Director Michael Firth was an unheralded figure in the Kiwi film renaissance. His debut movie, ski film Off the Edge, was the first NZ feature to be Oscar-nominated. Noted US critic Andrew Sarris praised 1985 drama Sylvia, based on Kiwi teacher Sylvia Ashton-Warner, as one of the best films released that year. Firth's subjects ranged from incest to fly-fishing; his TV series Adrenalize sold to 50 countries. He passed away on 9 October 2016.
This is a movie of eloquent dialogue and even more eloquent silences; of wonderful faces that tell whole worlds in a glance, a pause, a kiss in the rain. Of such are the glories of cinema made. American critic Molly Haskell, reviewing Firth's movie Sylvia in Vogue, July 1985
Forty-five years in the making, this documentary looks at the history of Kiwi adventure sport. Via spectacular — original and archive — footage, it follows the pioneers (AJ Hackett et al) from sheep farm-spawned maverick surf kids to pre-Lonely Planet OEs chasing the buzz; and the innovative toys and pursuits that resulted. From the Hamilton Jet to the bungee, No.8 fencing wire smarts are iterated. The exhilaration of adventure is underpinned by a poignant ecological message — that the places where the paradise chasers could express themselves are now in peril.
Michael Firth's follow-up to his 1977 Oscar-nominated ski documentary Off the Edge, but this time with a plot and scripted dialogue. Canadian Matt hitches from Auckland to meet a bunch of Kiwi extreme thrill-seekers at a southern ski field. They throw themselves off volcanoes, glaciers, mountains and into an Iron Man with "get more go" abandon. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's first feature shoot — "I was relatively cheap and I could ski" — is notable for its action sequences (set to an 80s pop soundtrack) and Billy T James as a mad pilot.
Michael Firth's feature film tells the story of writer and educator Sylvia Ashton-Warner, as she forges her visionary philosophy of “organic teaching” while teaching Māori children at an isolated school in the 1940s. Taking in romance and struggle, the drama was widely praised: Village Voice named it one of the 10 best films of 1985, while critic Andrew Sarris found “the intensely interacting performances" of the four principals "nothing short of breathtaking”. The film is based on Ashton-Warner’s books Teacher and I Passed This Way. Supporting actor Mary Regan won a GOFTA award.
Heart of the Stag showed that director Michael Firth could handle actors as well as skis (his first film, ski documentary Off the Edge, was Oscar-nominated). Bruno Lawrence stars as a man working for a King Country farmer (Terence Cooper), who romances the farmer's adult daughter (Mary Regan) and starts wondering about the strained family dynamic. A rare drama dealing with incest, Heart of the Stag was praised by The LA Times as "electrifyingly good". The NZ Herald said it handled a delicate subject without compromise. Metro voted it the best Kiwi film of 1984.
Sylvia Ashton-Warner shows her prickly side in a brief interview at the start of this Weekend item, which backgrounds a movie based on the pioneering educationalist's life. Reporter Ainslie Talbot arrives in small-town Pipiriki on the Whanganui, to visit one of the most expensive sets then built for a local film. He interviews Sylvia's director Michael Firth, who spent seven years getting the project off the ground, and talks to UK actor Eleanor David, who plays Sylvia. The film would go on to win rave reviews overseas, and praise for David's "intelligent, compassionate performance".
In this children's sci-fi caper, an all-singing all-dancing gang of cronies led by 'evil Eva' (Nevan Rowe) holds Auckland to ransom for $5,000,000. As in Under the Mountain Auckland's volcanoes play a starring role, with Eva threatening to drop a nuclear bomb into the crater of Rangitoto. Who will save the city? A trio of intrepid kids and their DIY anti-gravity machine are on the case. Writers Ian Mune and Keith Aberdein give director Roger Donaldson (and a bevy of industry talent) plenty of goofy 70s fun to play with. Donaldson would shortly helm the acclaimed Smash Palace.
Off the Edge was director Michael Firth's ode to the exhilaration of adventuring on the spine of New Zealand's Southern Alps. Something of a snowy Endless Summer, the film follows an American and a Canadian as they ski, hang-glide, walk, climb and delve beneath glaciers, in the Aoraki-Mt Cook area. Thrilling footage amidst requisite spectacular scenery was shot over two seasons, where extreme weather and geography meant few chances for second takes. The film was nominated for an Oscar (Best Documentary in 1977); the LA Times called it "beautiful and awesome".