National Film Unit Collection

This collection celebrates the diverse output of the National Film Unit. For nearly 50 years the government body filmed everything from wartime newsreels and tourism promos to historical TV epics; it bred Oscar nominations, pioneering female directors, and political controversy, and was a key industry training ground (alumni include Sam Neill, John Laing, Sam Pillsbury) ... 

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Weekly Review No. 346 - Rhythm and Movement

Short Film, 1948 (Full Length)

This short profiles the work of Gisa Taglicht. A pioneer of women's rhythmical gymnastics, Taglicht advocated the benefits of physical exercise for women. Risqué at the time for the women’s skimpy outfits, the Wellington-set film sees women escaping machine and washing line oppression via a YWCA hilltop session: limbs reaching and stretching towards a stark sky. The National Film Unit's post-war Weekly Reviews became less overtly patriotic, and some, like this Michael Forlong-directed one, were unabashedly experimental. The score was composed by Douglas Lilburn.

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The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil

Short Film, 1986 (Full Length)

Bob Stenhouse offers an animated ode to the "nation of drunkards" (as New Zealand was tagged in the House of Lords in 1838). Set in 1902, a shepherd tricks a Mackenzie barman out of a bottle of ‘Hokonui Lightning', but too much pioneer spirit sees him haunted by the devil's daughter (or a case of delirium tremens). The Chicago Tribune called the macabre humour and distinctive look "lushly conceived". It won the Grand Prize at the Hamilton International Animation Festival (1986) in Canada, and was nominated for a 1986 Oscar for Best Short Film (Animated).

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The Story of Seven-Hundred Polish Children

Short Film, 1966 (Full Length)

This 1966 documentary tells the story of 734 Polish children who were adopted by New Zealand in 1944 as WWII refugees. Moving interviews, filmed 20 years later, document their harrowing exodus from Poland: via Siberian labour camps, malnutrition and death, to being greeted by Prime Minister Peter Fraser on arrival in NZ. From traumatic beginnings the film chronicles new lives (as builders, doctors, educators, and mothers) and ends with a family beach picnic. This was the last film from pioneering woman filmmaker Kathleen O'Brien.  

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Gone up North for a While

Television, 1972 (Full Length)

After a young woman falls pregnant, she decides to go against the tide of advice from her family and unsympathetic welfare authorities by keeping her baby. Misery and hardship ensues. Director Paul Maunder brought kitchen sink drama to New Zealand television with this controversial National Film Unit production. The story can claim to have effected social change, stirring up public debate about the DPB for single mothers. Keep an eye out for a young Paul Holmes as a moustached wannabe lothario.

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Flare - A Ski Trip

Short Film, 1977 (Full Length)

This short documentary about freestyle skiing was directed for the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department by Sam Neill (who would shortly achieve fame as an actor). This was one of several docos directed by Neill while at the National Film Unit; other subjects included the Red Mole theatre troupe and architect Ian Athfield. The skiers put on daring displays of their 'art' in locations including Mount Hutt, Queenstown and Tongariro National Park. 70s snow-styles (and beards) abound. The film was translated into French, Japanese, Italian, German and Spanish.

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Snows of Aorangi

Short Film, 1955 (Full Length)

Shot by photographer Brian Brake as a NFU tourism promo, Snows of Aorangi surveys New Zealand's mountain landscapes. Brake captures stunning imagery: ethereal ice forests, lightning storms, volcanic craters, glaciers, avalanches, kea. Three skiers are mesmerising as they scythe downhill from Almer Hut: "for a little while they've given themselves to the rhythm of sky and earth" runs the James K Baxter-scripted narration. It was the first NZ film to compete for an Oscar, nominated in the Best Short Subject (Live Action) category in 1959.

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This is New Zealand

Short Film, 1970 (Excerpts)

Directed by Hugh Macdonald, This is New Zealand was made to promote the country at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. An ambitious concept saw iconic NZ imagery — panoramas, nature, Māori culture, sport, industry — projected on three adjacent screens that together comprised one giant widescreen. A rousing orchestral score (Sibelius's Karelia Suite) backed the images. Two million people saw it in Osaka, and over 350,000 New Zealanders saw on its homecoming theatrical release. It was remastered by Park Road Post in 2007. This excerpt is the first three minutes of the film.

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Dustie

Short Film, 1971 (Full Length)

This NFU documentary looks at working lives of a crew of Wellington rubbish collectors aka 'the dusties'. With an insightful dustie narrating, the film follows the team on their rounds, beginning early morning with the seagulls at the depot. Then it's into the trucks and off to face occupational hazards: irate householders, sodden winter sacks, and notoriously steep hills. Our dustie muses on everything from health benefits and job perks (discarded beer, money and toasters!) to cleanliness. This classic observational film ends with a tribute folk song.  

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Peter Snell - Athlete

Short Film, 1964 (Full Length)

This NFU classic tells Peter Snell's story up to just prior to his triumph at the Tokyo Olympics (he had already won 800m gold in Rome and held the world record for the mile). Snell's commentary — focused, candid — plays over footage of training and racing. "It always gives a feeling of exhilaration to run in the New Zealand all black singlet." He offers insight into the methods of coach Arthur Lydiard (15 miles a day, 100 miles a week). Includes priceless footage of Snell running in the Waiatarua hills, through bush and leaping farm fences. 

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Holiday for Susan

Short Film, 1962 (Full Length)

Directed by David Fowler for the National Film Unit, tourism promo Holiday For Susan enthusiastically follows 22-year-old Aussie Susan's tour of Godzone with Kiwi lass Lorraine Clark. En route, Susan finds a husband in Auckland's David Thomas. Abounding with shots of scenic wonder (cleverly integrated with signs of the country's industrial progress), and Susan's legs (many aspects of the film would have had Kate Sheppard rolling in her grave), the film presents a jaunty portrait of 60s NZ as a destination for young, well-to-do, globetrotters.

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Exhibition Loop

Short Film, 1947 (Full Length)

This National Film Unit documentary provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the various stages of 40s film production at the relatively nascent unit, from shoot to post production. It was made to be screened continuously (thus the ‘loop’ title) at exhibition theatrettes. There’s genial interaction among the cast and crew, who include many key figures at the unit. Directed by pioneer woman director Kathleen O’Brien, the filming took place at the unit’s Darlington Road studios in Wellington, close to where Weta Workshop and Park Road Post now operate in Miramar.

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Games 74

Film, 1974 (Full Length)

This chronicle of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marked one of the National Film Unit's most ambitious productions. Though a range of events (including famous runs by John Walker and Dick Tayler), are covered, the film often bypasses the pomp and glory approach; daring to talk to the injured and mentioning that most competitors lose. The closing ceremonies of the "friendly games" feature the athletes gathering to — as the official song's chorus put it — "join together". The directing team included Paul Maunder, Sam Pillsbury, and Arthur Everard.

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Weekly Review No. 232 - Māori Battalion Returns

Short Film, 1946 (Full Length)

This post war newsreel features footage of Māori Battalion solders returning from WWII onboard the ship Dominion Monarch, into Wellington Harbour. The soldiers are greeted with a huge pōwhiri and ensuing hākari at Aotea Quay where the kaimoana and pia flow freely. The reel then follows the regional celebrations of men returning home in Kuku and Ngaruawahia. The narrator soberly recalls the casualty rate of the Māori Battalion (five men in seven). This footage features in the documentary, Maori Battalion - March to Victory.

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The Governor - The Reverend Traitor (Episode One)

Television, 1977 (Full Length Episode)

The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ televison's first historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. In ‘Episode One: The Reverend Traitor', Grey arrives to colonial troubles: flag-pole chopping Hōne Heke, missionary Henry Williams, and rebellious Te Rauparaha.

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Ralph Hotere

Short Film, 1974 (Full Length)

Directed by Sam Pillsbury, this 1974 film observes Ralph Hotere — one of New Zealand’s greatest artists — at a moment when excitement is gathering about his work. Lauded as a “classic” by Ian Wedde, the documentary is framed around the execution of a watershed piece: a large mural Hotere was commissioned to paint for Hamilton’s Founders Theatre. Interviews with friends and associates — poets Hone Tuwhare and Bill Manhire, art critics, officials and dealers — are intercut with fascinating shots of Hotere working (including making art by photocopying or 'xerography').

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A Friendly Career

Short Film, 1953 (Full Length)

A Friendly Career (or The Story of the Training and Life of the New Zealand School Dental Nurse) was a promotional film made by the National Film Unit for the Department of Health. The plot waltzes through the idyll of one doe-eyed careerist's sugar-coated journey to a respectable job in the 'murder house', caring for the teeth of the Dominion's children. Focusing on the hard work and 50s fun times of hostel life, with its friendships, matrons, tooth-pulling and en masse doing-of-the-hokey pokey, the end of this careerist road is pitched as one of great satisfaction.

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Wildlife of the Mountains

Short Film, 1958 (Full Length)

This documentary examines the alpine flora and birdlife in the Upper Waitaki area of the South Island. Its distinctive bird-life includes karearea (falcons), mirimiro (tomtit), kererū and kea. The native vegetation is profiled in depth. The area's introduced animals include deer, chamois, and thar, which have become pests. Beautifully shot, directed, and packed full of information, this is the kind of film the NFU was famous for. It was commissioned by the Soil Conservation Council, NZ Forest Service and the Department of Internal Affairs.

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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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Score

Short Film, 1980 (Full Length)

The theatre of sport is given full-blown operatic treatment in this National Film Unit classic. Footage from the French 1979 rugby tour of New Zealand is rendered in slow-motion and cut to a Tchaikovsky score. The result is an often glorious, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, paean to rugby. Balletic lineouts, driving tackles, and the dark mysteries of the ruck, make for a ballsy Swan Lake in the mud. It includes the Bastille Day French victory over the All Blacks. Directed by NFU stalwart Arthur Everard, it won a jury prize at the Montreal World Film Festival.

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Weekly Review No. 374 - The Coaster

Short Film, 1948 (Full Length)

The coaster Breeze and her crew are immortalised in this much praised National Film Unit documentary. Poet Denis Glover and narrator Selwyn Toogood provide a rhythmic and lyrical commentary as the Breeze runs from Wellington to Lyttelton, then to Wanganui. Three weeks after the film's November 1948 release, director Cecil Holmes had his satchel snatched. He lost his NFU job after the resulting smear campaign accused him of communist leanings. Although reinstated after a court case, Holmes left for a successful screen career in Australia in 1949.

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Journey for Three

Film, 1950 (Full Length)

This National Film Unit dramatised doco was boosterism for postwar immigration to New Zealand. Three Brits (Margaret, Cassie, Harry) travel and settle down under and the film records their hopes, jobs (nurse, factory worker, engineer), challenges (accents, 'casual' work ethic, locals wary of the ‘Poms’) and adventures in the new country (tramping, skiing, milk bars, the races, romance). Partaking in a glacier rescue raises Harry's spirits and assimilates him with the blokes. The film was released theatrically in the UK, and was scored by Douglas Lilburn.

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Country Lads

Short Film, 1941 (Full Length)

Produced by Stanhope Andrews, Country Lads was used to advocate for a reorganised government filmmaking body to publicise the war effort, before screening in cinemas as the first National Film Unit production. Lads shows footage of soldiers as they leave for the front. Adolf Hitler had called the Kiwi soldiers "poor deluded country lads"; but here the description is co-opted as a compliment. A national character is expressed — pioneers who had "helped make this country what it is: happy, prosperous and free" — and is used to underpin the soldiers' mission.

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Shearing Technique

Short Film, 1958 (Full Length)

In the 40s and 50s sheep shearers Godfrey and Ivan Bowen developed the 'Bowen Technique', an innovative method involving rhythmical sweeps of the handpiece. The legendary Godfrey was described in The Guardian as having arms that “flow with the grace of a Nureyev shaping up to an arabesque”. Here he runs through the 'blows' (strokes) designed to achieve "maximum speed, quality work with a minimum of physical effort". Shearing Technique was originally produced in 1956; this shorter cut screened in NZ theatres in 1958 with UK coming of age film High Tide at Noon.

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To Live in the City

Short Film, 1967 (Full Length)

This Arthur Everard-directed documentary pursues four young Māori - Ripeka, Moana, Grace and Phillip - as they transition from school, whānau and rural life To Live In the City. The film follows them as they arrive in Wellington and attend a pre-employment course run by The Department of Māori Affairs which offers accommodation and advice on employment options. A 1991 sequel To Live in the City 24 Years On, picked on the lives of the four, now middle aged.

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Barry Brickell: Potter

Short Film, 1970 (Full Length)

This short, upbeat National Film Unit documentary (made as part of the Pictorial Parade series) is about New Zealand artist, conservationist, and rail enthusiast Barry Brickell. Filmed at his first studio and home in the Coromandel, it follows the progress of his large-scale works from start to finish. Accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack, Brickell works his clay alone in the sun. Amidst the five-finger and harakeke of the Coro’ bush, the making of New Zealand art has never looked more picturesque.

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Architect Athfield

Film, 1977 (Full Length)

Before he achieved worldwide fame as an actor, Sam Neill directed documentary films for the National Film Unit. This film examines the philosophy, early achievements and frustrations of one of New Zealand's most innovative architects, Ian Athfield. Athfield won an international competition in 1975 to design housing for 140,000 squatters in Manila, in the Philippines, yet struggled to gain recognition back home. This film culminates in Athfield's trip to the Philippines to pursue the project. Shooter John Toon later memorably shot feature film Rain.

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The Snowline is Their Boundary

Short Film, 1955 (Full Length)

"For the farmers of the high country the snowline is their boundary" begins the narration to this National Film Unit documentary. Beautifully shot by Brian Brake, the challenges of farming the vast stations on the rugged aprons of the Southern Alps are captured. The centrepiece is the great autumn muster where shepherds and dogs work 16,000 sheep down from "the tops" over 100,000 acres of peaks and glaciers before the snow and winter blizzards arrive. "It's mutton every meal out here - we chase sheep every day and eat them every meal." 

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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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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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Weekly Review No. 355 - Railway Worker

Short Film, 1948 (Full Length)

This 1948 documentary follows 24 hours of work on the railways. It was directed for the National Film Unit by New Zealand’s first female film director, Margaret Thomson. It shows the engines and commuter trains preparing to leave Wellington, and the overnight train arriving from Auckland. Workers toil on the railway lines above the remote Waimakariri Gorge, and the town of Otira gets ready for a dance. The final shots are of an engine coming through the dawn and back to the city.