Throughout his 50 year career, John O’Shea was a pioneer and a champion of the independent New Zealand film industry. His name was synonymous with Pacific Film Productions, which he ran for over 20 years after Pacific founder Roger Mirams left for Australia. O’Shea was involved in the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission, Ngā Taonga and the Wellington Film Society.
His tenacity, idealism, literacy and creativity, his formidable and subversive wit, his generosity and kindness have encouraged and guided the film-making here for 50 years. He was our history. Jonathan Dennis, speaking at O'Shea's memorial service, 12 July 2001
This April 2001 report comes from a function to farewell film salesman Lindsay Shelton. Over 22 years at the NZ Film Commission, Shelton played a key role in selling Kiwi films to overseas markets, including Goodbye Pork Pie, An Angel at My Table, and Once Were Warriors. Those on hand in Wellington to salute his efforts include Film Commission Chief Executive Ruth Harley – who praises Shelton’s "remarkable optimism about New Zealand films" – and directors Vincent Ward, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson (via video link), and John O'Shea, who calls Shelton the "backbone" of the NZFC.
An epic documentary chronicling the extraordinary life of Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie. Or is it? McKenzie's achievements included cinematic innovations involving steam power and eggs, and an unfinished biblical tale filmed on the West Coast. The first television screening of this Costa Botes/Peter Jackson production memorably stirred up New Zealand audiences. Forgotten Silver went on to screen at international film festivals in Cannes and Venice — where it won a special critics' prize.
John O'Shea was godfather to generations of Kiwi filmmakers; he was an inspirational force committed to bringing new perspectives to the screen. As Ngati actor Wi Kuki Kaa put it, "had he been a Māori, he would have been a kaumatua years ago". This documentary backgrounds O'Shea and his pioneering indie production company Pacific Films, ranging from his efforts to put Māori on screen, to banned 60s ads. The cast provides proof positive of O'Shea's influence — amongst the ex-Pacific staff interviewed are the late Barry Barclay, Tony Williams and Gaylene Preston.
In this excerpt from Marae, Elle Hughes interviews John O'Shea about producing groundbreaking documentary series Tangata Whenua. Prior to its 1974 screening in primetime — significant, in a time of single channel TV — Māori "lacked a voice" on the Pākehā medium of television. O'Shea says the aim was "a better understanding. We wanted to listen to what the Māori people said". Tangata Whenua captured interviews with kaumatua from different iwi for posterity, and increased Pākehā understanding of land grievances, including the Tainui-led occupation in Raglan in the 1970s.
Variously praised as a major step forward in indigenous cinema, attacked for overambition, and little screened, Te Rua marked Barry Barclay’s impassioned follow-up to Ngati. This story of stolen Māori carvings in a Berlin museum sees Barclay plunging into issues of control of indigenous culture he would return to in book Mana Tuturu. Feisty activist (Peter Kaa) and elder lawyer (screen taonga Wi Kuki Kaa) favour different approaches to getting the carvings back home. Barclay and his longtime producer John O’Shea had their own differences over Te Rua’s final cut.
This item from arts show Kaleidoscope looks at pioneering Māori feature film Ngāti. There are interviews with director Barry Barclay, screenwriter Tama Poata, producer John O’Shea and actor Wi Kuki Kaa – who discuss the film’s kaupapa – and a visit to its premiere at Waipiro Bay Marae on the East Coast (where the film was shot). Barclay’s first dramatic feature, Ngāti also marked the first feature film to be written and directed by Māori. Many of the crew were enlisted via a scheme aimed at redressing the lack of young Māori working in the screen industry.
This short film is a re-enactment of events leading to Ngāti Toa leader Te Rauparaha’s ‘Ka Mate’ haka; he composed the chant after evading enemy capture by hiding in a kumara pit. (The haka would become famous after the All Blacks adopted it as a pre-game challenge.) Directed by pioneering filmmaker Barry Barclay in te reo, produced by John O’Shea and written by Tama Poata, the short was made in the lead-up to landmark Māori feature Ngati. Many of the crew were enlisted via a work scheme, aimed at redressing the lack of young Māori working in the screen industry.
Set in and around the fictional town of Kapua in 1948, Ngāti is the story of a Māori community. The film comprises three narrative threads: a boy, Ropata, is dying of leukaemia; the return of a young Australian doctor, Greg, and his discovery that he has Māori heritage; and the fight to keep the local freezing works open. Unique in tone and quietly powerful in its storytelling, Ngāti was Barry Barclay's first dramatic feature, and the first feature to be written and directed by Māori. Ngati screened in Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival
This 1985 film spins off Katherine Mansfield's request to her husband John Middleton Murry, to burn "as much as possible" of her letters and writing after her death. Three decades later Murry (Sir John Gielgud) is still haunted by Mansfield, as he works on a collection of her work. Brit Jane Birkin plays both Mansfield, and a Kiwi expat who reminds Murry of his ex lover. Initially charmed, she grows annoyed at Murry's narrow-minded view of Mansfield. John Reid took over directing two weeks before shooting began in France. Variety rated the Pacific Films drama nuanced and intelligent.
Author Maurice Shadbolt went before the cameras to play father to the main character, in this adaptation of his acclaimed coming of age novel. Teen Nick (Paul O’Shea) is estranged from his family, and blaming himself for his Māori mate's climbing death. He runs away to his straight talking grandfather (Derek Hardwick) — who takes him bush — and loses his virginity to Sally (a first film role for Rebecca Gibney). Produced by Pacific Films legend John O’Shea, the NZ-German co-production was directed by Rolf Hädrich (Stop Train 349). The film debuted in NZ on television.
Screening as Goodbye Pork Pie packed cinemas and gave hope that Kiwi films were here to stay, this 1981 TV documentary attempts to combine history lesson with some crystal ball gazing on what might lie ahead for the newly reborn film industry. Host Ian Johnstone wonders if three local movies per year might be a "fairly ambitious" target; producer John Barnett argues for the upside of overseas filmmakers shooting downunder. Also interviewed: Pork Pie director Geoff Murphy, veteran producer John O'Shea, and the NZ Film Commission's first Chairman, Bill Sheat.
This fictionalised account of pioneering 19th century photographers the Burton brothers is set partly in Dunedin during the closing stages of the New Zealand Wars. William and Alfred take contrasting approaches to representing their subjects — and are treated accordingly by the authorities, who are attempting to attract new settlers while brutally suppressing Māori. Produced by veteran John O'Shea (who co-wrote with playwright Robert Lord), the tale of art, commerce and colonisation was largely well received as a thoughtful essay at revisionist history.
An old woman (Olive Bracey) recounts to her nephew (actor Martyn Sanderson) memories of her life in Hokianga. The film is a mix of personal return journey for Sanderson and an affectionate record of his spirited aunt (she's "the one who ate wheatgerm" in the family). Autumn Fires mixes conversations, photos, and dramatisations of romantic letters. Sanderson rambles on the farm, picks mussels in bull kelp sandals, muses on industrial agriculture and on the "unambitious peaceful life". Directed by Barry Barclay, the elegiac film screened in TV1's Scene series.
This 1976 documentary examines India’s third Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Her father took office as Prime Minister in 1947, the day India became independent from Britain. Framed around an extended interview with Gandhi, reporter Dairne Shanahan explores India and Indira’s history, and her controversial ‘emergency’ governing of the democracy’s 600 million people. The documentary was directed by Barry Barclay. As this article explains, Shanahan hoped it would be the pilot for a series, but it was never made. In October 1984 Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards.
Before turning to directing, Barry Barclay did more than five years training to become a priest. That experience surely percolates through his film Ashes, with its reflections on identity, spirituality and living (or feeling) apart from others. The film centres on the thoughts of four people: an artist, a woman struggling with her identity as a high achiever, an actor, and a priest. Are all of them acting, or only Sam Neill? The film features readings from Ash Wednesday, the poem written by TS Eliot after converting to anglicanism. Ashes screened on NZ television on 17 March 1975.
Cannes is the town in France where Bergman meets bikinis, and the art of filmmaking meets the art of the deal. In 1975, a group of expat Kiwis managed to score interviews with some of the festival's emerging talents, indulging their own cinematic dreams in the process. Werner Herzog waxes lyrical on the trials and scars of directing; a boyish Steven Spielberg recalls the challenges of framing shots during Jaws; Martin Scorsese and Dustin Hoffman talk a gallon. Six years later interviewer Michael Heath's debut script The Scarecrow would be invited to Cannes.
The Hum is about sailing legend Geoff Stagg, and his yacht Whispers. Directed by Tony Williams and written by Martyn Sanderson, the doco is a paean to the lure of sailing, focusing on Stagg’s colourful personality, and his veteran ocean-racing crew, as they take on the Wellington to Kapiti Island and down to the Sounds race. Fortunately for the film they deliver on reputation. Dolphins, Strait squalls, streaking, ciggies, and some fierce 70s moustaches are all in a weekend’s sailing. Stagg would go on to head renowned Farr Yacht Design (now Stagg Yachts).
Apparently it's not that New Zealand has a bad image in the USA, more that it has no image. In an attempt to remedy this situation, cameras follow New Zealand's favourite mid-70s country rocker Kenny Rogers (pre-'The Gambler') and his band the First Edition on tour on a Road Services bus. All western shirts, shaggy hair, beards and satin jackets, they see the sights, meet the people (many of them older, rustic characters), play baseball, put down a hangi, break into song and admire the country's slower, more dignified pace. If only it had a McDonalds...
Tangata Whenua was a groundbreaking six-part documentary series that screened (remarkably in primetime) in 1974. Each episode chronicled a different iwi and included interviews by historian Michael King with kaumātua. These remain a priceless historical record. The Feltex Award-winning script was by King and director Barry Barclay. The NZBC said the series had "possibly done more towards helping the European understand the Māori people, their traditions and way of life, than anything else previously shown on television". Paul Diamond writes about Tangata Whenua here.
Tangata Whenua was a groundbreaking six-part series from 1974, on Māori. Barry Barclay directed, and historian Michael King was writer and interviewer. Each episode (remarkably screening in primetime on Sunday nights) chronicled a different iwi and included interviews with kaumātua — a first for New Zealand screens. This episode looks at the people of Waikato, and focuses on the Kīngitanga (Māori King Movement), examining why a movement formed in the Waikato in the 19th century to halt land sales and promote Māori authority has contemporary relevance.
This documentary follows the 1973 Heatway Rally, a mud and oil-splattered event in which 120 drivers covered 3600 miles over eight days. Directed by future advertising legend Tony Williams, it was a major logistical exercise, with five camera units, shot by a who’s who of the 70s New Zealand film industry. In addition to high speed on-and-off road action, it includes an explanation of what co-drivers actually do, a chance for a driver’s wife to ride in a rally car, and driving and cornering montages set to orchestral accompaniment. It won the 1974 Feltex Award for Best Documentary.
Tony Williams recognised that passion makes for compelling human interest whatever the subject and came up with the idea of a “pub battle” where three people from very different fields, but united by a common dedication to their respective callings, would be brought together to debate their obsessions. The subjects — choirmaster Maxwell Fernie, astronomer Peter (Night Sky) Read, and sports journalist Terry ‘TP’ McLean — are also filmed separately at work; shots of Fernie working with his choir are particularly notable in the scrum of sport, art and science.
Gliding On meets Borat, as a man pretending to be a fisherman from a fictional town heads to Wellington to find out if any government agency will take action about fish he says are dying in his river. Clad in jacket and tie and walk shorts and walk socks, he traipses the corridors of power which are artfully shot to look like a hell from which he will never escape. His attempts to find someone who can take action yield only a succession of impotent bureaucrats who participate happily but only to explain, often at length, why they can’t actually do anything.
Opening with an image of Orpheus floating on the water, this inspired doco climaxes with a contender for NZ's most eyeopening montage yet. Loaded with examples of the infinite ways the human voice can make music, the film sees host Julian Waring introducing choirs, opera, balladeers and protest singers. Along the way Michael Heath recreates a performance by Florence Foster Jenkins, a worryingly close cousin of Asian-New Zealand songbird Wing. The mash-up finale uses 2000 photographs to summarise two decades of music, in a scene that must have blown minds in the suburbs.
In this 1972 documentary writer James McNeish visits Opononi to examine the life and controversial death of Opo the dolphin. Working from a McNeish idea, director Barry Barclay uses Opo’s mid 50s visit to the Hokianga as the basis for a probing film essay on people, and other animals. Witnesses recall Opo “oomping away”; they include local Piwai Toi, filmmakers Rudall and Ramai Hayward, and author Maurice Shadbolt. Opo is provokingly not shown on screen. Michael King praised Miracle as “without a doubt the most interesting and evocative” slot in the Survey series to date.
“A film developed from the imagination of New Zealand children” is how director Tony Williams describes this remarkable, sprawling mix of drama and documentary. It features a fictitious teacher (writer Michael Heath) working with a class of 11-year-olds from Petone to explore what freedom means to them. At times their notions might seem naive but the film remains firmly non-judgmental. The free-wheeling approach, most memorable in the Paekakariki beach fantasy scenes, makes for a “wonderfully idiosyncratic” (film historian Roger Horrocks) hymn to juvenile freedom.
Directed by Tony Williams, this documentary is a strong example of how to make engaging television out of a brief that might easily have been overly earnest. Nominally “a history of service clubs in New Zealand”, the footloose film explores a rich variety of organisations created to bring people together: from accordion players and air hostesses to flying saucer believers and Rotarians. The film celebrates a fundamental human need to ‘get together’. Poet Denis Glover provides sardonic commentary. It won the best programme of year Feltex Award.
In the one channel days of the early 1970s, the Survey slot was the place to find local documentaries. Topics ranged across the board, from social issues (alcoholism, runaway children) to the potentially humdrum (an AGM meeting) to the surprisingly experimental (music film The Unbelievable Glory of the Human Voice). After extended campaigning by producer John O’Shea, emerging independent filmmakers, including Tony Williams and Roger Donaldson, joined the party — bringing fresh creativity and new techniques to the traditional gentle, narration-heavy doco format.
This film comprehensively surveys Kiwi Olympic success to 1968. Footage includes triumphs from running men Lovelock, Halberg and Snell (trying a celebratory haka), and long jumper Yvette Williams; and podium efforts from Marise Chamberlain, Barry Magee and John Holland. The John O'Shea-made doco then meets athletes training for the upcoming Mexico Olympics. Reigning Boston Marathon winner Dave McKenzie runs on quiet West Coast roads and Warren Cole rows on Lake Rotoiti under snow-capped peaks. Cole would go on to win gold in the Men's Coxed Four.
Surveying All Blacks rugby from 1905 until 1967, this wide-ranging documentary is framed around the NZ Rugby Football Union’s 75th jubilee celebrations. The archival gold mine includes matches from the 1905 Originals and 1924 Invincibles tours, and clashes with Springboks, British Lions, Wallabies and French rivals. There's also footage of NZ schoolboy and NZ Māori clashes, and a jubilee match with Australia. Funded by Caltex NZ, the documentary was made by legendary Pacific Films co-founder John O’Shea. Press on the backgrounds tab for a list — in order — of all the matches.
“The big ALL FUN show for the whole family to enjoy!” said the ads for this musical comedy, which was one of only two Kiwi features made in the 1960s. Moving from Sydney to a Rotorua music festival, it follows the romance between a lively drummer (Gary Wallace) and Judy (Carmen Duncan), and the hurdles they face to stay true. That's only an excuse for a melange of madcap musical fun. Made by John O’Shea for Pacific Films, the movie featured performers Howard Morrison (who sings in this excerpt), Lew Pryme and Kiri Te Kanawa, plus distinctive graphics by artist Pat Hanly.
Shot in black and white (by Terry King and future Harry Potter cinematographer Michael Seresin), this early Tony Williams directorial effort answers its road safety instructional mandate with style. A jazzy soundtrack scores the setting up of a literal ‘lives collide’ plot. Two lovers go rambling; a gallerist in a goatee takes photos on a car trip, a beau takes his girl for a Wellington coastal drive, a musical duo drive from a 2ZB recording session ... all the while emergency room flash-forwards are intercut and the clock ticks as basic road safety lessons are ignored.
Made on a wind-up Bolex camera, The Sound of Seeing announced the arrival of 21-year-old filmmaker Tony Williams. Based around a painter and a composer wandering the city (and beyond), the film meshes music and imagery to show the duo taking inspiration from their surroundings. The Sound of Seeing served early notice on Williams' editing talents, his love of music, and his dislike of narration. It was also one of the first independently-made titles screened on Kiwi television. Composer/author Robin Maconie later wrote pioneering electronic music.
This Pacific Films short provides a vivid snapshot of Australasian motor racing’s coming of age, before brand sponsorship or even crowd safety was on the agenda (look ma, no barriers!) Opening with the ’56 Australian Grand Prix on the streets of Melbourne — where producer Roger Mirams was shooting official newsreels for the Olympics — Stirling Moss scoops another international title, before we head to Auckland where the tragic death of Ken Wharton and a ‘see-sawing duel’ between Reg Parnell and Peter Whitehead makes for a dramatic day at Ardmore.
Broken Barrier marked the first New Zealand dramatic feature to be made since 1940. Its production saw directors John O'Shea and Roger Mirams crowding into a Vauxhall with two silent cameras, one picked up "from a dead German in the Western Desert". Ditching dialogue for 'spoken thoughts', the pioneering film examines cultural complications in a romance between a Pākehā journalist (Terence Bayler) and a Māori nurse (Kay Ngarimu, aka Keita Whakato Walker). According to O'Shea, some viewers considered it "a dirty movie" for spurring mixed race relationships.