As an intrepid young cameraman for the National Film Unit, Don Oakley travelled to remote parts of New Zealand and brought to the screen scenes of the recently-rediscovered takahē, Opo the dolphin, and life in the backblocks. In a lengthy career, he also filmed in the studio and overseas, rising to be chief cameraman of the NFU.
We were advised by Southern Scenic Airways that to assure maximum co-operation from the whitebaiters at Martin's Bay we should take a bottle of whisky in for them. I did this and attach receipt. I would be pleased if you could arrange reimbursement of the amount - £1.17.6. In a 1961 memo from Don Oakley to Geoffrey Scott (Manager of the NFU).
This chronicle of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marked one of the National Film Unit's most ambitious productions. Though a range of events (including famous runs by John Walker and Dick Tayler), are covered, the film often bypasses the pomp and glory approach; daring to talk to the injured and mentioning that most competitors lose. The closing ceremonies of the "friendly games" feature the athletes gathering to — as the official song's chorus put it — "join together". The directing team included Paul Maunder, Sam Pillsbury, and Arthur Everard.
This NFU production covers the Shah of Iran’s first tour downunder, and uses the occasion to showcase New Zealand to international viewers: from scenery to topdressing, dental clinics and Wellington Girls’ College. The four day visit could be seen as a symbol of globalisation: NZ had been cut adrift by Britain and was looking for markets for its lamb, cheese and wool, and to secure oil supplies. The Shah needed food for his modernising petroleum exporting country. (The booming trade was to be curtailed by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when the Shah was exiled.)
This NFU mini-biopic eulogises the 19th Century Māori leader Te Rauparaha. The Ngāti Toa chief led his people on an exodus from Kāwhia, to a stronghold on Kāpiti Island where he reigned — via musket, flax trade and diplomacy — over a Cook Strait empire extending south to Akaroa. The free-ranging film includes recreations of the 'Wairau Incident' (that stirred fears of Māori uprising amidst settlers); Te Rauparaha’s ignominious 1846 arrest by Governor Grey; and the 1849 reburial on Kapiti of the "cannibal statesman" (evocatively rendered using inverted colours).
This 1972 NFU documentary looks at the care of children born with physical disabilities. Aimed at families with ‘crippled’ children, the film was directed by Frank Chilton for the Crippled Children Society (now CCS Disability Action). Parents, doctors, teachers and field officers are shown engaging with children and young adults at home and in the community, from spring-loaded splints for spina bifida patients to Māori stick games as therapy for cerebral palsy. It is introduced by Mrs New Zealand 1970, Alison Henry (whose son was born with a congenital foot defect).
Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was crowned King of Tonga on his 49th birthday. This NFU film covers the lead up to and the entire ceremony on 4 July 1967. It was the first coronation in the island kingdom since Tupou’s mother, Queen Sālote, in 1918. Tongans from the outer islands had been arriving in the capital Nuku'alofa for a month. Dignitaries included the Duke and Duchess of Kent and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, plus opposition leader Norman Kirk. Director Derek Wright covers the ceremony with decorum, reflecting the dignity of the occasion.
Surveying All Blacks rugby from 1905 until 1967, this wide-ranging documentary is framed around the NZ Rugby Football Union’s 75th jubilee celebrations. The archival gold mine includes matches from the 1905 Originals and 1924 Invincibles tours, and clashes with Springboks, British Lions, Wallabies and French rivals. There's also footage of NZ schoolboy and NZ Māori clashes, and a jubilee match with Australia. Funded by Caltex NZ, the documentary was made by legendary Pacific Films co-founder John O’Shea. Press on the backgrounds tab for a list — in order — of all the matches.
President Lyndon B Johnson's whirlwind visit to New Zealand on 19 October 1966 is chronicled in this National Film Unit documentary. The visit came as controversy grew over Kiwi involvement in the Vietnam War. But aside from a few protestors, the first visit to NZ by a serving US President and his wife was greeted with enthusiasm by about 200,000 Wellingtonians. State and civic receptions were followed by the obligatory farm visit to watch a shearing gang, before the President flew out at the end of 'New Zealand’s day with LBJ'.
This National Film Unit doco illustrates the early days of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Performances from the company’s touring program include Bournonville’s Napoli, kiwi Arthur Turnbull’s Do-Wack-A-Do, a quirky 1930s flapper themed production (also with a NZ composer, Dorothea Franchi) and the tulle and poise of Fokine’s Les Sylphides. Prismatic Variations, choreographed by ballet company founder Poul Gnatt, and produced by another dance icon Russell Kerr, is the finale for this tribute to those who have made New Zealanders “ballet conscious.”
This 1963 film looks at how the development of high country aviation is taking on the challenges presented by the South Island’s rugged geography. Piloted by war veterans, small aircraft parachute supplies into remote locations for Forest Service hut building and service lighthouses. Meanwhile helicopters and airlines open up opportunities for industry (venison, tourism, forestry, topdressing) and recreation (fishing, hunting). Good keen men, smokos and Swannies abound in this classically-filmed National Film Unit documentary.
This 1962 National Film Unit production is a comprehensive survey of the history and (then) state of Māori carving. Many taonga are filmed on display at Wellington’s Dominion Museum, and the design aspects of ‘whakairo’ are examined, from the spiral motif to the origin of iconic black, red and white colouring. Finding reviving tradition in new “community halls”, the film shows the building of Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt in 1960, recording the processes behind woven tukutuku panels and kowhaiwhai patterns, as the tapping of mallets provides a percussive presence.
This 1960 National Film Unit documentary visits the Cook Islands, a group of volcanic isles and coral atolls administered by New Zealand. Ron Bowie's film surveys the challenges of island life (sourcing fresh water, lack of timber for housing) as well as agriculture (coconuts), recreation and schooling. Though patronising — describing Rarotongan people as “the cheerful islander” — the narration confronts some impacts of modernity (eg the shift to European diet for dental health), and anticipates young people will be the islands' biggest export.
Our Stars of Ballet, a short documentary from ballet teacher turned NFU director Kathleen O'Brien, tracks the careers of New Zealand ballet icons Rowena Jackson and Alexander Grant, who both achieved success as principal dancers for major ballet companies in England. The film follows their visit to Wellington with the Royal Ballet in 1959; Jackson picnics by the harbour with dancer husband Philip Chatfield, while Grant visits Mt Victoria. The film ends with Jackson performing her famed multiple fouttés en tournant, for which she held the world record in 1959.
This NFU documentary goes behind the scenes as Selwyn Toogood and his team prepare an episode of 50s radio quiz show It's In the Bag, long before it hit the telly. Questions are prepared and booby prizes — epsom salts, toy ducks — selected, before Toogood hits the stage at the Lower Hutt Town Hall to utter the ultimate poser. The big prizes du jour included washing machines and flash (New Zealand-made!) fridge-freezers. The show was so popular with '50s radio audiences it was said cinemas closed their doors on Tuesday nights when it went to air.
In the 1940s and 50s sheep shearers Godfrey and Ivan Bowen developed the 'Bowen Technique', an innovative method involving rhythmical sweeps of the handpiece. The Guardian described Godrey as having arms that “flow with the grace of a Nureyev shaping up to an arabesque”. Here he runs through the 'blows' (strokes) designed to achieve "maximum speed, quality work with a minimum of physical effort". Shearing Technique was originally produced in 1956; this shorter cut screened in New Zealand theatres in 1958 with UK coming of age film High Tide at Noon.
This National Film Unit production was made to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Plunket Society. Plunket — aka ‘Karitane’ — nursing is a New Zealand system of ante-natal and post-natal care for mothers and infants, founded by Sir Truby King: “the man who saved the babies”. Featuring original nurse Joanne MacKinnon, the film follows Plunket from a time of high infant mortality to providing contemporary nursing to a New Zealand flush with postwar optimism: “a family country, where children grow happily in the fresh air and sunshine.”
This 1955 film looks at the “savage” geology of the North Island volcanic region, and its human settlement. Te Arawa myth introduces the steaming valleys of volcano and quake god Rūaumoko. The film then surveys geothermal activity and its exploitation by Māori and Pākehā, from cooking to heating hospital radiators. It ends with a dramatic geyser display in front of tourists. Guide Rangi cameos. It screened at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and was John Feeney’s last National Film Unit gig before directing Oscar-nominated films for the National Film Board of Canada.
This is the official film of the Royal visit to Queen Sālote's Kingdom in 1954, made by the National Film Unit for the Tongan Government. There is comprehensive coverage of the welcome, traditional ceremonies and feasting, dancing and singing, the church service, and the farewell. The young, recently coronated, Queen Elizabeth and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, leave the 'friendly islands' on the Royal liner Gothic, which will continue on to New Zealand.
The Cathedral Bells ring out in Christchurch as New Zealand celebrates the coronation of Elizabeth II. Inside the cathedral and in other places of worship, like the chapel at Longbeach Estate (near Ashburton) and the picturesque St James church at the foot of Franz Josef Glacier, the faithful give thanks (including pioneering mountain guides Peter and Alex Graham). Outside, the day is marked by processions and military parades in the main centres (filmed on 2 June 1953). In Wellington Governor General Sir Willoughby Norrie commands "God Save the Queen!"
This isn't an apartheid manual or minimalist design code, but a 1952 road safety film from the National Film Unit. The film follows 'Mrs White' and 'Mrs Black' leaving their respective homes (on foot) for a bridge evening. Mrs White wears visible clothing and faces the traffic (would a modern colour remake see a Mrs Fluoro?). Mrs Black dresses eponymously and walks with her back to the traffic. Predictable results ensue. Modern viewers who associate such character names with Reservoir Dogs will not be disappointed by the suspenseful denouement.
Godzone is “timber country” in this seventh slot in the New Zealand Now series. The NFU film looks at the world of the Kiwi bushman, as milling is providing the raw material for a postwar housing boom. The narrators provide a good keen guide to life in the remote and tiny (six houses) North Island town of Oraukura, where timber men fell giant native trees during the day and split kindling after work. For the men it’s a hard, but good life; for their wives it’s “pretty dull”. The Axemen’s Carnival in Taumarunui features OSH-unsanctioned woodchopping in socks.
This documentary film tells the story of the Whanganui River. It recounts a Māori myth believing the river is the path carved by a god (Pukeonaki aka Mt Taranaki) in its journey from the volcanic plateau to the west coast. There is beautifully shot footage of Māori paddling a waka under tui-laden matai, and tourists cruising on steamers. In 1950 the NFU had become part of the Department of Tourism and Publicity (after accusations of political bias); and this film reflects the change, with a triumphant narrative of progress underpinning an often-bloody river history.
In November 1948 New Zealand got its own Lost World story, when a population of takahē — a large flightless rail, long thought extinct — was found in a remote part of Fiordland. The rediscovery of ‘notornis’ (a cousin of the pūkeko), by Southland doctor Geoffrey Orbell, generated international interest. This episode of the NFU’s Weekly Review newsreel series treks from Lake Te Anau high into the Murchison Mountains, where the team (including naturalist Robert Falla) find sea shell fossils, evidence of moa-hunter campsites, and the dodo-like takahē itself.
This 1950 edition of the Weekly Review series welcomes the touring British Lions rugby team in Wellington, where speeches are given on the wharf. It was the first post-war tour by the Lions (notable for the debut of their iconic red jerseys — not able to be discerned in this black and white reel!). Then it’s down to Canterbury Museum to explore displays of moa bones, cave paintings and the relics of the moa hunters. Finally it’s up to the farthest north to visit Te Rerenga Wairua, for a look at life keeping the ‘lonely lighthouse’ at Cape Reinga Station.