This collection looks at some of New Zealand's most significant national tragedies. Spanning 150+ years, it tells stories of drama, caution, hope and recovery — from the 1863 wreck of the Orpheus at Manukau Heads, to Tarawera, the Wahine, Erebus, Pike River and Christchurch. In the backgrounder, Jock Phillips writes about the collection, and the "common sequence" to disaster.
On 7 February 1863, the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand history occurred. British warship HMS Orpheus ran aground on a notorious sandbar at Manukau Heads, with the loss of 189 of the 259 onboard. Directed by John Milligan (Trio at the Top), this documentary was part of a series examining the country’s worst wrecks. Presented by Paul Gittins, it discusses the disaster, its cause, and the consequent investigations. While the British admiralty laid blame on the harbourmaster, local Māori interpreted the wreck as utu, for a breach of tapu by a Pākehā settler the previous day.
In June 1886 Mt Tarawera spectacularly erupted, and this documentary tells the story of the people who were caught in the catastrophic events. Around 120 people lost their lives, and the internationally famous Pink and White Terraces were destroyed. The documentary features an animated re-creation of the eruption, archival images, interviews with descendants of those involved, and readings from written eyewitness accounts. The author of the book Tarawera, Ron Keam, is also interviewed.
The Hawke’s Bay earthquake was New Zealand’s worst civil disaster. Over 250 people died following the 7.8 quake on 3 February 1931. In this full-length documentary, director Gaylene Preston (Hope and Wire) gathers eyewitness accounts from survivors, including kuia Hana Lyola Cotter, who recounts joining the rescue effort as a teen, poet Lauris Edmond, and a student from Greenmeadows Seminary. Included is eye-opening newsreel footage of the damage. Earthquake was nominated for Best Popular Documentary at the 2006 Qantas TV Awards; it won best sound at the NZ Screen Awards.
The Ballantyne's Department Store fire of 18 November 1947 was — until the 2011 earthquake — Christchurch’s biggest disaster. It claimed 41 lives and, as the narration says, was “one of the greatest civil tragedies New Zealand has known.” Shot by National Film Unit crew who happened to be in the city for another film, Christchurch Fire shows the battle to beat the blaze: from the mass of hoses on Cashel St, to a fireman swapping a ciggie for a cup of tea. After the footage was rushed to Wellington, the film debuted in cinemas the night after the fire, and was also seen overseas.
The Ballantyne's Department Store fire in November 1947 claimed 41 lives and left a lasting scar on Christchurch — the city’s biggest single disaster until the 2011 earthquake. The events of that spring day are explored in this short film which intersperses archive footage with a fictional account of workers and customers in the tailoring department as the dramas of everyday life are suddenly overwhelmed. It was directed by Aileen O’Sullivan, shot by Alun Bollinger and made with the NZ Drama School graduating class of 2002 (with music by Gareth Farr).
On Christmas Eve 1953 a volcanic eruption caused a massive lahar to flow down Whangaehu River. When the Wellington-Auckland express crossed the rail bridge at Tangiwai minutes later, it collapsed and carriages plunged into the flooded river. 151 people died out of 285, in NZ's worst rail accident. This 2002 documentary examines events and the board of inquiry finding that the accident was an act of God. This excerpt demolishes the story that Cyril Ellis could have warned the train driver what lay ahead, and argues there was a railways department cover-up at the board of inquiry.
Christmas Eve 1953: Cricketer Bob Blair (Ryan O'Kane) is in South Africa, days away from batting for New Zealand. His fiancée Nerissa Love (Maddigan's Quest's Rose McIver) is boarding an ill-fated train, which in this excerpt will plunge into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, in the country's worst rail disaster. The Dominion Post's Linda Burgess found this TV movie retelling of the tragic romance "first-rate", noting "consistently excellent" performances from O'Kane, McIver, and Miranda Harcourt as Nerissa's wary mother. Tangiwai won four NZ TV awards, including best cinematography.
Mid-1980s series Then Again revisited high profile moments in Kiwi history, mixing archive material and interviews with those who were there. This item from a 1986 episode looks back at the Strongman mine explosion of 19 January 1967, which killed 19 men at New Zealand's largest underground coal mine. Twenty years on reporter Jim Hopkins visits the still-working West Coast mine, to see if ghosts still linger. An official inquiry found that the state-run coal mine had neglected safety procedures; the Government paid compensation to families of the victims.
On 19 January 1967, an explosion rocked the Strongman coal mine on the West Coast, causing the deaths of 19 miners. This documentary, part of a series investigating NZ disasters, sees TV personality Leigh Hart examining what happened that day in Rūnanga, and how it affected the community. Interviewees include Hart’s own family: his Dad, who was in the mine at the time, his mother, and his Uncle Terry, who was part of the rescue team. This two-minute excerpt includes a reenactment of the disaster, and Leigh examining the outside of the old mine.
On April 10th 1968 the Lyttelton–Wellington ferry Wahine ran aground and sank at the entrance to Wellington Harbour. 53 people died as a result of the accident; 51 on the day. This news piece features aerial footage of the ship after the storm, and NZBC reporters conduct dramatic interviews with survivors, police and the head of the Union Steam Ship Company. Coverage was only seen by Mainlanders after a cameraman rushed up to Kaikoura and filmed a TV set that could receive a signal from Wellington — then returned to Christchurch so the footage could be broadcast.
The focus of this short film is a memorial service on Seatoun Beach, five years after the sinking of interisland ferry Wahine on 10 April 1968. More than 50 people died when the 9,000 ton ship keeled over just inside Wellington Harbour, during the ferocious Cyclone Giselle. The ferry had been in service just 20 months. National Film Unit director Sam Pillsbury uses archive footage of the sinking along with reconstructions and recreations of radio reports — the memorial service itself was recreated for the film. There are also scenes of the attempted salvage operation.
On 28 November 1979, an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus, Antarctica, killing all 257 people on board. It was the worst civil aviation disaster in NZ history and at the time, the fourth worst in the world. Made independently of state TV, Flight 901 was the first in-depth documentary on the accident. It surveys the novelty of Antarctic tourist flights, the search and rescue operation, and controversy over causes stirred by the Peter Mahon-led Royal Commission of Inquiry. This 15 minute excerpt was edited for NZ On Screen by director John Keir.
On 16 February 1986 a Russian cruise line, the Mikhail Lermontov, struck rocks off Cape Jackson in the Marlborough Sounds. The ship carried 408 mostly elderly Australian passengers, and a crew of 330. The ship drifted and eventually sank in Port Gore; one Russian sailor died. This Lynton Diggle-directed documentary was shot in the months that followed, as the camera followed dive teams into the black depths of the vessel. Their task in hazardous conditions was to salvage oil from the wreck, and preserve Marlborough's coastline.
This award-winning documentary is an account of the last days and sinking of 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, one young Russian agent bears a striking similarity to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
On 28 April 1995, the collapse of a viewing platform at Cave Creek, in Paparoa National Park on the West Coast, caused 17 students and a Department of Conservation Field Centre manager to plunge 40 metres into a chasm. 14 died, and four were injured. The documentary (from which NZ On Screen has three excerpts) explores what happened and why, with accounts by family members, survivors, and DoC staff. Made three years after the tragedy, the programme looked at its lasting impact on those left behind. It won Best Documentary at the 1998 NZ Television Awards.
This Sunday item is based on an interview with Daniel Rockhouse, one of two survivors of the Pike River mine disaster. The interview screened on 27 March 2011, less than five months after the November 2010 tragedy, when a series of methane gas explosions resulted in the deaths of 29 of Rockhouse's workmates, including his brother. Deafened and stunned, Rockhouse dragged workmate Russell Smith a kilometre through noxious gas to safety. Here the reluctant hero, cradling a newborn daughter, reflects on the events. In 2015 Rockhouse was awarded the NZ Bravery Medal.
On 19 November 2010, the first of a number of explosions occured at the Pike River coal mine. Twenty-nine men were left trapped in the tunnel. This documentary explores the lives of six of those left behind, who were wives and mothers of the miners. The disaster was NZ's worst single loss of life since the Erebus crash in 1979 — although it was eclipsed only four months later by the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake. Despite assurances that the survivors would be rescued and the dead retrieved, new owners Solid Energy announced in 2014 that the mine was still too dangerous to re-enter.
In November 2010, 29 miners died in the Pike River disaster. In 2014 Wellington’s Orpheus Choir invited singer Dave Dobbyn to compose a musical tribute to the victims. Dreams Lie Deeper followed Dobbyn to Greymouth to meet with mourning families, and visit the mine. This excerpt shows the premiere of Dobbyn's song ‘This Love’ in Wellington on 10 May 2014, to a standing ovation. The film screened on TV One on the fourth anniversary of the disaster. Sunday Star Times critic Grant Smithies called it “one hell of a documentary. Raw, touching and blessedly unsentimental.”
Gerard Smyth's acclaimed documentary about the Christchurch earthquakes is the story of people coping — for better or worse — with the huge physical and emotional toll that the quakes, and continuing aftershocks, inflicted on them, their homes and their city. It began as a home movie while the devastation of September was surveyed (with thanks given that no-one had been killed); but, as shooting of the recovery continued, the February quake compounded the destruction and claimed 182 lives (including their researcher and 16 colleagues at CTV).
On the evening after the 22 February Christchurch earthquake, Alexandra’s three person rural drink-drive squad was sent to the city to assist rescue efforts. They were accompanied by Pip Wallis who had been filming them for TV2’s Highway Cops. Hers was the only media camera allowed behind the cordon in the devastated central city Red Zone, during those first few days. This documentary intersperses news coverage with her footage as the Central Otago police confront unimagined destruction, ongoing aftershocks and the human face of the tragedy.
This 2011 episode of the Russell Brown-fronted media commentary show examines how Christchurch is dealing with the aftermath of two devastating earthquakes. First up: the CEISMIC Digital Archive is working to preserve the memories and experiences of Cantabrians, and The Press editor Andrew Holden explains why his newspaper is donating everything it has published to the project. Then CERA CEO Roger Sutton talks about the key role of media relations, and filmmaker Gerard Smyth describes shooting his acclaimed chronicle of the quakes: When a City Falls.
The second half of this documentary following the effects of the Christchurch earthquakes revisits its subjects in the days after the catastrophic events of 22 February. Devastation is now widespread, the death toll is growing and aftershocks number in the hundreds. Over the next eight months, seriously injured bodies mend but, while there are moments of hope, lives are on hold and nerves are being stretched to breaking point by the constantly moving ground, recurring liquefaction and uncertainty about whether precious homes can, or should, be rebuilt.
Blown away by "the emotional intensity" of a series of video interviews with survivors after the February 2011 quakes, Chris Dudman began making a documentary about some of those "profoundly affected" by the event. After debuting on TV One in February 2015, it won best local doco at the Documentary Edge Festival. With the aid of the original conversations, new interviews, reconstructions and unseen footage, Dudman concentrates on six people’s stories: including a construction worker, a journalist, and a man whose wife was trapped inside the CTV building.
Chimney Book takes rubble from the Christchurch earthquake, and turns it into the building blocks of a film exploring life in the quake zone. Christchurch musician Blair Parkes took bricks from his chimney — destroyed in the 22 February 2011 aftershocks — painted a letter or symbol on each, then scanned them into his computer. Sound and word form the spine of the result, which is part diary, part experimental film. Parkes explores his experiences of living in Christchurch since the quake through words like 'dust', 'memory', 'place', and a question: 'is it over?'
This documentary follows one of the biggest heritage preservation projects in New Zealand history: the fight to save Christchurch’s “other” earthquake damaged cathedral, the Roman Catholic basilica. A team led by a heritage consultant and a structural engineer struggles to keep pace with fresh damage inflicted on the stricken building by ongoing aftershocks. There are hard questions about the venture’s costs. But,as parishioners tell their stories, there’s also a reminder that the basilica isn’t just an architectural treasure — it has been the heart of a community.
The fifth episode in this series about the Christchurch earthquakes looks at the mammoth rebuild the city requires. It explores the competing tensions faced by politicians, planners, developers and citizens to fix the past, look to the future and ensure a result that is as safe and liveable as possible, for an earthquake-scarred populace. This excerpt features cardboard models and state of the art visualisations, as it examines the development of the blueprint to create a smaller central city anchored by the Avon River.
The Art of Recovery sets out to document "one of the most dynamic, creative and contentious times in the history of Christchurch". Director Peter Young (The Last Ocean) examines a post-quake city where creativity thrives among the rubble: from street art to dance spaces, to the beloved 185 Empty Chairs Memorial. But will the spirit of community and creativity survive the redesign? The Art of Recovery won raves after its 2015 NZ Film Festival premiere at Christchurch's recently restored Isaac Theatre Royal. Stuff reviewer James Croot called the result "kinetic, interesting and inspiring".
This award-winning telefilm imagines the effects of a major earthquake on New Zealand’s capital city, and how its citizens react to chaos, death, isolation and tsunami. It was completed in 2008 — before Christchurch took Wellington’s mantle as NZ's shakiest city, and made Aftershock's imagined scenes a reality. Aftershock was produced for TV3 by The Gibson Group, and written by veteran screenwriter Graeme Tetley (Out of the Blue, Vigil). The following week saw the debut of Aftershock - Would You Survive?, which put a real-life family through a three-day survival test.