An actor and teacher who brought an appreciation of both to his directing, John Anderson helmed many television dramas during the 1980s, before turning increasingly to documentary. While many male directors took the familiar road and made films reflecting their own roots, Anderson's work often tackled other genders and cultures. In the 90s he moved to the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, where the topic of climate change proved too obvious to be ignored.
Acting runs through much of Anderson's early career. In 1972 he joined director Paul Maunder in experimental theatre group Amamus. Anderson would perform in many Amamus productions, from '51, based on the 1951 waterfront dispute, and Gallipoli (1976), which writer Martin Edmond rated "a rare and valuable experience", to 1984's much-travelled Te Tutakitanga i te Puna (Encounter at Te Puna), in which he played a missionary. Woodville-raised Anderson and first wife Gael were active in local theatre in Napier, Otaki and Wellington, before they joined Amamus.
After time as a primary school teacher, Anderson had joined state television in Wellington by 1973 — as part of a purchasing and assessment team, which included actors John Clarke and Ross Jolly. The job of purchasing officer had Anderson checking incoming films, to see if they were appropriate for NZ screening; among other escapades the trio once turfed a propaganda film from apartheid-era South Africa into the basement, never to be seen again.
In 1975 Anderson joined the acting ensemble in Paul Maunder's feature film Landfall; later he was first assistant director on Maunder's crosscultural tale Sons for the Return Home. Maunder argues that it was while shooting in Samoa for Sons, that Anderson began his long relationship with the Pacific. "Experiencing village life, experiencing community, had a big impact on us settler lads." Anderson directed his first film about Samoa the following year.
Back home, Anderson joined the stable of directors on soap Close to Home. Close to Home longstayer Steve La Hood remembers his calmness, in an atmosphere which leaned more towards stress. "Actors really loved working with him".
By the early 80s, Anderson had hit his directing stride. When anthology series Loose Enz debuted in 1982, three of the 11 one-off dramas were commanded by him —including theatre parody 'Eros and Psyche', and the Vincent O'Sullivan-penned 'If the Cat Laps', whose main character was a flashy adman whose stereotypes are under attack.
Anderson also began working on a trio of scripts by legendary playwright Bruce Mason, who he had known for years. Anderson ended up directing two: office romance 'Daphne and Chloe' and 'The Garlick Thrust' which intercuts scenes of a rugby mad schoolboy with footage of violence from the 1981 tour. Anderson was a believer in raw talent. Unimpressed by the elocution-perfect youngsters being presented to him as contenders to play the boy, he went for the untried Stephen Henderson. Writer Trisha Dunleavy rates the result as one of the best local dramas of that period.
Anderson's belief in unschooled talent was matched by his friend Mike Walker. The filmmaker had spent years trying to fund a road movie, based on three Māori youth and a Mark ll Zephyr. But now Walker was ailing. And so a plan was hatched: Anderson would direct Mark ll for television.
Screening on Guy Fawkes night 1986, opposite the popular Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Mark II won rave reviews: "a fast-moving, beautifully observed film about three streetwise Māori youths who go adventuring", said The Listener. Auckland Star writer John Paga noted that some young teens had been too absorbed in watching it to go and light their fireworks. It won a GOFTA award for Best single television drama, and another for young actor Mitchell Manuel (who co-wrote the script with Walker).
In the 80s, other groups were also hungering to see more of themselves on screen. Fiona Samuel began writing The Marching Girls (1987), a series which took the shocking step of putting women front and centre. Producer Steve La Hood tried his best to find women to direct all the episodes (in the end, Melanie Rodriga directed three of the seven). La Hood remembers Anderson as "the only male director on the show who really got what what were trying to do".
By now Anderson was working as an independent director, having grown frustrated by state television's waning interest in making drama inhouse. Both Marching Girls and groundbreaking documentary series Expressions of Sexuality, made by his second wife Allison Webber, sat on the shelf for extended periods, while executives wrung their hands over appropriate screening times. Soon after, the two formed company Aries Productions (and later, Ace of Hearts), usually with Anderson directing and Webber producing. The documentaries included A Whale Out My Window, a nature film shot in and around Campbell Island, Polish immigrant tale Exiles, based on a book by Halina Oganowska-Coates, and 75-minute co-production The Betrayal, about a Kiwi who worked with the Polish underground during WWll.
Off screen, Anderson joined Roma Potiki and other members of Māori theatre collective He Ara Hou, to create popular, hard-edged play Whatungarongaro (1990). Playwright Hone Kouka called it "a watershed in Māori theatre". Anderson's interest in theatre would see him filming many productions in Vanuatu for Wan Smalbog Theatre, and making a documentary about community theatre across the Pacific.
In the mid 90s he relocated to the atoll of Tarawa in Kiribati, after teaching himself to shoot and edit. In 1997 he and third wife, Kiribati-born Linda Uan, founded NTNK (Tabera Ni Kai Video Unit), and later became key players in the running of a school for 180 special needs children. Over 20 years NTNK has made over 400 productions, ranging from coverage of official state events, to educational videos on breast-feeding, domestic violence and climate change. With funding from both Government and international aid agencies, the films have screened widely across Kiribati's 33 islands. Made in English and the local i-Kiribati language, many feature local song and dance. NTNK's footage of climate change — Kiribati is roughly one metre above sea level — has been watched around the globe. NTNK also provided footage for a live turn of the Millennium broadcast seen by three billion viewers acros the globe.
John Anderson died of a heart attack on Kiribati on 19 August 2016. He was 73.
Steve La Hood
Martin Edmond, 'Amamus Culture Shock' (Review of Gallipoli) - Salient ,18 September 1974 (Volume 37, number 24)
Douglas Jenkins, 'Mark ll' (Review) - The Listener, 1 November 1986
Hone Kouka, 'Introduction', in Te Matou Mangai - Our Own Voice. Editor Hone Kouka (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999)
Paul Maunder, Rebellious Mirrors: Community-based Theatre in Aotearoa/New Zealand (Chirstchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2013)
John Paga, Review of Mark ll - The Auckland Star, 6 November 1986
Unknown writer, 'Linda Uan' The Hungry Tide website. Accessed 23 August 2016