A founding member of early electronic group Free Radicals, Jonathan Besser has composed for opera, ballet, theatre (Red Mole) and performance ensemble Bravura. Born in New York but New Zealand-based since 1974, Besser began adding screen compositions to his CV in the 90s. Since then he has composed extensively for documentary maker Shirley Horrocks, been award-nominated for 1995 documentary feature War Stories, and won a TV Guide Television Award for documentary A Cat Among the Pigeons. In 2015, Besser began composing for 3 News' World War One short documentary series, Great War Stories

I’ve used Jonathan’s music for a number of documentaries because I really like his eclectic approach. He understands what’s needed for a particular sequence, and at the same time he adds a composer’s unique touch. Director Shirley Horrocks
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Great War Stories 3 - Gallipoli tortoise

2016, Composer - Television

This edition of Great War Stories accompanies author Shona Riddell to Berhampore Primary School in Wellington, where she reads her story of a pet tortoise that she grew up with. It was taken from the trenches of Gallipoli by a soldier, gifted to hospital nurse Nora Hughes (Riddell’s great aunt), then transported to New Zealand, where the tortoise’s adventures didn’t end: he made local news on a walkabout to Mangatainoka Brewery. The series of short documentaries screened during TV3’s nightly news, as part of centennial commemorations of World War l.

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Great War Stories 3 - HMS New Zealand

2016, Composer - Television

This first episode from the third series of Great War Stories chronicles HMS New Zealand, a navy battleship that served in the Royal Navy (New Zealand didn’t have a navy in World War I). The ‘first class battleship’ was paid for by New Zealand to aid British sea power. Nearly half the population of New Zealand visited the ship when it visited in 1913. Its role in the Battle of Jutland is explored, including a ‘lucky charm’ piupiu worn by its captain in battle. The series of short documentaries screened during TV3’s nightly news, as part of Great War centennial commemorations.

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Great War Stories 3 - Leslie Beauchamp

2016, Composer - Television

In World War l Leslie Beauchamp was a soldier in the British Army, who died aged only 21 when a grenade exploded in his hand during a training demonstration. This episode of mini documentary series Great War Stories remembers Beauchamp through the words of his sister, writer Katherine Mansfield. Leslie's time growing up in Wellington is examined, as well as the mutual affection between brother and sister — including samples from letters they wrote to one another, and tributes that Mansfield would pay to him in her fiction and poetry.

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Great War Stories 3 - Peter Howden

2016, Composer - Television

Peter Howden’s daily letters to his wife Rhoda during World War I provide one of the most comprehensive accounts of what life was like for a Kiwi soldier in the trenches at Passchendaele in Belgium. In his letters, read in this short documentary by his great-grandson, he tells of camping out within the sightline of the enemy, dugouts formed in disused trenches, and the treacherous terrain the soldiers had to navigate. Howden would fall victim to a gas attack which left him blind, and eventually caused his death on 17 October 1917. 

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Great War Stories 3 - Ranji Wilson

2016, Composer - Television

All Black Ranji Wilson was 30 when he set off for France to fight with the Rifle Brigade during WWl. When he wasn't involved with trench warfare, his rugby skills were used to full advantage. Wilson vice captained the "Trench Blacks" to win against the French in 1918. After France (where he was injured at the Battle of Havrincourt), Wilson visited South Africa but wasn't allowed to play rugby because he was "coloured". Wilson, whose father was West Indian, became an All Black selector on his return to New Zealand and died in Lower Hutt in 1953.

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Great War Stories 3 - The Marquette

2016, Composer - Television

When the British troopship The Marquette sank in the Aegean Sea, killing 32 New Zealanders in World War One, it caused outrage in Aotearoa. Their deaths — mainly nurses and medical orderlies — could have been avoided if they had been on a hospital ship, which gave more protection from attack. Instead 167 people died on 23 October 1915 when a German torpedo slammed into their vessel. This Great War Stories episode interviews actor Antonia Prebble about her role in Australian TV series Anzac Girls, playing Marquette survivor nurse Hilda Steele. 

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Great War Stories 2 - Ettie Rout

2015, Composer - Television

Narrated by Hilary Barry and screening on 3 News, this series of short documentaries profiles New Zealanders involved in World War I. This episode looks at sexual health campaigner Ettie Rout, who was determined to tackle the high venereal disease rate amongst Kiwi soldiers. Her biographer Jane Tolerton tells of Rout advocating for prophylactic kits, and setting up a safe sex brothel in France. Rout attracted controversy and censorship, and was scorned by the establishment as immoral. But soldiers and doctors thanked her as the "guardian angel of the ANZACs". 

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Great War Stories 2 - Hāmi Grace

2015, Composer - Television

In Wellington, Hāmi Grace was respected for his cricketing and rugby prowess. In Gallipoli, his sniper skills became legendary. This four minute short documentary uses Grace's diary entries to recount his experiences at Gallipoli with the Wellington Battalion. The former Wellington College pupil turned lieutenant wrote about the squalid conditions, graves "everywhere", and fighting the Turks. Grace was killed at Chunuk Bair in August 1915. Every year Wellington College holds a remembrance ceremony for Grace and the 29 other former pupils who died in Gallipoli. 

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Great War Stories 2 - Lottie Le Gallais

2015, Composer - Television

This episode of the series about New Zealanders in World War I looks at Lottie Le Gallais. The Auckland nurse worked on the hospital 'mercy' ship Maheno, which transported wounded soldiers from Anzac Cove at Gallipoli. She arrived to find her brother Leddie had been killed. Te Papa exhibition Gallipoli: The Scale of our War featured a large-scale model of Le Gallais learning of Leddie's death, crafted by Weta Workshop. Weta boss Richard Taylor is interviewed here. The series was narrated by Hilary Barry, and screened during 3 News.

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Great War Stories 2 - Ormond Burton

2015, Composer - Television

From the second series of short documentaries remembering New Zealanders in World War I, this episode looks at Ormond Burton. Burton left for war as a 21-year-old, and served as a medic and in the infantry. He was decorated for bravery, and a bible saved him from a bullet. His stance on the justness of war changed after experiencing the horrors of Gallipoli and the Western Front. During  World War ll the Methodist minister was jailed as a conscientious objector; later he became a prominent pacifist and anti-Vietnam War campaigner. The series screened during 3 News.

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Great War Stories 2 - The Executed Five

2015, Composer - Television

During World War I five members of the New Zealand Division were executed for military crimes  — four for desertion and one for mutiny. Two of them, Victor Spencer and John Braithwaite, are profiled in this episode of Great War Stories. Spencer, an apprentice engineer from Bluff, was twice convicted of desertion, and put to death — despite an officer he'd known at Gallipoli vouching for his good character. Braithwaite was executed for mutiny, after trying to defuse a fight over the inhumane living conditions of military prisons. In 2000 the government pardoned all five executed men.

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Great War Stories 2 - The Harper Brothers

2015, Composer - Television

The youngest of eight children from a prominent Canterbury family, brothers Robin and Gordon Harper signed up eagerly to enlist in World War l. The Harpers fought in Turkey and Egypt as machine gunners with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, earning medals for their bravery at Hill 60 in Gallipoli. Using their farming skills, the brothers found each other on the battlefield with their distinctive dog whistles. Susan Harper, a relative of the pair, displays a Turkish machine gun one of the brothers brought home. The other sibling was killed in battle in Egypt.

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Great War Stories 2 - William Malone

2015, Composer - Television

When Taranaki farmer and lawyer William Malone signed up to fight in World War l, he was the oldest man in the Wellington Battalion. But far from being frail, 56-year-old Colonel Malone was fit and disciplined. The Parihaka veteran became one of New Zealand's most important figures at Gallipoli. This short documentary about Kiwis in World War l uses Malone's diary entries and an interview with his great-great-great grandson to tell the remarkable story of Malone's battalion capturing Chunuk Bair, on 8 August 1915. Malone was killed that day by Allied artillery.

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Night After Night

2007, Composer - Film

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The Guns of Motutapu

2005, Composer

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Poroporoaki

2004, Composer - Short Film

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Lands of our Fathers

2004, Composer - Television

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Marti: The Passionate Eye

2004, Composer - Television

Arriving downunder from London in 1958, Marti Friedlander began photographing New Zealand, partly as a way of coming to terms with what she saw as its foreignness. In the process she captured aspects of Aotearoa that familiarity had made invisible to its inhabitants. She photographed artists, Springbok Tour protesters, and kuia with moko (for a book with historian Michael King). After screening on TV One, Shirley Horrocks' documentary was one of 20 chosen to screen at Doku.Arts 2007, a German festival devoted to films about artists. Friedlander passed away in November 2016. 

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Children of Gallipoli

2001, Composer - Television

Children of Gallipoli offered viewers another angle on the Gallipoli story. Produced for TVNZ and Turkish television, the documentary focuses on four young people, two Turks and two New Zealanders. All are descended from men who fought at Gallipoli in 1915. Travelling to Turkey, the Kiwis explore the battle site and meet the other two participants. Together they gain an insight into the grim reality of what their ancestors experienced. Seeing it through their eyes charges the film with a strong emotional resonance. Anna Cottrell writes here about the challenges of directing it. 

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Early Days Yet

2001, Composer, As: Pianist - Television

Early Days Yet, directed by Shirley Horrocks, is a full-length documentary about New Zealand poet Allen Curnow, made in the last months of his life. The poet talks about his life and work, and visits the places of some of his most important poems. It includes interviews with other New Zealand poets about Curnow's significance as an advocate for New Zealand poetry. As Curnow famously mused in front of a moa skeleton displayed in Canterbury Museum: "Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year / Will learn the trick of standing upright here."

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Getting to Our Place

1999, Composer - Television

This documentary is a view into the crucible that forged museum Te Papa, which opened on Wellington's waterfront in February 1998. Fascinating fly-on-the-wall moments are captured as a new kind of national museum is conceived. This excerpt features a board meeting where Saatchi & Saatchi present branding options. As political, ideological, creative and commercial considerations collide, the frustrations of decision making by committee are palpable: the body language, tears, cautions, grumbles, and finally, smiles, as they settle on the contentious thumbprint logo.

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Old Enemies

1997, Composer - Television

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Time is a Spider

1996, Composer - Short Film

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The Ultimate Adventure

1995, Composer - Film

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Flip & Two Twisters

1995, Composer - Television

Flip & Two Twisters is Shirley Horrocks' documentary about New Zealand-born artist Len Lye. Motion maestro Lye's international reputation rests on his work as a filmmaker and kinetic sculptor, and his lively contributions to the London and New York avant-garde. The documentary explores Lye's career and ideas, with the help of historical footage and excerpts from his films. It includes footage of Lye in typically exuberant form outlining his process, introduces many of his kinetic works, and documents how some of his most ambitious plans are being realised in New Zealand.

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War Stories

1995, Composer - Film

In Gaylene Preston's documentary, seven elderly women recall their personal experiences of World War II. Their intimate, unadorned stories are filmed talking heads style, interspersed with personal photographs and period newsreel clips. From tragic love stories to long-suppressed revelations of sex and death, War Stories is a revealing touchstone of New Zealand history. It received international acclaim. LA Times writer Kevin Thomas enthused that Preston takes "a simple idea and turns it into a rich, universal experience".

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Arktikos - An Arctic Odyssey

1993, Composer - Television

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A Cat Among the Pigeons

1992, Composer - Television

In the late 80s the creation of a new public park in central Wellington became an act of cross-cultural collaboration, and an infamous battlezone between artist, council and naysayers. Following positive feedback over her design, council staff decided that redevelopment of Pigeon Park (an old pa site) would be led by Māori artist Shona Rapira Davies. This doco follows the passionate, stroppy Rapira Davies, as she fights cost overruns, landscape architects and passersby, and for her vision (which involved handcrafting Te Aro park's 20,000 plus ceramic tiles).

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Pleasures and Dangers

1991, Composer - Television

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Country Calendar

2002, Composer - Television

The iconic all-things-rural show is the longest running programme on New Zealand television. With its typical patient observational style (that allows stories of people and the land to gently unfold) it’s an unlikely broadcasting star, but New Zealanders continue, after 50 plus years, to tune in. Amongst the bucolic tales of farming, fishing and forestry, there are high country musters, floods, organic brewing, falconry, tobacco farming, as well as a fencing wire-playing farmer-musician, a radio-controlled dog, and Fred Dagg and the Trevs.