In 1992 Justin Pemberton was awarded the Senior Prize for Psychology at Auckland University. But his fate was sealed when he followed his psychology degree with a diploma in Broadcast Communication. By the mid 90s Pemberton was directing noir-style videos for Strawpeople and working on music show Music Nation. In 1997 he was picked to direct the title track of Bic Runga’s breakthrough album Drive.
Around this time Pemberton was helming the first of a wide range of documentary projects, including episodes of Shipwreck and Robyn Malcolm-hosted series NZ Sex. The two worlds of documentary and music would fuse with singer Anika Moa.
Pemberton made a number of videos for Moa’s songs; in 2004 he directed doco Three Chords and the Truth, which follows Moa as she wins a contract with Atlantic Records in New York, then starts to worry about the company’s plans for her music and image. A second Moa-related doco was picked to open the 2010 season of Artsville. In Bed with Anika Moa takes up her story from 2006. Filmed partly in motel rooms and taxis, the film reveals that Moa couldn’t focus on her career until she came to peace with her own sexuality.
Inbetween the Moa docos, Pemberton directed films on the NZ Symphony Orchestra (Airports and Overtures) and sleep deprivation (A Sleepy Life). He would also stack up a trio of awards for 2005’s Love, Speed and Loss. A healthy seller on DVD, the film uses interviews and home movie footage to chart the tragic story of motorcyle champ Kim Newcombe, who was killed racing in 1973 and posthumously came second in that year's World 500cc Grand Prix. Love, Speed and Loss won best documentary at the 2007 Qantas TV Awards and Air NZ Screen Awards for best documentary, directing, and editing.
2007‘s The Nuclear Comeback investigated the pros and cons of nuclear power. En route, Pemberton and his crew visited Chernobyl, one of the earliest nuclear stations (at Sellafield in England) and a nuclear waste repository under the Baltic Sea. The finished film did some travelling of its own: from festivals in Germany and Mexico, to Italy's long-running environmental film festival Cinemambiente.
Guardian writer Leo Hickman was one of the judges who awarded it top prize. Hickman later argued that “like the best documentaries, it is engaging, nuanced and avoids preaching its cause ... God only knows how he [Pemberton] persuaded them, but the authorities at Chernobyl allowed him to film inside the now abandoned, highly radioactive control room and inner core. It is thought to be the first time a western film crew has ever been allowed so far inside.”
Doco Is She or Isn’t He?, which played at NZ's 2011 Documentary Edge Festival, tells the story of a man’s search for acceptance — as a woman. Pemberton followed it with widely-acclaimed The Golden Hour, which combined archive footage, interviews and dramatisations to tell the story of how Peter Snell and Murray Halberg (with the help of super coach Arthur Lydiard) triumphed at the 1960 Rome Olympics. It screened in the Sunday Theatre slot on TV One just prior to the commencement of the London 2012 Olympics. It went on to a nomination for Best Documentary at the International Emmy Awards.
NZ Herald veteran Russell Baillie praised the “riveting” result for its candid interviews, casting (for the recreations), and avoiding the predictable. “It helped too that director Justin Pemberton knows that when it comes to dramatised scenes in a doco, they had better look and smell authentic and show rather than tell.”
The Docufactory website. Accessed 20 November 2014
Russell Baillie, ‘Russell Baillie: Rare piece of TV gold‘ (Review of The Golden Hour) - NZ Herald, 26 July 2012
Leo Hickman, ‘Movies with a message’ - The Guardian, 23 October 2008
‘TV Pick of the week: Artsville: In Bed with Anika Moa’ - NZ Herald (Time Out liftout), 2 December 2010