often mentioned in other books about New Zealand film history, such allusions are often very brief and limited to a vague acknowledgement of the important contribution these film-makers made to early New Zealand cinema. By contrast, The Camera in the Crowd provides a very detailed account of the work and careers of these early New Zealand film-makers. Furthermore, unlike many other New Zealand film historians, Pugsley manages to provide a clear and accurate overview of the complex film production networks during the early period. Such networks often had a transnational dimension, characterised by the constant mobility of film-makers and producers between Australia and New Zealand. Chapter seven is devoted to film distribution and exhibition, which in the early period was also an Australasian enterprise, as demonstrated by the success of T J West’s company on both sides of the Tasman. Chapters eight to ten focus on another under-researched subject: early film production and distribution in provincial New Zealand. Pugsley sheds new light on the work of Brandon Haughton in Taranaki, Charles Newham in Whanganui and Henry Gore in Dunedin, to demonstrate that in the first 20 years of the 19th-century film-making was not confined to New Zealand’s main urban centres. 

Several sections of the book are devoted to travel films about New Zealand, particularly films commissioned by the Department of Tourism and Health Resources to promote New Zealand as a tourism destination both to local and international audiences. The bulk of the volume (chapters 11-18 and 21-22), however, focuses on the discussion of film-making during and about WWI. Pugsley’s expertise as a military historian is particularly apparent in the sections about the filming of major war campaigns, such as Gallipoli. At times, his passion for military history is so strong that he indulges in digressions about non-film-related stories and events. The long section about James Waddell, a New Zealand soldier who became an officer of the French Foreign Legion, is a case in point. Interestingly, the main strength of the book, the meticulous account of the filming of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at the front, also represents one of its weaknesses, as the excessive focus on the war renders the book slightly unbalanced. 

Although the book provides a very comprehensive coverage of war-related film-making, other fascinating moments of New Zealand film history, such as Gaston Méliès’s tour of the country, are only given two or three pages. Furthermore, although supported by rigorous historiographical research, the book rarely attempts to engage critically or analytically with the events and stories it describes. How and why did early film-making develop in the way it did? Why, as General Sir Andrew Russell claims, was New Zealand a “Dominion of photographers”? Finally, the choice of the time-frame covered in the book, 1895-1920, is not entirely justified. Although 1920 makes for a nice round number, it is not clear from a film-history perspective why Pugsley decided to stop there. Perhaps it would have been better to extend the time-frame to the late 1920s, which saw the emergence of film sound and the parallel decline of New Zealand cinema due to the increasing costs associated with sound-recording technology. Despite these minor shortcomings, however, The Camera in the Crowd remains both an excellent book and a seminal text on the history of early New Zealand film.    

Cooper’s Filming the Colonial Past is also destined to become a key reference work for any studies about the audio-visual representation of the New Zealand Wars. The publication of such a volume is particularly topical as recent public debates about the legacy of 19th-century colonial conflicts have culminated in 2016 with the establishment of a national day of commemoration of the New Zealand Wars. Cooper, an Associate Professor in the Gender Studies programme at the University of Otago, has a longstanding interest in film and television, as demonstrated by the long list of her publications on screen representations of the New Zealand Wars (some of which are republished as sections of Filming the Colonial Past). Cooper’s book is also informed by both extensive archival research and 50 interviews with film-makers and tangata whenua involved in the productions discussed in the volume. 

The book is organised in chronological order, each chapter focusing on the discussion of one (or more) key film or television show. In each chapter, Cooper effectively demonstrates how the cinematic or televisual representation of the New Zealand Wars is the outcome of a complex process of political, cultural and economic negotiations. Each production is situated in the cultural politics of its time, as well as the cultures and economies of the New Zealand screen industries. The book aptly reveals how such political and cultural structures inform production processes, as apparent in the hierarchies of crew members, as well as the inclusion or exclusion of Māori and Pākehā in decisions about casting, dialogue and staging of historical events. 

The first two chapters of the book are devoted to the work of early New Zealand film pioneer Rudall Hayward, who directed three features about the New Zealand Wars: a silent version of Rewi’s Last Stand (1925, of which only the first reel and the plot summary survive); The Te Kooti Trail (1927, also a silent film); and a sound version of Rewi’s Last Stand (1940). Cooper points out how the celebration of Māori heroism, interracial relationships and manly egalitarianism in these films reflect Hayward’s own adherence to a bicultural national ethos. Chapter three focuses on two popular television shows of the 1970s, The Killing of Kane and The Governor, made at the time in which the issue of land rights regularly made news headlines and political activism was supported by the growing scholarship on the legacy of historic colonial injustices. Cooper suggests that The Governor, in particular, represented “a seismic shift in thinking about how New Zealand’s past had shaped its present”. In chapter four, Cooper discusses the significance of Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983), which would go on to become both a New Zealand film classic and one of the most influential cinematic representations of the New Zealand Wars. The following chapters are devoted to television shows and documentaries, such as The New Zealand Wars, Von Tempsky’s Ghost and Frontiers of Dreams. A significant part of the book (chapters seven and eight) focuses on the films by New Zealand auteur Vincent Ward, whose work often revolves around both the depiction and legacy of the 19th-century colonial land wars. The last chapter of the book examines the way the New Zealand Wars are featured in a number of contemporary productions, including music videos, digital guidebooks and television documentaries. According to Cooper, today the diminishing costs of digital media, as well as the expansion of media platforms, allow for the growth of Māori creative control. In the conclusion, Cooper identifies some recurring themes and motifs in films about the New Zealand Wars and discusses the way in which changing production practices have gradually influenced the politics of representation. 

Filming the Colonial Past features a clear, strong structure and a truly interdisciplinary approach. Cooper effectively draws upon a number of different academic fields, such as the scholarship on New Zealand historiography, the literature on New Zealand media and the critical work on the relationship between media, memory and history. Her book manages to be lively and accessible, qualities that will make it appealing to a general readership, without compromising its academic accuracy and rigour. Like The Camera in the Crowd, Filming the Colonial Past is a very welcome addition to the growing scholarship on New Zealand film and television studies. 

Alfio Leotta teaches in the film programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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