Lynton Diggle spent almost 25 years working as a cameraman and director for government picture-makers the National Film Unit, before launching his own company. Along the way, he has shot images in Antarctica, the waters of Lake Taupō, and alongside Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean.
I always regarded documentary filmmaking as a very privileged occupation. Working in the Arctic and Antarctica, plus around the Pacific basin and New Zealand, and actually being paid to do so was a fantastic life. Lynton Diggle
Made for the 50th anniversary of Air New Zealand, Reaching for the Skies takes a journey through New Zealand’s aviation history — from claims that Richard Pearse flew before the Wright brothers and early attempts at Trans-Tasman travel, to the establishment of Tasman Empire Airways and the modern airliner. Vintage aircraft feature, with biplanes and single engine aircraft, as well as rare Solent flying boats. Interviewees talk about their desire to form a new private airline after the war, only to be denied, and the importance of having a national carrier in New Zealand.
This documentary is about champion speedway driver Ivan Mauger, who powered and slid his motorbike around oval tracks to a record six individual world speedway titles, from 1968 to 1979. Interviews with Mauger and his family cover his long career, from his boy racer beginnings — he argues that in Spain the heroes are bullfighters, but in Christchurch they were speedway riders — to his Western Springs farewell, and a tribute from David Lange. Mauger's focus on winning comes through: "if you show me a good loser you show me someone who consistently loses".
On 16 February 1986 a Russian cruise line, the Mikhail Lermontov, struck rocks off Cape Jackson in the Marlborough Sounds. The ship carried 408 mostly elderly Australian passengers, and a crew of 330. The ship drifted and eventually sank in Port Gore; one Russian sailor died. This Lynton Diggle-directed documentary was shot in the months that followed, as the camera followed dive teams into the black depths of the vessel. Their task in hazardous conditions was to salvage oil from the wreck, and preserve Marlborough's coastline.
This 1985 promotional film for the New Zealand Dairy Board catalogues diversifying taste in cheese as Kiwis move beyond the big block of cheddar. New varieties — feta, brie, camembert — are pitched as part of an evolution towards a more exotic and ‘gourmet’ culinary culture. A camel-riding Catherine Saunders looks at the process of how cheese is made in NZ; a highlight is the making of blue vein mould, and fondue gets a mention (“gruyère is best”). The film opens with an ad anointing “the great New Zealand 1Kg!” alongside a line-up of iconic Kiwi measurements.
Though it plays hell with cameras, Antarctica has long fascinated filmmakers. This hour-long National Film Unit documentary was assembled from a five-part TV series of the same name. There are looks at scientific research, early explorers, and Antarctica's affect on global climate. Made four decades ago, the programme warns of a possible "new and potentially dangerous warming period", and calls the greenhouse effect a "controversial scientific theory". The large cast includes penguins, a seal birth (clip two) and a heavyweight team of Kiwi scientists.
This documentary charts the voyage from New Zealand to Tahiti of a replica of the HMS Bounty, destined to be the star of Kiwi director Roger Donaldson’s film of the famous mutiny. The boat was built in Whangerei from The Bounty’s original Admiralty plans, commissioned for an unmade David Lean film of the story. It's not all plain sailing as engines fail, the power supply falters and winds drop, but she arrives in Tahiti in time for the first scenes of the Mel Gibson-starring film. A parallel voyage in an open boat by one of Bligh's descendants also features.
This documentary looks at the construction of a replica of the HMS Bounty, in Whangerei. The ship was commissioned to be built for a David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia) film of the famous mutiny. Fidelity to the original is paramount, except the 20th Century edition has a steel hull. Construction of the boat carries on regardless of uncertain fortunes of the film, as producer Dino De Laurentiis and David Lean part ways. The Lean film was ultimately unmade after financing faltered, but the boat went on to star in Kiwi director Roger Donaldson's film of the story.
David Sims' impressionistic National Film Unit short film explores the responses of four NZ painters to a landscape illuminated by a distinctive light, but yet to feel the full impact of human settlement. The award-winning film examines Brent Wong’s floating architectural shapes, Colin McCahon’s religious symbolism, Toss Wollaston’s earth-hued palette and Michael Smither’s hard-edged realism. Their works are taken from safe gallery confines and moved closer to their subject matter, while the words of writers (Katherine Mansfield, Charles Brasch, Bill Pearson) provide another angle.
This film documents Auckland's Round the Bays run. In 1980 jogging was booming, with coach Arthur Lydiard and a band of Olympic champs (Snell, Walker, etc) inspiring the way. Here, participants run and reflect, from a blind runner, to children and an army squad. Slo-mo sweat, sinew and samba shots frame the 70,000 runners as members of an infectious cult chasing the piper around the waterfront. Adidas, terry towelling and facial hair make the film a relaxed 70s update on Olympiad; directed by Sam Pillsbury it won awards at Chicago and Torino festivals.
The fierce cold and awesome isolation of Antarctica is evoked in this 1980 NFU survey of scientific projects and life on New Zealand’s Ross Dependency. Geological and wildlife work is counterpointed by domestic details: a “housewifely” cleaning regime, an impressive liquor order, time-marking beards, and radio chatter at odds with the desolation. There’s poignant footage of one of the last sightseeing flights before the Erebus disaster; and the doco grapples with the uneasy possibility that research may lead to exploitation of the continent’s natural resources.
While in Tahiti to scout for locations for a film (ultimately unrealised) on the mutiny of the HMS Bounty, legendary British director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago) became fascinated by a lost anchor jettisoned by Captain Cook in 1773. Produced for New Zealand’s South Pacific Television, this film follows the anchor’s discovery — by River Kwai bridge exploder Eddie Fowlie — and salvage. A rare 'documentary' credit for Lean, the film was written by his regular scripting collaborator Robert Bolt; Kiwi Kelly Tarlton provides expert dive guidance.
Kauri stand amongst the giants of the tree world, able to grow more than 50m tall and girths of up to 16 metres, and live over 2000 years. This NFU film looks at the ancient conifer and its relationship with people. A thoughtful narrative traces the kauri's utility, and contemporary efforts to preserve remaining trees — the tree’s timber and gum fuelled colonial growth, but milling devastated the great northern forests. Archive footage evokes the pioneer days: kauri dams, woodsmen dwarfed by felled trunks, and Dalmatian gum hunters scaling sky-scraping trunks.
This award-winning National Film Unit documentary looks at the craft movement in New Zealand, as this counterpoint to industrial mass production went mainstream. The sense of involvement in the title refers to the individual skills that potters, weavers, printmakers, furniture makers and sculptors bring to making their objects. Director David Sims avoids narration, instead using music from composer Tony Baker to score scenes of the makers at work, from the loom, furnace and kiln, to workshop and studio. As a flashback to the late 70s, facial hair, ceramics and wool abound.
This short documentary about freestyle skiing was directed for the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department by Sam Neill (who would shortly achieve fame as an actor). This was one of several docos directed by Neill while at the National Film Unit; other subjects included the Red Mole theatre troupe and architect Ian Athfield. The skiers put on daring displays of their 'art' in locations including Mount Hutt, Queenstown and Tongariro National Park. 70s snow-styles (and beards) abound. The film was translated into French, Japanese, Italian, German and Spanish.
In this experimental drama shot in 1975, four young idealists escape the city for rural Foxton, and set about living off the land. But an act of violence sends the commune into isolation and extremism. Teasing tense drama from rural settings, the 90 minute tale from maverick National Film Unit director Paul Maunder shines a harsh light on the contradictions of the frontier spirit. Although state television funded it, they found it too edgy to screen; instead Landfall debuted at the 1977 Wellington Film Festival. The cast includes Sam Neill as a Vietnam vet, and Mark ll director John Anderson.
Directed by Sam Pillsbury, this 1974 film observes Ralph Hotere — one of New Zealand’s greatest artists — at a moment when excitement is gathering about his work. Lauded as a “classic” by Ian Wedde, the documentary is framed around the execution of a watershed piece: a large mural Hotere was commissioned to paint for Hamilton’s Founders Theatre. Interviews with friends and associates — poets Hone Tuwhare and Bill Manhire, art critics, officials and dealers — are intercut with fascinating shots of Hotere working (including making art by photocopying or 'xerography').
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 National Film Unit production records the making of four large-scale sculptures for a 1971 international symposium to commemorate Auckland City’s centennial. Helen Escobedo (Mexico) nodded to the skyline’s masts and cranes with Signals in Parnell Rose Garden; Opened Stone by Hiroaki Ueda (Japan) was balanced near Auckland Art Gallery for 35 years; and American Fred Loopstra's Homage to Will still ploughs Victoria Park. A central city scrap metal work by Canadian Tom Burrows was removed in 1977, perhaps achieving his stated aim: to “disturb” its viewers!
After a young woman (Denise Maunder) falls pregnant, she decides to go against the tide of advice from her family and unsympathetic welfare authorities by keeping her baby. Misery and hardship ensues. Director Paul Maunder brought kitchen sink drama to NZ television with this controversial National Film Unit production. The story can claim to have effected social change, stirring up public debate about the DPB for single mothers. Keep an eye out for a young Paul Holmes as a wannabe lothario. Maunder writes about making it in this piece. Costa Botes writes about it here.
This short film evokes a day fishing from Karioitahi’s black sand beach: balloons are tied to bait lines then sent out, and the fisherman yarn, drink Fanta, and reel in the catch. Expressively shot by Lynton Diggle in black and white, and backed by an accoustic guitar score, the narration-free Pictorial Parade marked an early entry for director John Laing (Beyond Reasonable Doubt). In 2001 Laing proudly recalled his NFU employers' outrage at the film's “pseudo-Japanese bullshit.” He left the Unit shortly after; ironically the film would win him a job at Canada’s National Film Board.
This 1970 documentary surveys New Zealand’s dairy industry — “probably the most advanced in the world” — from pasture to export. Dairying then produced a quarter of NZ’s income, but with Britain due to join the EEC, NZ was forced to seek new markets. This film proclaims the industry’s readiness, thanks to an artificial breeding centre (with ‘calf-eteria’), room-sized computers, and cheeses designed for the Asian market. The country's 25,000 dairy farms were each owner-operated, and averaged 90 cows. The Dairy Industry won top prize at an agricultural film competition in Berlin.
This upbeat National Film Unit award-winner is about late New Zealand artist, conservationist, and rail enthusiast Barry Brickell. Filmed at his first studio and home in the Coromandel, it follows the progress of his large-scale works from start to finish. Accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack, Brickell works his clay alone in the sun. Amidst the five-finger and harakeke of the Coromandel bush, the making of New Zealand art has never looked more picturesque. Brickell died on 23 January 2016, at the age of 80. The short documentary was made as part of the Pictorial Parade series.
One of the last films made by Jeremy Sykes before his death in the Antarctic in a helicopter accident, this NFU short commemorates the 1969 Cook bicentennial. It traces Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand and his charting of the coastline. Contemporary illustrations and dramatic camerawork are used to follow his six-month journey around Aotearoa. It also highlights Cook's navigational skills as he sailed the Endeavour, home to 94 men, two greyhounds and a goat, through uncharted waters, helping earn him his reputation as "explorer extraordinary and servant of the King".
Released in February 1969, this National Film Unit documentary offers an impressionistic view on the making of sheet glass. Director Lynton Diggle follows the raw materials (sand, limestone, dolomite) to a Whangarei factory, where they’re combined with broken glass. There, men in protective gear look like they’re enacting an alchemical ritual, as the ‘frit’ mixture is melted in the “punishing heat” of a crucible. Then it’s transferred to the drawing chamber where a toffee-like wall of glass is pulled up for cooling and slicing. Ambient sounds are used to forge a percussive score.
Auckland is known as the City of Sails and each Anniversary Day, the Waitemata Harbour hosts the world’s largest one-day regatta. The culture of yachting on the Hauraki Gulf gets full-blown homage in this 1968 National Film Unit film. The short documentary sets up sailing as a way to escape the bustle of the city, and follows the tacks and jibes of a race — “The hum of straining rigging, the sting of flying spray on the lips … the feeling that only a yachtie knows as his craft lifts and surges.” The narration is by Tim Eliott, who had recently helped found Wellington's Downstage Theatre.
This impressionistic, late 1960s survey traces Auckland from volcanic origins to a population of half a million people. Produced by the National Film Unit, it finds a city of "design and disorder" growing steadily but secure in its own skin as its populace basks in the summer sun. A wry, at times bemused, Hugh Macdonald script and an often frenetic, jazzy soundtrack accompany time honoured Queen City images: beaches and yachting, parks and bustling city streets, and an unpredictable climate given to humidity and sudden downpours.
This NFU classic tells Peter Snell's story, up until just before his triumph at the Tokyo Olympics (he'd already won 800 metres gold in Rome, and beaten the world record for the mile). Snell's commentary — focused, candid — plays over footage of training and some of his key races. "It always gives a feeling of exhilaration to run in the New Zealand all black singlet." Snell offers insights into the marathon-style training of coach Arthur Lydiard (15 miles daily, 100 miles a week), and there's priceless footage of Snell running through bush and leaping fences in Auckland's Waiatarua hills.
This 1959 Pictorial Parade edition begins with the opening of the ‘Milson Deviation’: a rail bypass which diverted trains from the Palmerston North CBD. Then it’s to Hastings for the National Ploughing Championship, where the prize is a silver plough modelled on the first (Pākehā) plough used in NZ. Lastly, the Echo (a flat-bottomed Kauri scow that sailed between Wellington and Blenheim) turns a wetter furrow and sails up the Opawa River. With the onset of competition from ferries the Echo was retired in 1965; she’s now ‘on the hard’ on the Picton Foreshore.