Better Safe than Sorry

Long before Ghost Chips, even before "don't use your back like a crane", life in Godzone was fraught with hazards. This collection shows public safety awareness films spanning from the 50s to the 70s. If there's kitsch enjoyment to be had in the looking back (chimps on bikes?!) the lessons remain timeless. Remember: It's better to be safe than sorry.

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Such a Stupid Way to Die

Short Film, 1971 (Full Length)

This educational video was made by the NFU for the National Mountain Safety Council to promote awareness of bush safety. After a blackboard science lesson (check out a bearded Ray Henwood) things get interesting. A fictional trip into the bush turns into a Stubbies-clad 70s Kiwi version of the Blair Witch Project as we're told that one of the group will not survive the night, picked off by that fearsome killer: exposure. The message is serious, but the doom-laden tone induced titters in school classrooms and scout halls throughout NZ.

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Monkey Tale

Short Film, 1952 (Full Length)

In the anthropomorphic (and non-PC) tradition of the chimpanzee zoo tea party and PG tips ads comes this contribution to the genre from the National Film Unit. Here chimpanzees provide safe cycling lessons for children. Chaplin-esque scenes ensue as Charlie the Chimp disregards road-rules: "if that young monkey gets to school in one piece he'll be lucky ... he'll get killed sure as eggs". The quaint film — directed by pioneering woman filmmaker Kathleen O'Brien — is from another world to the brutality of contemporary road safety promos.

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How to Drown

Short Film, 1951 (Full Length)

In colonial times drowning was so rife it was known as 'the New Zealand death'. This jaunty 1951 educational film is an effort to rid our lakes, rivers and seas of the unfortunate tag through cunning reverse psychology, as swimmers, fishermen and skylarking lads learn "how to drown". It eschews the confrontational realism of many a later PSA for the light-hearted approach: mixing lessons on water safety with silent film-style tomfoolery, gallows humour and the odd bit of sexual innuendo. Features footage of surf lifesavers using the now-archaic rope and reel.

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The Elysian Bus

Short Film, 1951 (Full Length)

It's a Wonderful Life meets driver education in this NFU film that aims to scare those who would be careless in bad weather conditions. This now-quaint precursor to 2011's Ghost Chips road safety ad sets up a low-key mystery plot, as five naive unfortunates find themselves at a bus stop in pea-soup fog. Purgatorial befuddlement — the bus goes via 'Infinity Terrace' and a saucy angel is handing out harps — turns to moralizing, complete with flashbacks and a lecture from the weather god, as they discover why they've ended up en route to 'Elysian Fields'.

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A List of Names

Short Film, 1952 (Full Length)

Using spectral tactics to generate road safety awareness this film carries on from where The Elysian Bus left off, emphaising that the loss of the 300 Kiwis who might die on the roads in the coming year will be more than statistical. A Christmas Carol-style future projection shows gifts being handed out from under the tree, but Mary is not there to receive hers as she was on "the list of names". Actual crash footage drives home the grim message with more solemnity than Ghost Chips. One of the names under the reaper's skeletal finger is spookily 'Peter Jackson'.

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A Great Day to Go

Short Film, 1971 (Full Length)

Made by the NFU for the NZ Water Safety Council this film enlists shock to provoke punters to consider water safety. On a summer’s day a fisherman, surfer and boatie all reckon it's “a great day for it”. But thoughtlessness results in tragedy. Directed by Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand), the disjunct between the jaunty song on the soundtrack and sunken bodies onscreen anticipates the graphic horror of the late 90s/early 00s road safety ads (sharing kinship with 1971 bush safety PSA Such a Stupid Way to Die). Grant Tilly cameos as a radio DJ.

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Pedestrians or Jaywalkers?

Short Film, 1952 (Full Length)

This NFU public safety film takes a jaunty approach to a serious subject as it shows road crossing dangers via bad examples. Mis-steps include walking off the footpath carelessly, crossing the road at oblique angles, 'dithering', and over-confidence. The humour may be physical and the narration pun-filled, but the lessons remain relevant, as pedestrian accidents on Wellington's and Auckland's 21st Century city bus lanes attest. Despite the big question promise of the title there is no Socratic dialogue about crossing the road or any consideration of chickens.

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Keep Them Waiting

Short Film, 1963 (Full Length)

Shot in black and white (by Terry King and future Harry Potter cinematographer Michael Seresin), this early Tony Williams directorial effort answers its road safety instructional mandate with style. A jazzy soundtrack scores the setting up of a literal ‘lives collide’ plot. Two lovers go rambling; a gallerist in a goatee takes photos on a car trip, a beau takes his girl for a Wellington coastal drive, a musical duo drive from a 2ZB recording session ... all the while emergency room flash-forwards are intercut and the clock ticks as basic road safety lessons are ignored.

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Too Late to be Sorry

Short Film, 1966 (Full Length)

Made for the the Forest Service by the National Film Unit this instructional film demonstrates essential firearms safety. Like later cautionary tales (eg. cult bush safety film Such a Stupid Way to Die) the film dramatises what can happen when things go wrong, before a hunter imparts "the five basic safety rules" (with obligatory ciggie hanging from lower lip). The rendering of the lesson might be hokey (compared to the explicit traffic safety ads of the '90s and '00s) but the message is deadly serious, as ongoing hunting tragedy headlines attest.  

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White for Safety

Short Film, 1952 (Full Length)

This isn't an apartheid manual or minimalist design code, but a 1952 road safety film from the National Film Unit. The film follows 'Mrs White' and 'Mrs Black' leaving their respective homes (on foot) for a bridge evening. Mrs White wears visible clothing and faces the traffic (would a modern colour remake see a Mrs Fluoro?). Mrs Black dresses eponymously and walks with her back to the traffic. Predictable results ensue. Modern viewers who associate such character names with Reservoir Dogs will not be disappointed by the suspenseful denouement.

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Pictorial Parade No. 78

Short Film, 1958 (Full Length)

A salient public safety segment in this edition of the National Film Unit’s long-running magazine series looks at 'prudence at home', and the ways that stoves, jugs and fires can be dangerous to children. Other segments include a visit to a Gisborne health camp where youngsters are finishing their seven week course of dietary and exercise lessons. And a jaunt to Canterbury’s frozen Lake Ida for skating, pies, and ice hockey concludes that ‘winter can be fun’. A car-drawn toboggan looks it — though the ice rescue demonstration will not convince all viewers.