New Zealand’s first left-wing documentary filmmaker, Cecil Holmes achieved notoriety in the late 1940s through the highly publicised exposure of his communist activity as a Public Service Association (PSA) delegate in the National Film Unit. He went on to become a significant film director in Australia.Image credit: Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-023573; F (detail)

It was genuinely difficult to do sound recording on location in those days - the recording was on film and the gear consisted of a number of huge cumbersome objects … I did push very hard for sound on location and the greater use of effects and dialogue than was customary then in the usual format of Weekly Review items. Cecil Holmes, quoted in Russell Campbell’s 2011 book Observations - Studies in New Zealand Documentary

Seeing Red

1995, Subject - Television

Directed by Annie Goldson (Brother Number One), this 1995 TV documentary explores the story of Cecil Holmes, who won Cold War notoriety in 1948 when he was smeared as a communist agent, while working as a director for the National Film Unit. This excerpt — the opening 10 minutes — revisits the infamous snatching of Holmes' satchel outside Parliament, his Palmerston North upbringing, war service, and the founding of the Government's National Film Unit. There are excerpts from a 1980 interview where Holmes describes his inspirations (including UK film Night Mail).

Bitter Rice

1989, Producer - Film

The Voyage of Bounty's Child

1984, Writer - Film

The Killing of Angel Street

1981, Writer - Film

Cyclone Approaching!

1976, Director, Writer - Short Film

Return to the Dreaming

1973, Director - Television

Gentle Strangers

1972, Director, Writer - Short Film

This Day Tonight

1967, Director - Television

The Islanders

1967, Director, Writer - Short Film

White Men in Black Skins

1967, Director - Short Film

An Airman Remembers

1964, Director, Writer - Short Film


1964, Director - Short Film

I the Aboriginal

1961, Director, Writer - Film


1960, Director, Writer - Short Film

Words for Freedom

1959, Director, Producer - Short Film

Three in One

1957, Director, Producer - Film

Captain Thunderbolt

1951, Director - Film


1951, Director - Short Film

The Food Machine

1950, Director - Short Film

Weekly Review No. 434 - Golden Bay

1949, Original Director - Short Film

Fighting Back

1949, Director, Producer - Short Film

Weekly Review No. 421

1949, Director - Short Film

Weekly Review No. 344 - The Change-Over

1948, Director - Short Film

Weekly Review No. 374 - The Coaster

1948, Director - Short Film

The coaster Breeze and her crew are immortalised in this much praised National Film Unit documentary. Poet Denis Glover and narrator Selwyn Toogood provide a rhythmic and lyrical commentary as the Breeze runs from Wellington to Lyttelton, then to Wanganui. Three weeks after the film's November 1948 release, director Cecil Holmes had his satchel snatched. He lost his NFU job after the resulting smear campaign accused him of communist leanings. Although reinstated after a court case, Holmes left for a successful screen career in Australia in 1949.

Exhibition Loop

1947, Subject - 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.

The School Bus

1947, Director - Short Film

Weekly Review No. 297 - Karapiro

1947, Director - Short Film

Power from the River

1947, Director, Editor, Commentary Writer - Short Film

This NFU documentary showcases the hydroelectric power-generating might of the Waikato River. The ‘man harnesses nature’ narrative — shown via concrete, steel and earthmoving for dam building — highlights the path of the power: to drive farms, factories and Wellington’s electric trains. Director Cecil Holmes later wrote that post-war NZ was "a desperately poor country"; the film aimed to highlight Government efforts to overcome power shortages. After the 'satchel snatch' smear campaign of 1948, Holmes left for a highly regarded screen career in Australia. 

Weekly Review No. 293 - Culture.... Music and Children

1947, Director - Short Film

Weekly Review No. 310 - Mail Run

1947, Director, Editor, Writer - Short Film

This post-war Weekly Review boards a RNZAF Dakota flying “the longest air route in the world”: a weekly 17,000 mile ‘hop’ taking mail to Jayforce, the Kiwi occupation force in Japan. Auckland to Iwakuni via Norfolk Island, Australia (including a pub pit-stop in the outback), Indonesia, the slums of Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong; then Okinawa, Manilla and home. Director Cecil Holmes’ pithy comments on postcolonial friction and rich and poor avoided censorship, but won a warning not to rock the boat. The next year he was controversially sacked from the National Film Unit.

Weekly Review No. 222

1945, Director - Short Film