For 20 years Kathleen O'Brien was the only woman director at the government's National Film Unit. Her films were invited to festivals overseas. Known for her work involving children and education, O'Brien's directed comical road safety short Monkey Tale (1952), and the moving Story of Seven Hundred Polish Children (1966).

Starved of equal social contact with male colleagues, and lacking any female peers, it is a tribute to her tenacity that she achieved such an impressive list of films. Deborah Shepard, in her profile of Kathleen O'Brien in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography
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The Story of Seven-Hundred Polish Children

1967, Editor, Director - Television

This 1967 documentary tells the story of 734 Polish children who were adopted by New Zealand in 1944 as WWII refugees. Moving interviews, filmed 20 years later, document their harrowing exodus from Poland: via Siberian labour camps, malnutrition and death, to being greeted by PM Peter Fraser on arrival in NZ. From traumatic beginnings the film chronicles new lives (as builders, doctors, educators, and mothers) and ends with a family beach picnic. Made for television, this was one of the last productions directed by pioneering woman filmmaker Kathleen O'Brien.

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Profile of Hawkes Bay

1965, Director, Writer - Short Film

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Taupō Moana

1963, Director - Short Film

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Our Stars of Ballet

1960, Director, Editor, Writer - Short Film

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.

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A Letter to the Teacher

1957, Director, Writer, Editor - Short Film

Pioneering woman director Kathleen O’Brien looks at NZ Correspondence School education in this 25-minute National Film Unit short. Lessons are sent from the school’s Wellington base to far-flung outposts, for farm kids and sick kids, prisoners and immigrants, from Nuie to Northland. Letters, radio and an annual ‘residential college’ at Massey connect students and teachers. In a newspaper report of the time, O’Brien remembering being stranded at Cape Brett lighthouse “for four days without a toothbrush and wearing only the clothes she stood up in”.

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Graduate Harvest

1954, Director - Short Film

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No Footpath

1952, Director - Short Film

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Safe Cycling

1952, Writer, Director - Short Film

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Monkey Tale

1952, Editor, Director, Writer - Short Film

In the anthropomorphic (and non-PC) tradition of the chimpanzee tea party and PG Tips ads comes this contribution from the National Film Unit. Here chimpanzees provide safe cycling lessons for children. Chaplin-esque scenes ensue as Charlie the Chimp disregards road-rules: "if that young monkey gets to school in one piece he'll be lucky ... he'll get killed sure as eggs". Directed by pioneering woman filmmaker Kathleen O'Brien — who got the idea after seeing them in a visiting variety act — the film contrasts vividly with the brutality of contemporary road safety promos.

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In the Country

1951, Director, Editor, Writer - Commentary - Short Film

Long before “country people die on country roads” came this 1951 road safety film targeting rural audiences — specifically children between five and 12. Compared with the carnage of 21st Century road safety campaigns, In the Country is quaint: a traffic safety instructor tests a class to see what lessons that they’ve remembered, and the kids then demonstrate safe crossing, so they can get home in one piece to feed Chalky the horse his carrot. It was filmed at and around Te Marua School near Upper Hutt, and helmed by pioneering National Film Unit director Kathleen O’Brien. 

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City District Health Nurse

1950, Director - Short Film

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Leave Home Early

1950, Director - Short Film

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Exhibition Loop

1947, Director - Short Film

This National Film Unit documentary provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the various stages of 40s film production at the relatively nascent unit, from shoot to post production. It was made to be screened continuously (thus the ‘loop’ title) at exhibition theatrettes. There’s genial interaction among the cast and crew (see backgrounder for who they are). Directed by pioneer woman director Kathleen O’Brien, the filming took place at the unit’s Darlington Road studios in Wellington, close to where Weta Workshop and Park Road Post now operate in Miramar.