John Keir believes the people he documents on screen should have no unpleasant surprises when they see the finished results. His job, as he sees it, is to tell stories as best he can — “and in a way that doesn’t offend the people who trust you with their stories and often their secrets. I want to remain friends with the people I’ve filmed, forever … at the end of the day we rely on those people to be willing to open their hearts, and often share the most extraordinary things with us.” Such confidences will only continue to be shared, he adds, if the last person you put on screen knows they’ve been treated fairly, and will vouch for you when the next prospect is waivering.
Keir began as a television reporter in Dunedin in 1974. By the 80s, now based in Wellington, he was also taking on off-camera duties on various current affairs shows. Keir went on to make programmes through his companies Keirfilm Productions (set up in 1981) and Ponsonby Productions (late 90s onwards). From time to time he has also produced or directed for other companies, including Greenstone and Screentime.
Keir grew up on a South Island sheep farm, near Gore. After doing time as a farmer, it became clear to him that he didn’t want to be one. Having witnessed reporter Barry Soper ripping around Southland in the local newspaper car, he realised the job had to be more fun than cutting gorse and crutching lambs.
After studying anthropology at Otago University, Keir scored a reporting job in Dunedin for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. In 1978 he and John McKay decided to make Fight the Good Fight, a cinema verite style documentary about the temperance movement; the election was coming up and temperance had suddenly become a hot potato. “We made it on virtually no money. This was long before NZ On Air and it was the first independent thing I was involved in — it was a great experience.’
Later he became the first filmmaker permitted to film a Royal Commission of Enquiry for Flight 901: The Erebus Disaster. After TVNZ changed their mind about making the documentary, Keir secured private funding from concert promoter Stewart Macpherson. Without this documentary there would be no footage of Justice Mahon fronting the controversial Erebus inquiry.
By the 90s Keir had begun the first of many collaborations with “smart, clever, quirky” director Grant Lahood. The two first worked on Lahood’s oddball hunter tale The Singing Trophy, which won a special technical prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Keir also loved Lahood’s next idea, about a group trying to stop lemmings from committing suicide. So did the Cannes selectors: Lemming Aid was runner up for the top short film prize there in 1994.
Chicken, the pair’s first feature (and Keir’s only one to date) failed to light up the box office, though did attract a clutch of positive reviews ( “very enjoyable” — Metro; “ the freshest, brightest movie of the year so far” — Otago Daily Times; “Chicken really rocks” — Real Groove).
While working on various reality based shows and documentaries for Greenstone, Keir wrote and ultimately directed the award-winning Yellow for Hermaphrodite: Mani’s Story (2002); later he produced the Lahood-directed Intersexion for his company Ponsonby Productions. Both films featured New Zealander Mani Mitchell, “an incredible treasure of a person”, one of many born as neither a boy or a girl. The films have travelled widely overseas, the award-winning Intersexion in an extended festival cut; Keir argues they’ve “opened up light” on a subject people don’t talk about. “The fact that you can tell a good story and it can also educate people, can make a difference … that’s great.”
Among Keir’s more stressful screen experiences was an extended live broadcast to mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest. A decade before, Keir had travelled to Nepal with Hillary to produce a documentary marking the 40th anniversary; now he was in Kathmandu producing a two-hour live programme celebrating the 50th, when the phones went down, 20 minutes before Mark Sainsbury was due to interview Hillary. By some miracle the phones started working, just seconds before the live broadcast began. “Everything ran smoothly, but I think that was one of the most stressful days of my life.”
Our Oldest Soldier, David Blyth’s documentary about his grandfather, World War I soldier Curly Blyth, “rated through the roof” when it played in a primetime slot on Anzac Day. The success of this memorable Anzac story primed Keir to explore further Anzac themes. In 2005 he pitched a two hour Anzac Day broadcast to Māori Television, only to be given four months to gather material for the channel’s first 18 hour long Anzac Day broadcast. Crews interviewed roughly 250 war veterans, capturing “extraordinary” stories — the best of them mining not war, but “what it was like to wear the same socks every day, or to get the Dear John letter”. The broadcast won multiple awards, including a Qantas gong for Best Event Coverage, and boosted Māori Television’s ratings that day by 600 percent.
Keir also enjoyed the chance to help provide a more personal angle on the Treaty of Waitangi, with Mike King series Lost in Translation.
Keir’s extended producing CV also includes Brian Edwards talk show Edwards at Large, 'Bomber' Bradbury-hosted investigative show Stake-Out, Dunedin murder drama Bloodlines, plus one-off documentaries on a range of eclectic topics: including Past Lives, Nazi Hunter, and feature-length doco The Real Mr Asia.
On the directing front, he directed Ben and Olivia - The Search for Truth, about the respective fathers of Sounds murder victim and Scott Watson, the man convicted of her murder, and three episodes of the Keith Quinn-presented Legends of the All Blacks.
'John Keir: Documenting Erebus, Sir Ed, Mani, and more...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 7 April 2014. Accessed 7 April 2014
Intersexion website. Accessed 13 March 2014