Born in Kenya to a Kiwi mother and British father, Julia Parnell moved to New Zealand at the age of 10. In 1997 she studied at Auckland's South Seas Film and Television School. After graduating she gigged at various local production houses before working her way up to heading production at ButoBase (now Buto) Productions.
During six years at ButoBase, Parnell oversaw hundreds of hours of content, including factual series Ngāti NRL, which delved into the 'Mozzie' subculture of Māori league players in the tough Australian rugby league competition. Parnell produced this 2009 documentary on Riki Ellison, an American football (NFL) star with Kiwi heritage, just one of a kete’s worth of titles she worked on for Māori Television.
Further Buto output with Parnell at the helm included the first season of cult comedy Wayne Anderson: Singer of Songs, which follows a crooner working the Manurewa rest home circuit. The third episode was nominated for Best Comedy Programme at the 2007 NZ Screen Awards.
An idea she pitched turned into 2007 documentary Relocated Mountains, which traced Kurdish Kiwi Sirwan Namo's journey to his former home in Northern Iraq. Relocated Mountains was an international co-production between NHK (Japan), ITVS (US) and Māori TV.
In 2010 Parnell won a Women in Film and Television (WIFT) ‘Woman to Watch’ award, and established her production company Notable Pictures. Notable shows include Māori Television’s Bring Your Boots Oz, in which ex-All Black and Hyundai Code host Glen Osbourne checked out heartland rugby clubs. Henare O’Keefe, a social activist working on Hastings' mean streets, was also profiled in a Notable documentary.
Long-running TV3 series Both Worlds surveyed contemporary settler stories, putting the camera in the hands of first, second and third generation New Zealanders busy negotiating their heritage, and "being Kiwi now". Subjects ranged from Miss India NZ to ‘The Dumpling Queen’.
Two Notable documentaries have explored alternative takes on the justice system: acclaimed 2013 restorative justice doco Restoring Hope, which she co-directed wtih Eugene Carnachan, and Parnell's Drug Court, a confronting look at the rehab rethink that the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court presents offenders.
Parnell has also produced a run of NZ Film Commission-funded shorts. Aidee Walker’s story of a young mother’s travails, Friday Tigers, won the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival’s award for Best NZ Short Film. And two shorts from actor turned director Matthew Saville have found success: Hitch Hike thumbed an international festival ride (from Durban to Finland), while his surreal man-in-the-mirror follow-up, Dive won Best Short at NZ’s 2014 Show Me Shorts festival.
2014 saw the debut of Loading Docs, an innovative digital series co-created and co-produced by Parnell and Anna Jackson. The first batch of nine three-minute documentaries tackled variations on the theme ‘home’. They were viewable and sharable online. In a 2014 Herald on Sunday interview, Parnell argued that she and Jackson wanted to "inspire documentary filmmakers to open themselves to emerging forms of distribution on digital platforms. There are millions of people online watching short-form factual content, and we want New Zealand stories to be amongst them.”
The series continues to be produced: some have won international acclaim, such as 2017's Coffin Club, which was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the South by Southwest festival in Texas. The same year, Parnell directed her first feature, with J Ollie Lucks. Documentary Wilbur: King in the Ring was spawned from Lucks' Loading Doc short about an overweight ex-wrestler trying to regain control over his life.
In March 2019 Parnell returned to South by Southwest for the world premiere of her film The Chills - The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (Parnell is listed as director, with Rob Curry as co-director). The documentary follows the iconic Dunedin band's frontman's battles with debt and addiction, and includes interviews with many ex members. When it hit New Zealand cinemas in May 2019, NZ Herald reviewer Francesca Rudkin praised it as "honest and insightful and beautifully told, and rounded off with stunning images of the local landscape".
Parnell also feels "very privileged" to have worked on TV documentaries telling the stories of legendary Kiwi bands Dragon (2015) and The Exponents (2013). Both screened on Prime. In late 2018, it was announced that she would direct a film about Dunedin pop band SIX60. Six60:Till the Light Go Out, which is set to be released in late 2020, follows the group from its covers band roots to becoming the first Kiwi group to sell out at Auckland's Western Springs Stadium.
Profile originally published on 21 December 2014; updated on 25 May 2020
‘Julia Parnell: From Wayne Anderson and the Exponents to Loading Docs...’ (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 21 July 2015. Accessed 10 April 2019
Notable Pictures website. Accessed 10 April 2019
Julia Parnell and Anna Jackson, 'What is Loading Docs?' - Herald on Sunday, 19 February 2014
Lynda Chanwai-Earle, ‘Asian Report for 13 August 2013 - Both Worlds’ (Radio interview) Radio New Zealand website. Loaded August 2013. Accessed 10 April 2019
Dominic Corry, 'Bouncing into the online arena' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 1 June 2014
'Ngāti NRL Returns to Māori Television' (Press release) Scoop website. Loaded 28 September 2009. Accessed 20 May 2019
Glen McConnell, 'A documentary is being made all about Dunedin band Six60' - Stuff website, Loaded 13 December 2018. Accessed 20 May 2019
Francesca Rudkin,'Movie review: The Chills: The riumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillips' -The NZ Herald, 2 May 2019