Take a look at Justin Pemberton's CV as a documentary director, and one thing becomes clear: he thrives on an unusual challenge. To date his documentaries have involved visits to contaminated nuclear sites, recreating the Olympic Games — 50 years after the fact — and exploring new ways of telling stories online. En route, he has ably tackled a number of 'big' topics: surveillance, capitalism, nuclear power.
Pemberton was born in Auckland. and went to high school at Pakuranga College. In-between, he lived everywhere from Northland to the West Coast. His father was a teacher, and Justin attended five primary schools.
In 1992 he was awarded the Senior Prize for Psychology at Auckland University. His fate was sealed when he followed his psychology degree with a Diploma in Broadcast Communication. By the mid 90s he was directing music videos for Strawpeople, and stories for Music Nation. The short-lived music show introduced a young presenter named Bic Runga. Pemberton directed Runga's first music video, for her breakthrough song 'Drive'; he also chronicled hit concert Enzso in documentary Enzso: Dirty Creature.
Over the next few years Pemberton began directing for the occasional documentary series, including episodes of Shipwreck and Robyn Malcolm-hosted series NZ Sex. The worlds of documentary and music would fuse with singer Anika Moa.
Pemberton made a number of videos for Moa’s songs, before directing 3 Chords & the Truth: The Anika Moa Story in 2004. The documentary follows Moa as she wins a contract with Atlantic Records in New York, then starts to worry about the company’s plans for her music and image. A second Anika Moa doco was picked to open the 2010 season of arts show Artsville. In Bed with Anika Moa takes up her story from 2006. Filmed partly in motel rooms and taxis, it explores how Moa was in a better place to deal with fame after she came to peace with her own sexuality.
In-between the Moa docos, Pemberton directed films on a world tour by the NZ Symphony Orchestra (Airports and Overtures) and sleep deprivation (A Sleepy Life). He would also stack up a trio of awards for 2005’s Love, Speed and Loss. A healthy seller on DVD, the film uses interviews and home movie footage to chart the tragic story of motorcyle champ Kim Newcombe, who was killed racing in 1973, and posthumously came second in that year's World 500cc Grand Prix. Love, Speed and Loss won best documentary at the 2007 Qantas TV Awards, plus Air NZ Screen Awards for best documentary, directing, and editing.
That year Pemberton was travelling the globe, interviewing critics and defenders of nuclear power. His documentary The Nuclear Comeback involved visits to uranium mines, sections of Chernobyl where it is too dangerous to touch anything, and the pioneering Sellafield power station in Northern England — where the decommissioning process is expected to take over 100 years. The finished film did some travelling of its own: from festivals in Mexico and South Africa, to Italian environmental film festival Cinemambiente.
Guardian writer Leo Hickman was part of the Cinemambiente judging team, which gave The Nuclear Comeback top prize. “Like the best documentaries, it is engaging, nuanced and avoids preaching its cause," wrote Hickman. "...the authorities at Chernobyl allowed him [Pemberton] to film inside the now abandoned, highly radioactive control room and inner core. It is thought to be the first time a western film crew has ever been allowed so far inside.”
Is She or Isn’t He?, which played at New Zealand's Documentary Edge Festival in 2011, tells the story of a man’s search for acceptance — by becoming a woman. The film follows Graham/Ashleigh as they find the courage to dress as a woman, but struggle with negative feelings about other transgender people. Pemberton shot much of the film himself over a five year period, and included animated scenes imagining Ashleigh's future life as a woman.
Next came The Golden Hour, which combined interviews, dramatisations and archive footage to chart Peter Snell and Murray Halberg's triumph at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Also featured was Arthur Lydiard, the revolutionary trainer who the boss of the Kiwi Olympic team did not want at the games. As he mentions in this video interview, Pemberton was once again attracted by the outsider aspects of the trio's story. He notes it as a theme in his work.
The Golden Hour screened in TV One's Sunday Theatre slot, shortly before the London 2012 Olympics. It was later nominated for Best Documentary at the International Emmy Awards. NZ Herald veteran Russell Baillie praised the “riveting” result for its candid interviews, casting, and avoiding the predictable. “...director Justin Pemberton knows that when it comes to dramatised scenes in a doco, they had better look and smell authentic and show rather than tell.”
Pemberton took on another Kiwi sporting great for Chasing Great, a biopic of All Black captain Richie McCaw. Pemberton and co-director Michelle Walshe (Short Poppies) followed McCaw for a year, culling 700 hours of footage into a film that aimed to be celebrational without being sycophantic. In October 2016 it became the most successful local documentary yet released in New Zealand cinemas, overtaking 2009's The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls.
The same period saw the launch of online documentary I Spy (with My Five Eyes), via a custom-built website. It examined five country surveillance network Five Eyes. Viewers could drill down even further on specific topics, and make comments as they watched. Pemberton's aim was for "a conversation about how the age of surveillance is changing the way our world operates — and to consider where it might be heading".
Pemberton's ambition shows no sign of fading. The feature-length Capital in the Twenty-First Century debuted in 2019. He described it as a "companion piece" to the 700-page bestseller of the same name, by French economist Thomas Piketty. Mixing history, talking heads and imagery from popular culture, the French-Kiwi documentary examines "the journey of wealth and power" over the centuries. Pemberton called it "the biggest thing that I've made yet".
Profile updated on 12 May 2021
'Justin Pemberton: Telling stories about the outsiders...' (Video interview) Director Andrew Whiteside. NZ On Screen website. Loaded 6 August 2018. Accessed 3 July 2019
Chasing Great website. Accessed 3 July 2019
Russell Baillie, ‘Russell Baillie: Rare piece of TV gold‘ (Review of The Golden Hour) - The NZ Herald, 26 July 2012
James Croot, 'Chasing Great's Justin Pemberton on how to capture the 'real' Riche McCaw' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 26 August 2016
Leo Hickman, ‘Movies with a message’ - The Guardian, 23 October 2008
‘TV Pick of the week: Artsville: In Bed with Anika Moa’ - The NZ Herald (Time Out liftout), 2 December 2010
Writer unknown, 'Chasing great beats record to become New Zealand's highest-grossing documentary' Stuff website. Loaded 27 October 2016. Accessed 3 July 2019
'Bestselling book Capital in the 21st Century to get big screen adaptation' (Press release) NZ Film Commission website. Loaded 1 March 2017. Accessed 3 July 2019
'I Spy (with My Five Eyes)' (Press release) Columbia Law School website. Accessed 19 January 2021
The Docufactory website. Accessed 20 November 2014