Stephen Downes had never shot a film before meeting director Robert Sarkies in an Otago University cafe; he wound up framing a trio of Sarkies’ short films, plus his breakout feature Scarfies. With a zoology degree under his belt, Downes has also forged a prolific career as an international wildlife filmmaker, from capturing kaka parrots in his lens to "chasing wild ass" in India. He is co-founder of 5 to 9 productions.
The mainstay of my career has been animals. I always wanted to be a wildlife filmmaker and along the way drama happened. And I love doing drama. Stephen Downes, in the Scarfies press kit
This documentary tells the tenuous survivor story of the kākāpō: the nocturnal flightless green parrot with "big sideburns and Victorian gentlemen's face" (as comedian Stephen Fry put it). A sole breeding population for the evolutionary oddity (the world's largest parrot; it can live up to 120 years) is marooned on remote Codfish Island. The award-winning film had rare access to the recovery programme and its dramatic challenges. This excerpt sees a rugged journey to the island to search for a kākāpō named 'Bill', and witnesses the "bizarre ballad" of its mating boom.
This documentary tells the epic story of helicopter deer culling in the Southern Alps. Introduced deer had become destructive environmental pests; in the 60s entrepreneurs shifted culling from ‘man alone’ to machine-driven hunting, as deer were shot then later captured alive from helicopters. Deer Wars — Top Gun in choppers, over the beech forest — revisits the heady ‘gold rush’ days, when heli-cowboys calculated often fatal pay-offs between risk and reward. It features interviews with survivors and fearsome footage of men hanging from helicopters and leaping onto deer.
In November 1990 misfit loner David Gray (played by Matthew Sunderland) killed 13 of his neighbours in the seaside town of Aramoana, near Dunedin. His rampage lasted 22 hours before he was gunned down by police. Out of the Blue is a dramatised re-enactment of these traumatic events. Directed by Robert Sarkies and co-written with Graeme Tetley, this gut-wrenching film did respectable box office and was lauded at 2008's Qantas Film and TV Awards, winning most feature categories, including best film and screenplay. Warning: excerpt contains realistic gun violence.
Exhuming Adams investigates the mysterious disappearance of a species of New Zealand mistletoe 50 years ago. Set among dusty museum collections, high-tech labs, and remote bush, this documentary is a natural history CSI. A canny forensic investigation, taking in preserved bellbird skins, last witnesses and CGI modelling, reveals the chain of events leading to the unique plant's extinction, and a surprising culprit. Directors Brant Backlund and Thassilo Franke won the BBC Best Newcomer Award at the prestigious WildScreen film festival 2006.
Long isolated, New Zealand contains a world of Alice Through the Looking Glass natural oddities: birds, insects and plants like nowhere else. Scientist Jared Diamond remarked "it is the nearest approach to life on another planet". Palaeontology (from Professor Michael Archer) and Māori myth (told by Hirini Melbourne) reveal these 'Ghosts of Gondwana'. Then cutting edge camera techniques (earning a Merit Award at 2002 International Wildlife Film Festival) delve into a night world of bat-filled tree trunk saunas, “demon grasshopper” wētā, and furry kiwi with chopstick bills.
In Scarfies, five Dunedin students find themselves in a free squat, and a dark place, after taking a criminal captive in their basement. The debut feature from Robert Sarkies starts as a comic tribute to Otago student days, then turns into a psychological thriller. Outside of the two Warriors movies, Scarfies was the most successful Kiwi release of the 90s on home turf. It went on to scoop best film, director and screenplay awards at the 2000 NZ Film and TV Awards. This excerpt sees the scarfies torn between dealing with the crim and a footy match at Carisbrook.
The devastating effects of introduced wasps in New Zealand, particularly on kaka (the forest parrot, here beautifully filmed) remain a serious issue. The horde of yellow and black marauders has left scientists struggling to protect animal and human victims. This film looks at the effect on the ecosystem of wasps, who compete with natives for honeydew and prey upon insects. Bandits of the Beech Forest won the Environment Prize for Best Film Illustrating Protection, Preservation or Conservation of Bird Life at the Festival du Film de l'Oiseau.
During his last session on air, a veteran radio announcer finds himself on a quest through the streets and sewers. His mission: to retrieve a special record, in time to play it for a devoted listener. Signing Off was made by Nightmare Productions, a team of Dunedin filmmakers. The success of this comic adventure helped lead to Scarfies, the feature debut of Nightmare team member, director Robert Sarkies (Two Little Boys, Out of the Blue). A big seller overseas, Signing Off won awards at film festivals from Dresden to Montreal.