Alister Barry has been making intelligent and provocative documentaries for more than three decades. Barry's films reflect his longtime interest in how power is exercised in a democracy, and how the decisions of the powerful impact on ordinary people's lives.
Alister Barry is one of the under-sung heroes of the New Zealand film world. Graeme Tuckett, writing in The Dominion Post
Moa-nominated for Best Documentary, this full-length title chronicles two decades of political football between New Zealanders hoping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and followers of the business as usual approach. Co-directing with his longtime editor Abi King-Jones, Alister Barry (The Hollow Men) continues his patented approach of melding new interviews with raids on the news archives. Critic Graeme Tuckett argued that the film makes “a compelling case that although the science was settled by 1990, we’ve allowed politics and corporations to mute our response to a very real crisis”.
On October 15 2007, citing evidence of guerilla camps involving firearms training, police raided 60 houses across NZ, many of them in Ruatoki, near Whakatane. In production for almost as many years as the ensuing legal proceedings, this provocative documentary proposes that the so-called “anti-terrorism” raids were bungled, racist and needlessly terrifying to children. The film’s subtitle ‘Deep in the Forest’ is inspired by ex Red Squad second-in-command Ross Meurant, who argues that as police move into specialist units they grow increasingly paranoid.
This Alister Barry-directed documentary is about the National Party and the 2005 election; it was made in conjunction with Nicky Hager’s book written from leaked party e-mails. Barry follows novice MP, and then leader, Don Brash through a hyper-charged era in NZ politics as National attempts to reconcile a political agenda with electability, and to unseat Helen Clark’s Labour government. Speechwriters, advertising agencies, pollsters and party donors all feature, as do Brash’s infamous Orewa speeches, Exclusive Brethren “attack” pamphlets and Iwi/Kiwi billboards.
This documentary looks at the new right ideology that transformed public education in the 80s and 90s and the schism it caused with teachers. Interviews with parents, teachers and unionists are cut together with archive footage of treasury officials and politicians advocating that schools be run as businesses. There are vexed board of trustees' meetings, an infamous deal between Avondale College and Pepsi, and teachers take their opposition from the classroom to the streets. The film is the third in Alister Barry's series critical of neo-liberal reform in NZ.
Sedition - The Suppression of Dissent in World War II New Zealand chronicles the experiences of Kiwi pacifists during wartime. New laws affecting meetings, mail and media coverage meant that talking about pacifism could result in arrest, and imprisonment. By June 1940, holding more than one copy of a 'subversive' magazine could mean nine months hard labour. Ironically many of the MPs backing the laws had earlier been imprisoned for their anti-war beliefs; while Christian Pacifist Society leader Ormond Burton was twice decorated for bravery during World War I.
The tagline runs: "The story of unemployment in New Zealand" and In A Land of Plenty is an exploration of just that; it takes as its starting point the consensus from The Depression onwards that Godzone economic policy should focus on achieving full employment, and explores how this was radically shifted by the 1984 Labour government. Director Alister Barry's perspective is clear, as he trains a humanist lens on ‘Rogernomics' to argue for the policy's negative effects on society, "as a new poverty-stricken underclass developed".
In 1996 Tony Sutorius got his hands on a new digital video camera, days before the start of an election campaign in Wellington Central. Made on the proverbial shoestring, this feature-length documentary chronicles five of those battling for the crown as a new political age — MMP — dawns. Richard Prebble joins a new party called Act, the National candidate joins United New Zealand… and one of the five will be sacrificed by their own party. Sutorius sat through 55 hours of footage to forge the result, which won enthused, sellout audiences at the 1999 NZ Film Festival.
Someone Else’s Country looks critically at the radical economic changes implemented by the 1984 Labour Government - where privatisation of state assets was part of a wider agenda that sought to remake New Zealand as a model free market state. The trickle-down ‘Rogernomics’ rhetoric warned of no gain without pain, and here the theory is counterpointed by the social effects (redundant workers, Post Office closures). Made by Alister Barry in 1996 when the effects were raw, the film draws extensively on archive footage and interviews with key “witnesses to history”.
This documentary travels to nine Pacific nations, including New Zealand, to chronicle the long struggle to create a regional nuclear arms free zone. Interviews with politicians, activists, radiation victims and American and French admirals are counterpointed. When hopes of a treaty are dashed at a South Pacific Forum meet, it is pointed out that the David Lange-trumpeted independence of NZ's nuclear-free policy is evidently "not for export". Local music scores the doco, including Australia's Midnight Oil, whose lead singer (future MP Peter Garrett) is interviewed.
The Dominant Species is a loopy look at the relationship between people and cars in 1975 Aotearoa ... from an alien's eye view. Nifty animation and special effects intersperse the automotive anthropological survey of Mark IIs, VWs, anti-car activism and car-washing. There's a dream sequence involving a ladykilling Jesus Christ atop a car, and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries scores a rugby match traffic jam (also used in a famous scene in Apocalypse Now). Filmheads will note the tripped out assembly is flush with formative industry talents (see this guide by director Derek Morton).
Merata Mita’s Patu! is a startling record of the mass civil disobedience that took place throughout New Zealand during the winter of 1981, in protest against a South African rugby tour. Testament to the courage and faith of both the marchers and a large team of filmmakers, the feature-length documentary is a landmark in Aotearoa's film history. It staunchly contradicts claims by author Gordon McLauchlan a couple of years earlier that New Zealanders were "a passionless people".
Goodbye Pork Pie was a low-budget sensation, definitively proving Kiwis could make blockbusters too. Young Gerry (Kelly Johnson) steals a yellow Mini from a Kaitaia rental company. Heading south, he meets John (Tony Barry), who wants his wife back, and hitchhiker Shirl (Claire Oberman). Soon they're heading to Invercargill, with the police in pursuit. High on hair-raising driving and a childlike sense of joy, the Blondini gang are soon hailed as folk heroes, on screen and off. Remake Pork Pie (2017) was directed by Matt Murphy — son of Geoff, who drove the original film.
This headline-grabbing 1979 documentary examines inequality via interviews with an unemployed student, a young widow and a Porirua family of eight; plus visits to a Fijian village and a Hong Kong housing estate. The film's arguments that business and government monopolies had caused poverty in “egalitarian New Zealand”, and that NZ trade practices had added to it elsewhere, displeased Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. State television refused to screen the Greg Stitt-directed documentary; CORSO, the charity who commissioned it, was removed from the government’s funding list.
This 1977 film looks at the meeting of the 'two rivers' (Māori and Pākehā, oral and written) of the Aotearoa literary tradition. Rowley Habib is a guide as hui take place and readings of contemporary Māori poetry are set to images of Māori life, from Parihaka and land march photos to Bastion Point, urban scenes and a Black Power hangi. Poets include Mana Cracknell, Peter Croucher, Robin Kora, (a young) Keri Hulme, Brian King, Apirana Taylor, Katarina Mataira, Don Selwyn, Henare Dewes, Rangi Faith, Dinah Rawiri, Haare Williams, Hone Tuwhare, and Arapera Blank.
A fictional memoir of a 12-year-old boy's holiday on his uncle's farm, Old Man's Story is also a character study of the personable, potentially dodgy ex-sailor who works there as hired hand. When an orphaned girl comes to stay, there are worries the man has crossed the line in his relationship with her. The first drama for Wellington company The Gibson Group, Old Man's Story also marks a rare screen adaptation of author Frank Sargeson, whose tales of losers and outsiders made him "one of the founders of a modern New Zealand literature" (Lawrence Jones).
In 1973 Alister Barry joined the crew of a protest boat (The Fri) to Mururoa Atoll, where the French Government were testing nuclear weapons. Barry records the assembly of the crew, the long journey from Northland, and their reception in the test zone; when The Fri was boarded and impounded by French military he had to hide his camera in a barrel of oranges. The Fri was a key part of activism that was formative for environmental group Greenpeace, and anti-nuclear sentiment in NZ. Barry's debut film screened primetime on NZ TV and gained international attention.