Jonathan Dennis was just 27 years old when he became the founding director — and sole employee — of The Film Archive in 1981. Armed with $5,000 from the NZ Film Commission, the film archivist and passionate cinephile set out to discover hidden Kiwi films from around the country, preserve them and take them out on the road.
In the nine years he spent as director, Dennis helped develop the kaupapa of the archive (now known as Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision) to incorporate te ao Māori, spurred and supported by many Māori including Witarina Harris, Merata Mita, and Barry Barclay. Films were regarded as taonga, not simply an archive material, and Māori were involved in screenings of their own stories.
Dennis' love of films began as a child growing up at the scenic Hermitage Hotel in Mt Cook. His father Lawrie managed the posh hotel. The youngest of four children, Dennis enjoyed the local tourism newsreels of the National Film Unit and the international feature films the hotel screened each week.
At age 10, he was sent to boarding school in Christchurch at Cathedral Grammar and then St Andrew's College. Emma Jean Kelly's biography The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis states the bullied child "loathed and detested" school, and "escaped" into films. Feeling invisible as a child was a stark contrast to his flamboyant and colourful attire as an adult.
In 1968, Dennis moved with his family to Wellington, where he insisted on finishing high school at Wellington College. In his late teens he joined experimental theatre troupe Amamus. He acted in TV drama Landfall: A Film about Ourselves (1975) alongside fellow Amamus member Sam Neill. Directed by the troupe's co-founder Paul Maunder, it was shown internationally. In 1976 Dennis completed a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, which he described an excuse for him to be involved with theatrical work.
But film won out over theatre. In the late 70s, he was involved with Wellington's Film Society and the local Film Festival. Dennis, National Film Unit archivist Clive Sowry and other interested parties were having ongoing discussions over the need for a Film Archive. Dennis helped alert the nation to the plight of the country's neglected film heritage; he invited a TV crew to view decomposing nitrate film at Shelly Bay in Wellington. In 1979 Dennis travelled overseas to train as a film archivist, and Sowry spent 10 weeks working at the UK's National Film Archive (now the BFI National Archive).
Dennis took a course in archiving in East Berlin, and studied at the UK archive. He also completed an extensive study tour of Europe and North America. Much of the trip was funded by his parents and there was no guarantee of a job when he returned to NZ. Ferry Hendriks, his partner at the time, recalled how Dennis would weigh up the decision to either attend a movie or eat lunch, because he couldn't afford both. He chose films.
On 9 March 1981, the Film Archive was registered as a charitable trust in Wellington. Dennis' gamble to become a film archivist paid off and he was appointed as founding director. He shared a small office with the NZ Federation of Film Societies and the Film Festival on Courtenay Place in Wellington. "Bill Gosden had one office, I had the other, with a tiny kitchen between. The Archive's room was big enough only for a table to work at, and a mighty uncomfortable chair for visitors," Dennis told Newsreel in July 2001.
He put the call out to find Kiwi films. Alongside movie memorabilia, hundreds of feet of film were located, from documentaries to home movies. As the Archive began preserving films, Dennis was determined that the films should return to where they were from, so he hit the road. "The response was immediate — people gathered in great numbers and with enormous enthusiasm to see them," Dennis said.
Films featuring Māori, in particular, garnered a lot of passion and interest. With the help of Rotorua's Witarina Harris (a star of 1929 film The Devil's Pit), Dennis screened films for Māori in their homes, marae, and even at a Black Power hui. Harris became a close friend of Dennis. As the Archive's kaumatua, she travelled with him when Māori films were exhibited overseas. Their enduring friendship is revealed in Peter Wells' 2004 documentary Friendship is the Harbour of Joy. The two can be seen in this 1982 Kaleidoscope report watching a restored scene from film The Devil's Pit.
According to biographer Emma Kelly, Harris' influence on Dennis was profound: "He said although he did not realise it at the time the films and reception were starting to change the archive..." Dennis was excited about Māori engagement with their films, and he wanted the Film Archive to be part of that.
Dennis' enthusiasm to engage with Māori and reflect a bicultural mandate made him unique amongst Western film archive heads, who at that point rarely placed importance on consulting with indigenous cultures. It was clear Dennis wasn't your average bureaucrat. Out and proud, the "incredibly tall" man was well-known for his brightly coloured clothes, some of them made by his sister Simon: Hawaiian shirts, patterned pants and on occasion, glow in dark eyeglasses. "He was flamboyant, he was colourful," says Kelly. His friend Lindsay Shelton remembers Dennis as a man of strong opinions and "a memorably strong personality".
During the 1980s there was pushback from some Māori about Pākeha being in charge of their taonga. Dennis responded to these criticisms by inviting Pākehā editor Annie Collins (Patu!) to carry out bicultural training with the Archive's staff. Together they worked on a rewrite of the constitution/kaupapa in the late 80s, which made the Archive different from any other Western archive in the world at that time. The goal was to have a board with 50% Māori, 50% Pākehā. "It incorporated indigenous rights into its infrastructure and acknowledged the rights of the materials themselves as ngā taonga, as living entities with relationships to people," Kelly said.
Dennis also waved the flag for Kiwi films abroad, curating major retrospectives of Kiwi film globally. He arranged screenings of early Māori films to tour with Te Māori, an exhibition that proved wildly popular in North America in 1984. In 1993, with Paolo Cherchi Usai, he curated a programme of silent films for Italy's prestigious Pordenone Silent Film Festival). There he was acknowledged with the Jean Mitry Award for services to silent film.
1990 was a momentous year for Dennis. He resigned from the Film Archive in March 1990, acknowledging that as a Pākehā, he wasn't the most appropriate person to be in control as it moved toward bicultural practice. He was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for his role in establishing the Film Archive.
That same year he added 'producer' to his CV when he co-produced the feature-length Mana Waka. Chronicling the creation of four special waka, the documentary featured archive footage of Māori in the Waikato in the 1930s. Dennis invited Patu! director Merata Mita to helm it, further enhancing Māori wishes to be the "framers" of their own stories.
His subsequent career was wide ranging — from making more documentaries, to editing books, curating retospectives for New Zealand's annual film festival, and presenting radio shows. In 1998 Dennis wrote and directed documentary Mouth Wide Open, about pioneer filmmaker Ted Coubray. With Jan Bieringa, he edited respected screen book Film in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1992, and John O'Shea's 1999 memoir Don't Let It Get You. Alongside Patricia Grace and Irihapeti Ramsden, Dennis compiled 2001 book The Silent Migration: Ngāti Poneke Young Māori Club 1937-1948. It was a finalist in the history category of the 2002 Montana NZ Book Awards.
Radio gave Dennis a lot of creative freedom. In 1994 he began hosting weekly film review show The Film Show on Concert Radio. He hosted the popular weekly show until close to his death. Radio was the "most creative part of what I’ve done" in the past 10 years, he argued. In 1995 he co-produced soundscape radio documentary A Day Without Art for World AIDS Day, which won Best Documentary at the NZ Radio Awards. Later he worked with Australian Matthew Leonard on millennium project Ocean of Time, which included an interactive website. The project used archive sound recordings to provide new angles on colonisation in the Pacific.
Elizabeth Alley, Dennis' boss at Radio New Zealand, would pay tribute to a man "unafraid of saying exactly what he thought. His utter fearlessness, his acerbic wit, the spit and polish that he insisted on, his sensitivity for his craft, his prodigious knowledge and his controversial judgements set new broadcasting benchmarks and new production standards. He didn't mess about."
Weeks before Dennis died, his old friend Witarina Harris took the bus down from Rotorua to join those looking after him. Jonathan Dennis died on 25 January 2002 from cancer. His several hours long funeral at Wellington's Paramount cinema was attended by hundreds.
Profile written by Natasha Harris; published on 19 September 2019
Emma Jean Kelly, The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis (New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing, 2015)
Peter Calder, 'Dennis led fab life of neat movies' (Obituary) - The NZ Herald, 1 February 2002
Kate Conton, 'Colossal, exquisite — and lost' - The Listener, 7 April 1979
Michele Hewitson, 'Michele Hewitson Up Close and Personal with Peter Wells' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 10 July 2004, page A28
Peter Kitchin, 'Scholar salvaged NZ film heritage' (Obituary) - The Evening Post, 31 January 2002, page 3
Diane Pivac, Bronwyn Taylor & Sarah Davy, 'Jonathan Spencer Dennis QSM (1954 -2002)' (booklet)
Diane Pivac, 'Twenty years ago' (Interview) - Newsreel, Issue 47, July 2001
Unknown writer, 'Remembering Jonathan Dennis' - Newsreel, Issue 49, July 2002, page 3
Unknown writer, 'Archive mooted at turn of century' - The Evening Post, 27 March 1991, page 34
Unknown writer, 'New Zealand Film Archive launched' NZ History website. Updated 8 December 2016. Accessed 19 September 2019
'Kiwis Who Should Be Famous - Jonathan Dennis' (Radio Interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded 4 January 2010. Accessed 19 September 2019