Between getting his start in filmmaking with the National Film Unit, and returning to New Zealand to retire, John Feeney made his name as a director at the National Film Board of Canada; he also spent 40 years filming and photographing in Egypt. Some of his NFU films were considered to be outstanding documentaries, and two of his Canadian films were nominated for Academy Awards.
He is a brilliant product of the most fruitful period in New Zealand documentary film-making. Maurice Shadbolt in Landfall, September 1958
Brian Brake is regarded as New Zealand's most successful international photographer. He worked for the Magnum cooperative, and snapped famous shots of Pablo Picasso at a bullfight and the Monsoon series for Life magazine. In this Inspiration documentary — made shortly before his 1988 death — Brake reviews his lifelong quest for “mastery over light”, from an Arthur’s Pass childhood to a fascination with Asia. He recalls time at the National Film Unit and is seen capturing waka huia, Egyptian tombs, and Castlepoint’s beach races (for a new version of book Gift of the Sea).
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 film outlines the efforts to transform the “barren” pumice lands of the North Island’s Central Plateau into arable farmland. Once scientists discover the magic missing ingredient that will make the soil more fertile (cobalt chloride), the serious job of burning scrub, ploughing and sowing begins. The film uses a traditional 'triumph over nature' narrative, but director John Feeney makes elegant use of montage and composition. Author Maurice Shadbolt, who spent time working at the National Film Unit, regarded it as "without doubt the best film to come from the Unit".
This short National Film Unit documentary travels to Westland to meet the kōtuku or white heron. In Aotearoa, the kōtuku is known for its beauty and scarcity (the bird’s only NZ breeding colony is near Okarito Lagoon). The black and white film joins the ranger to go whitebaiting, as kōtuku arrive in spring. Kōtuku’s special place in Māori mythology is recounted, and legendary ornithologist Robert Falla checks out chicks in a crowded ponga fern nest. Directed by John Feeney, the film premiered in Christchurch in front of Queen Elizabeth, on her Coronation Tour.
This NFU public safety film takes a jaunty approach to a serious subject as it shows road crossing dangers via bad examples. Mis-steps include walking off the footpath carelessly, crossing the road at oblique angles, 'dithering', and over-confidence. The humour may be physical and the narration pun-filled, but the lessons remain relevant, as pedestrian accidents on Wellington's and Auckland's 21st Century city bus lanes attest. Despite the big question promise of the title there is no Socratic dialogue about crossing the road or any consideration of chickens.
Using spectral tactics to generate road safety awareness this film carries on from where The Elysian Bus left off, emphasising that the loss of the 300 Kiwis who are likely to die on the roads in the coming year will be more than statistical. A Christmas Carol-style future projection shows gifts being handed out from under the tree, but Mary is not there to receive hers as she was on "the list of names". Actual crash footage drives home the grim message with more solemnity than Ghost Chips. One of the names under the reaper's skeletal finger is spookily 'Peter Jackson'.
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.