Aileen O’Sullivan has helmed drama and documentary for a wide range of mediums. Her first screen job was an acting role in The Governor. After directing on Gloss and The Billy T James Show, O'Sullivan set up her production company, Seannachie Productions. She is a passionate advocate for telling NZ stories; her subjects have included writers Witi Ihimaera and Ngaio Marsh, and dance troupe Black Grace.
I love stories – finding them, listening to them, telling them. Aileen O'Sullivan
This documentary examines an unusual Aotearoa first encounter: between Māori and Russians in 1820, when Queen Charlotte Sound was visited by Fabian Bellingshausen aboard the sloop the Vostok. Alongside reenactments of crew diaries, presenter Moana Maniapoto gets a history lesson from Tipene O'Regan, and visits Russia to look at traded taonga and archive material — and also find out what the famed Antarctic discoverer was doing in Ship Cove shortly after Napoleon was sent packing from Moscow. The doco screened on Māori TV and at Australia's Message Stick Festival.
Aileen O'Sullivan's and Toby Mills' documentary follows Black Grace as they prepare for an appearance at premier dance festival Jacob's Pillow, in Massachusetts. The film also charts the personal journey of the dance group's founder, choreographer Neil Ieremia, from the community halls of Porirua to the global stage, powered by an unrelenting perfectionism that makes for some heated rehearsal footage. Shortly after the performances shown here, Ieremia fired the entire touring company, rebuilding his vision from scratch. Ken Sparks' editing won an NZ Screen Award.
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).
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 this 1998 documentary, made for TV3’s Inside New Zealand slot, prisoners provide straight-talking descriptions of life on the inside. Collectively rejecting any idea of prison as a soft option, they talk about missing sunlight, closing up emotionally, and how even “the staunchest” end up crying. One long-timer argues that imprisonment is an expected part of becoming a gang member. Statistics provide food for thought about the life cycle of criminality — 78 per cent of inmates have no school qualifications; 80 per cent were abused as children.
This documentary about Māori writer Witi Ihimaera features him in conversation with filmmaker Merata Mita. Ihimaera traverses his life and writing career, emphasising the importance of family (particularly his mother and grandmother) and his overriding Māori identity. Aileen O'Sullivan's film features a star-studded assemblage of local literature — Keri Hulme, Albert Wendt, publisher Geoff Walker — and a dramatised excerpt from his novel Bulibasha ( featuring Rena Owen, Michael Hurst and Rawiri Paratene), shot roughly two decades before 2016 movie adaptation Mahana.
In this documentary for TV One, director Aileen O'Sullivan turns the camera on three sets of mother/daughter artists, and asks whether art is in the genes. Interviewing each other about their creative lives are actor Kate Harcourt and actor/acting teacher Miranda Harcourt; weaver Erenora Puketapu-Hetet and weaver/painter Veranoa Hetet (née Hauwaho); and painter Jacqueline Fahey and performer/sculptor Augusta McDonald. Frank yet loving discussions abound, like when Hetet tells her mother "sometimes you come up with silly things".
Thinking that documentaries would benefit if film crews were much smaller, TVNZ producer Richard Thomas proposed that emerging directors take over much of the filming themselves, using consumer video cameras. Thomas organised camera workshops for First Hand's directors, and overcame opposition that this more intimate style of making documentaries wouldn't meet broadcast standards. The result gave early opportunities to a host of emerging filmmakers, including award-winners Leanne Pooley and Mark McNeill, and production executive Alan Erson.
By 1990, Billy T James, NZ’s most loved comedian, was recovering from a heart transplant - and trying his hand as a sitcom actor. His career was based on one liners and stand-up gags - but this Billy T James Show was a series of 26 half hour family based comedies with a clear debt to The Cosby Show. Billy was cast as a radio DJ with an Australian wife (Ilona Rodgers) and two daughters - but the trademark giggle was absent, the humour was gentler and the series never captured the public imagination. It was to be his last TV series — Billy T James died in 1991.
In these excerpts from his last TV series — a family based sitcom — Billy T has to deal with his radical older daughter who wants to get a moko, a teenage boy trying to smuggle beer into his younger daughter’s birthday party, a defamation writ, and another tribe becoming his landlord. There are varying degrees of help from his wife (Ilona Rodgers), his aggressively dim Australian brother-in-law (Mark Hadlow) and his daughter’s painfully politically correct pakeha boyfriend (Mark Wright), as well as cameos from Temuera Morrison, Martin Henderson and Blair Strang.
"I get around. I know everything. Except your name." Kevin Smith made his television debut (in a speaking part) on this episode from the third series of Gloss, playing smirking DJ and man-about-town Damien Vermeer. Keen to rise above his working class origins, the character sets his sights on rich brat Chelsea Redfern within moments of meeting her. Smith left work at Christchurch's Court theatre for the role, when the decision was made to up the show's male quotient. Mikey Havoc also appears in this scene, as a member of his real-life band Push Push.
By the time of Gloss’s second season the sharemarket had crashed, but the parade of yuppies, shoulder-pads and champagne went on. This 19 July 1988 episode sees the Redfern family deal with a tragedy; it also features an acting cameo from future weatherman Jim Hickey. In these excerpts Hickey isn’t playing meteorological soothsayer to the nation, but a policeman responding to the mysterious death of Brad Redfern (Michael Keir-Morrissey). He soothes the Redferns, after tossing a coin with a fellow officer for a ride to Remuera in the deceased’s Jaguar.
Gloss was a popular Kiwi television drama series made by TVNZ that screened in the late 80s; it combined a wealthy family, the Redferns, with a lucrative high-fashion magazine business. Yuppies, shoulder-pads and méthode champenoise abound in this cult "glamour soap". New Zealanders wanted to see themselves as less bottom of the world and more "here we come and we are sailing" (as the infamous Cup campaign song warbled), and Gloss was just what the era demanded.
Mortimer’s Patch was a popular drama series following Detective Sergeant Doug Mortimer (Terence Cooper) at work in the town of Cobham. Mortimer plays a city cop returning to his rural roots; Don Selwyn is Sergeant Bob Storey. The series was NZ’s first police drama, and a rare local drama to top ratings. Mortimer's Patch was made when the archetype of the ‘community cop’ everyone knew was still a powerful one, and it was a counterweight to the faceless riot policing of the Springbok Tour. Three series were made.
Screening in primetime at 6pm, People Like Us was built around exploring the spiritual and emotional aspects of people’s lives. Subjects ranged from interviews with leaders — religious and otherwise — to live events and the Red Cross. Mini seasons within the series were devoted to everything from menopause and breaking up, to cultural diversity (the latter fuelling a book as well). Producer Allison Webber managed to win funding from outside of state TV for some of these specials, and the show shared resources on occasion with RNZ’s former Continuing Education Unit.
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 TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
Pioneering soap opera Close To Home first screened in May 1975. For just over eight years middle New Zealand found their mirror in the life and times of Wellington’s Hearte clan. At its peak in 1977 nearly one million viewers tuned in twice weekly to watch the series co-created by Michael Noonan and Tony Isaac (who had initially only agreed to make the show on the condition they would get to make The Governor). The popular family saga carved a regular niche for local drama on screen, and the output demands were foundational in developing industry talent.