Geoff Steven's career spans film, television and photography. In 1978, he directed acclaimed feature Skin Deep, the first major investment by the newly established NZ Film Commission. Steven followed it with Strata and a long run of documentaries before becoming a TV executive, then an art photographer. He now heads the Our Place - World Heritage Project. Read the full biography
No more castor oil documentaries! Geoff's motto during his reign at TVNZ
This award-winning documentary is an account of the last days and sinking of the Russian cruise liner, Mikhail Lermontov. On 16 February, 1986, she ran aground on rocks in the Marlborough Sounds. Passengers were successfully evacuated, but a Russian crew member lost his life, and several were injured. Evidence is given by those who were there, with a particular emphasis on presenting the stories of the Russian crew, who were largely unavailable to the media at the time. (A minute into clip nine a young Russian agent bears a striking similarity to Vladimir Putin.)
“When old and young come together to do this, it shows the strength of their convictions.”This film is a detailed chronicle of a key moment in the Māori renaissance: the 1975 land march led by then 79-year-old Whina Cooper. A coalition of Māori groups set out from the far north for Wellington, opposed to further loss of their land. This early doco from director Geoff Steven, shot by Leon Narbey, includes interviews with many of those on the march: Eva Rickard, Tama Poata and Whina Cooper; there is stirring evidence of Cooper’s oratory skills.
This 90s 'docu-soap' put six 20-somethings — three students, a banker, a Miss Howick contestant and a cameraman — in a house for three months and filmed the results. The show screened amidst the 90s 'observed homelife' reality show zeitgeist, but without a lock-down or 24-7 surveillance the show's charms were more of a homespun Kiwi twist on MTV's Real World (1992) than Big Brother (1999). It was broadcast on now-defunct channel TV4 and made a minor local celebrity of outspoken Vanessa. In this first episode the flatties move in, and party ... until the cops turn up.
Founded in 1977 by ex-vacuum salesman Bert Potter, Centrepoint was an alternative lifestyle settlement that promoted intimate communal living along with personal and sexual freedom. This Geoff Steven-directed doco from 1980 observes the dramatic 'encounter group' style of psychotherapy practised therein, and members' struggles to reconcile the values of their new home with the outside world. Potter and senior acolytes would later be convicted for a spate of child sex abuse and drugs charges, and the now-defunct commune's legacy remains divisive.
Katherine Mansfield, a rare New Zealand writer to achieve international renown, left for Europe as a 19-year-old. This doco examines her complicated relationships with her family and homeland, her turbulent personal life, her writing (credited with changing the course of the English short story) and her early death in France in 1923, at age 34. Shot in five countries and presented by Catherine Wilkin, it includes excerpts from interviews with her companion, Ida Baker (from 1974) and biographer Claire Tomalin. Ilona Rodgers reads from Mansfield’s writings.
Lew Pryme's life was a wild ride that took in everything from rock and roll to rugby before it was cut short by AIDS in 1990 (he was 51). This moving documentary interviews an ailing Pryme reflecting on his journey and (still secret) sexuality; it follows him from Waitara to becoming one of the most popular hip-swinging music stars of the 60s. He went on to manage singers Mark Williams, Rob Guest and Tina Cross; and in the early 80s he became the first executive director of Auckland Rugby Union, introducing cheerleaders and 'pizazz' to Eden Park.
This is the opening episode of the Prime TV series celebrating 50 years of New Zealand television: from an opening night puppet show in Auckland in 1960, through to Outrageous Fortune five decades later. It traverses the medium's development and its major turning points (including the rise of programme-making and news, networking, colour and the arrival of TV3, Prime, NZ on Air, Sky and Māori Television) and interviews key players. The changing nature of the NZ living room — always with the telly in pride of place as modern hearth — is a story within a story.
'Going, Going, Gone ...' was the ominous title for the opening episode of one of NZ television's most celebrated failures. With her mother on an archaeological dig in Malaysia, Melody (Belinda Todd) is babysitting her brother and sister and counting down to a much anticipated holiday of her own. But will Mum make it back in time (or will she only ever be a voice on the phone)? Will her brother survive his first date? And will her sister get to the big Slagheap concert? And who thought it was good idea for Brendan (Allan Brough) to wear that shirt?
New Zealand is a nation that has been scarred by war: from the horrendous loss of lives at Gallipoli to the decimation of the 28th Māori Battalion, Kiwis have gone to war in their 1000s, and many have not returned. This Our People, Our Century edition explores the experiences of soldiers, and the families who waited at home. It also examines the long tradition of protest against war, from the anti-Vietnam movement to the more recent anti-nuclear protests. The script by Philip Temple, won a best documentary script award at the 2000 NZ TV Guide Television awards.
In Haka Māori myth is re-told through a series of stirring haka performances. Men stomp, invoke, and do pukana (tongue out, eyes wide) amidst spitting mud and fire and ... in Paremoremo Prison and under a motorway. These scenes are intercut with archive imagery of post-pākehā Māori life, from first contact to Maori Battalion, urban drift and protest. The film is a tribute to the raw power, and art, of haka. Ultimately the Once Were Warriors-like message "is positive because of the fierce, irresistible pride of the performances." Peter Calder, (NZ Herald, 1989).
In more repressed times, Carmen was one of NZ's most colourful and controversial figures. Geoff Steven's doco traces the life story of the transgender icon who was born Trevor Rupe in Taumarunui in 1936 and went on to be a dancer, sex worker, madam, cafe owner — and one of the few non-MPs to appear before the Privileges Committee. Steven shines a light on a bygone era of gay culture but avoids the temptation to focus on the seedy — opting, instead, for extended fantasy sequences (featuring Neil Gudsell aka Mika) to illustrate key moments in Carmen's life.
This documentary tells the story of John Glennie and three other men who survived 119 days adrift at sea in an upturned trimaran. The Rose Noelle capsized in the Pacific Ocean on 4 June 1989, and washed up four months later on Great Barrier Island. Director Mark Beesley mixes raw interviews, 3D graphics and spare re-enactment to convey the physical and emotional ordeal. The epic survival-at-sea tale — a compelling early entry in the docudrama style later popularised by Animal Planet's I Shouldn't Be Alive series — won Best Documentary at the 1997 TV Awards.
Off the Edge is director Michael Firth's ode to the exhilaration of adventuring on the spine of NZ's Southern Alps. Something of a snowy Endless Summer, Firth follows an American and a Canadian as they ski, hang-glide, walk, climb and delve beneath glaciers, over nine months in the Aoraki-Mt Cook area. Thrilling footage amidst requisite spectacular scenery was shot over 45 days, where extreme weather and geography meant few chances for second takes. The film was nominated for an Oscar (Best Documentary, 1977); the LA Times called it, "beautiful and awesome".
Tattooing — "The world's oldest skin game" — is the subject of this documentary made by Geoff Steven who scored a major coup when he obtained the services of Peter Fonda as his presenter. Shot in NZ, Samoa, Japan and the United States, it traces the history of tattooing from Ancient Egypt through its tribal importance in the Pacific, to a counter culture renaissance that began in the 1960s. Leading practitioners (including superstar Ed Hardy) are interviewed and observed at work, while their clients wince their way towards becoming living canvasses.
Expat Kiwi Rewi Alley became one of the best known foreigners in 20th Century China and advocate for the Communist Revolution. When China was under siege from Japan in the late 1930s, Alley instigated an industrial co-op movement he termed ‘gung ho' (work together). Its success led to the phrase entering the global idiom. For this documentary a Geoff Steven-led crew travelled 15,000km in China in 1979, filming Alley as he gave his account of an engrossing, complex life story. Co-writer Geoff Chapple later wrote a biography of Alley.
Author Barry Crump's iconic deer-hunter yarn A Good Keen Man (1960) captured Kiwi Boy's Own imaginations; it quickly sold 300,000 copies, and with Crump cast as an "ironic, laconic sort of super-bushman", it made him a successful, if unlikely, literary figure. This award-winning documentary chronicles Crump's colourful, controversial, life. The excerpts here look at Crump's emergence on the 50s literary scene; at fractured family relationships; and at the popular 80s TV ads for Toyota utes (with hapless mate Scotty in tow) that reignited his by-then "crusty" profile.
Gordon McLauchlan introduces this TV series which attempts to go beyond cliché and stereotype to find real Americans. His starting point is Ellis Island — where late 19th century immigration marked what he calls the beginning of modern America. Interview subjects include a Jesuit priest running a home for street kids in North Bronx, a construction company vice president of Italian descent, an Ohio auto worker watching on as the rust belt encroaches on industry, and a retired submarine captain who is master of a replica of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.
Having exploited and offended Māori when in NZ in 1928 to make his film Under the Southern Cross, Hollywood director Alexander Markey returned two years later to make Hei Tiki, spending about four years around Taupō in the process and upsetting everyone all over again. The film, based on a Māori legend, was panned upon its New York release in 1935. This documentary tells the remarkable story of the making of Hei Tiki, and includes clips from the film, footage of the cast and crew at work, and interviews with descendants of the actors.
This documentary is a view into the crucible that forged Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of New Zealand, which opened in 1998. Fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments are captured as a new kind of national museum is conceived. This excerpt features a board meeting where Saatchi & Saatchi present branding options. As political, ideological, creative and commercial considerations collide, the frustrations of decision making by committee are palpable: the body language, tears, cautions, grumbles, and finally, smiles, as they settle on the contentious thumbprint logo.
This episode of the six-part Our People, Our Century series explores the mix of cultures that Aotearoa-New Zealand has become. In these excerpts, a Chinese Kiwi family speaks of the racism they experienced, from the poll tax of the 1890s to their relative isolation — despite living in downtown Wellington. Artist Trevor Moffitt describes his father's “heavy silent disapproval” at his artwork; Moffitt went on receive acclaim for paintings that explore themes of NZ identity. Finally, mixed marriages between Māori and Pākehā shed some light on biculturalism.
Cowboys of Culture is director Geoff Steven's personal perspective on the Kiwi cinema renaissance of the 1970s. It traces the development of the local film industry from the ‘she'll be right' days when filming permits were unknown, and all that was needed to get a picture up were a Bolex camera, enthusiasm and ingenuity. Raw they might have been, but the films (Wild Man, Sleeping Dogs, Goodbye Pork Pie Smash Palace) represented a vital new cultural force. The film features interviews with the major players, and clips from their movies.
This Bill Ralston-fronted two part documentary looks at Auckland’s great family business empires: the Nathans (merchants and brewers), Myers (brewers), Wilsons and Hortons (newspapers) and Winstones (construction). With fortunes made in the pioneering days of the 19th Century, they created products that became household names and dynasties that dominated local commerce. Most failed to evolve and were picked off by the corporate raiders of the 1980s, but they left behind a legacy of fine homes, major buildings and community bequests.
Blokes 'n' Sheds is a documentary where you'll find the content is exactly as titled: a tour of selected New Zealand blokes in their sheds, with the affable Jim Hopkins as tour guide. Based on Hopkins' best-selling book Blokes and Sheds (1998) the television version was made with the direct uncomplicated style that is a hallmark of Dunedin's Taylormade Productions. The contents of the sheds in question include vintage cars, oversize traction engines, a self-designed plane, and an old paddle-boat from the Whanganui River.
In this episode of the real estate reality series, super salesman Michael Boulgaris has talked a restaurateur into selling his penthouse apartment — but the price has to be right and Boulgaris needs to find active buyers for the auction. Meanwhile, an Auckland woman is on a challenging quest to find an apartment big enough to house her super-sized 6'8" New York fiancée; and there are sellers, not buyers, getting cold feet in another Boulgaris transaction (while he waits on the national listings see if he’s still number one, and refurbishes his office).
At any one time between mid 1942 and mid 1944, between 15,000 and 45,000 US servicemen were camped in NZ preparing for, and recovering from, war in the Pacific. The marines brought colour and drama to the austerity of home front life. Fifty years later this TV documentary used interviews, reenactments and archive material to explore the “American invasion”. Sonja Davies recalls a Wellington street fight kicked off by a racist insult directed at Māori, and her wartime pregnancy and romance (1,500 marriages ensued from “when the Americans were here”).
This Philip Temple-scripted episode of Our People, Our Century covers stories of New Zealanders and their turangawaewae: a piece of land they call their own. The importance of the land to farming families, and to the economy of NZ is explored through the eyes of three families. Elworthy Station in South Canterbury is being farmed by a 5th generation Elworthy. Two elderly ladies reminisce on their childhood in remote Mangapurua, near Raetihi in the central North Island. And a Māori family in Taranaki reflects on their decision to sell the family farm.
There are trials and tribulations at both ends of the spectrum in the debut episode of this long running real estate reality series (featuring house prices that now seem almost quaint). A young couple, trading down to a cheaper property, are looking at house long on what is euphemistically described as "potential" — but can they get it at the right price? Meanwhile, Michael Boulgaris, the crown prince of NZ real estate, works an auction floor attempting to get top dollar for a client selling what she hopes is a million dollar Arts and Crafts house.
Tim Shadbolt — poet, activist and soon-to-be Mayor of Waitemata, explores the often-maligned art of graffiti in this 1981 Contact special, searching from school desks and court holding cells to the bathrooms of trendy restaurants for wit and inspiration. Some of these scribbled sentiments, like “Rob Muldoon before he robs you”, have passed into legend. The best material however, comes from a group of high school girls, encouraged by their right-on English teacher during a class of well-supervised rebellion: “castrate rapists — have a ball!”
In this documentary, writer and adopted Cantabrian Joe Bennett explores the north/south divide (where that dividing line is the Bombay Hills — Jafa being an acronym for a somewhat impolite term for Aucklanders). Bennett is in sparkling form, mischievously stirring the pot of regional prejudice. The bon mots pour forth as he traverses the country probing attitudes to the denizens of the City of Sails. The deep south has never looked so hardy, cold or desolate; while the 4x4 congested motorways of Auckland appear to be paved with lattes and cellphones.
This TV documentary sees director Peter Wells look at his life “through pansy-tinted glasses”. Motivated by the anniversary of his brother’s 1989 death (from AIDS) Wells’ film charts his path to becoming a pioneering gay filmmaker and writer: including growing up in conservative Port Chevalier in the 50s and 60s, bathos, baking, and deciding to come out when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. As befits an artist whose credits include Desperate Remedies, the treatment is distinctive: a mix of doco, (aptly) flowery home movie, and quiet reflection.
Bill Ralston examines more family business empires in part two of Old Money. With varying mixes of vision, hard work and eccentricity, the Hudsons (biscuits), Sargoods (merchants), Hallensteins (clothing), Hannahs (shoes) and Shacklocks (ironmongers) made fortunes that gave their families grand houses and gracious lifestyles. Some of the brands have survived and their legacies include 65,000 items gifted to Otago museum by the Hallensteins and Downstage’s theatre endowed by Hannah money. (Robert Hannah was the maternal great-grandfather of director Jane Campion.)
This is the third documentary made about the remarkable life of Shelly West (Michelle Belesarius) who was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis as a child and blind since she was 20. After giving birth against medical odds, Shelley, and husband Dion, bring their new daughter Michela home; but they find parenting fraught with money worries and, for Shelly, the ongoing challenge of bonding with her daughter. To augment their finances, she writes a book and takes up public speaking — but a steadily weakening heart requires potentially life threatening surgery.
In this edition of the Kiwi social history series all things whānau are explored: a single mother who burnt the bills she couldn't pay; a man hurt by his father's inability to express emotion; and a gay Māori man lay their souls bare. This programme explores the changes in attitudes towards family life, marriage and children, from the restrictive early years of the century to more permissive times. The intersections between race, class and gender illuminate the personal stories, and put them in a social and historical context.
Taking in depression and prosperity, this edition of the Kiwi social history series explores the boom and bust cycles of the economy. Stories include TJ Edmonds, of baking powder fame, who made his fortune by hawking his wares around Christchurch before opening his iconic factory. Factory workforces expanded, and with them unions. Worker dissatisfaction with pay and conditions led to the Queen Street riot of 1932, a defining moment in NZ history retold here by protest leader Jim Edwards' son. Edwards’ real estate agent granddaughter is also interviewed.
More everyday Americans are encountered as this documentary series — fronted by Gordon McLauchlan — visits Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky to explore the Bible Belt touchstones of patriotism, mining, religion, guns and country music. Interviewees include a former miner and self confessed mountain man who collects guns and teaches scripture, a new wife and mother trying to settle into life in a smaller town, a truckie and aspiring musician who sees big rig drivers as the last cowboys, and a singer/songwriter looking for that elusive big break in Nashville.
This episode of the Kiwi social history series explores the importance of the ‘cradle to grave' beliefs about education, health and social welfare that have underpinned NZ governance since the 1930s. But radical reforms toward the end of the 20th century were more focused on individual opportunity than the wider social contract. Excerpts here use influential unionist James ‘Big Jim’ Roberts and generations of his family to chart social change. Written by feminist Sandra Coney, this episode also provides an overview of the monumental change in the lives of women.
Nola Luxford was one of the first Kiwi actors in Hollywood and a fondly remembered wartime club hostess. This documentary — made before renewed attention thanks to Carole Van Grondelle's definitive bio Angel of the Anzacs — sees Luxford bypass troubled times and adoration from author Zane Grey to recall decades in America. These encompassed pioneering radio work in the 30s and 40s, a film career, and most poignantly, her legendary World War II Anzac club that welcomed 35,000 soldiers to New York. There are also clips from her 1925 silent film The Prince of Pep.
An urban Maori trust, Te Whanau o Waipareira has developed from modest beginnings as a vegetable selling co-op into the biggest employment and training organisation in West Auckland. This documentary by Toby Mills and Aileen O'Sullivan examines its operations through the eyes of four people who have had their lives turned around by its all encompassing social, health, justice and education programmes. Interviewees include Pita Sharples and trust CEO John Tamihere (who recounts early struggles to be accepted by government, council and business sectors).
In Geoff Steven's Kiwi riff on the European art film, a vulcanologist (Brit character actor Nigel Davenport) roams the Volcanic Plateau accompanied by a journalist, a photographer and escapees from a cholera quarantine. Steamy philosophical musings and symbolic intent made for a marked departure from the realism of the NZ feature film renaissance (e.g. Steven’s own Skin Deep). The second feature produced by John Maynard (The Navigator), this moody allegorical tale was co-scripted by Czech writer/designer Ester Krumbachova and Czech-based Kiwi Michael Havas.
Filmed on a 15,000 km journey through China in 1979, this documentary captures a country in transition: one where billboards are emerging on the streets of Shanghai, while commune workers still toil in the countryside. The film compiles images of people and landscape to observe China's then-recent emergence from the repressive Cultural Revolution; including memories from long-term resident, Kiwi Rewi Alley. Named after a description by Alley of China, it was made alongside companion documentary: Gung Ho: Rewi Alley of China.
Sharply contrasting lives in the South-West feature in this episode of director Geoff Steven's USA road trip. Cosmetics millionaire Mary Kay Ash talks about her empire from her pink, Liberace-inspired Dallas mansion; while business efficiency guru Michael George seeks to make American industry more competitive. Meanwhile, in the New Mexico desert, Pueblo Indians attempt to reconcile ancient traditions with the nuclear arms industry that employs them; and, in El Paso, a second generation Mexican-American border guard intercepts illegal immigrants.
This episode of director Geoff Steven's USA road trip is another study in contrasts. In North Dakota, there’s impressive access to an underground missile control room staffed by highly trained officers who hope they never have to do the job for which they've prepared. Nearby, the members of a determinedly pacifist, Christian, socialist Hutterite community make for unlikely neighbours. There's also an exploration of small town values as Gilby celebrates its centenary on the 4th of July — while a John Birch Society member provides a less festive note.
This Geoff Steven doco follows NZ chefs Stephen Randle and Neville Ballantyne to a bitterly cold northern Japanese winter to compete in an international snow carving contest. Their entry, a sheep dipping scene created out of a 26 tonne block of snow, manages to look even more surreal in the icy Sapporo cityscape than the British team’s London double decker bus. Spirited competition in sub-zero temperatures produces an America’s Cup style rules controversy, but there’s light relief from the hard partying alternative American team from Portland, Oregon.
In this episode of his US TV odyssey director Geoff Steven reaches the Deep South. In Memphis, jailer WC Watson introduces his gospel singing family and there are rapturous scenes as they perform at their Beale Street church. In New Orleans, a youth court judge and her lawyer husband attempt to balance jobs and social work with raising their own children. The flipside is provided by descendants of slave owners looking for ways to hold on to their mansions now that the plantations that once supported them have gone.
The final episode of director Geoff Steven's USA road trip provides a number of different takes on the American experience. A mother working as croupier in Reno, Nevada, puts a more modern and respectable face on the state’s previously disreputable gambling industry. An 82 year old professional banjo player in Virginia City recalls his days as a cowboy, while a TV reporter still rides the range on his days off. An upmarket health spa is flourishing in Tucson, Arizona; and, in Florida, Miami has been reshaped by a massive influx of refugees from Cuba.
In the one channel days of the early 70s, the Survey slot was the place to find local documentaries. Topics ranged across the board, from social issues (alcoholism, runaway children) to the potentially humdrum (an AGM meeting) to the surprisingly experimental (an awardwinning doco about service clubs). After extended campaigning by John O’Shea, a number of emerging independent filmmakers, including Tony Williams and Roger Donaldson, joined the party, bringing fresh creativity and new techniques to the traditional narration-heavy, gently-paced doco format.