During his 34 years as a National Film Unit cameraman, Kell Fowler filmed throughout New Zealand, and travelled as far afield as China and the South Pole. Career highlights included his work as cameraman and director of Oscar-nominated Antarctic film One Hundred and Forty Days Under the World (1964), and the filming of the sweeping three-screen vistas that featured in Expo 70 hit This is New Zealand.
The Film Unit adventurers found that this tea-drinking was a prime requirement in deciding arrangements, and when the time came for returning home, Kell Fowler was almost awash with the liquid. The Evening Post, 3 May, 1966, page 28.
In the 20th Century forests of fast-growing exotic pines were established in the North Island, making one of the world’s largest timber plantations. This short explores timber work in Kinleith and Kawerau: from planting to felling to finished product. Directed by NFU veteran Hugh Macdonald, Logger Rhythms is notable as the first Kiwi film to record sound using Dolby Stereo. Sound men Kit Rolling and Tony Johnson’s efforts capturing chainsaw and machine ambience, along with Steve Robinson’s score, compelled Dolby in London to use the film as a demonstration reel.
This 1981 NFU film is a tour of the contemporary world of Aotearoa’s tangata whenua. It won headlines over claims that its portrayal of Māori had been sanitised for overseas viewers. Debate and a recut ensued. Writer Witi Ihimaera felt that mentions of contentious issues (Bastion Point, the land march) in his original script were ignored or elided in the final film, and withdrew from the project. He later told journalists that the controversy showed that educated members of minority groups were no longer prepared to let the majority interpret the minority view.
The bid to raise the level of Fiordland’s Lake Manapōuri (to provide hydro-electricity for an aluminum smelter) resulted in controversy between 1959 and 1972. This film charts a (still-timely) debate as arguments for industrial growth and cheap energy vie with views advocating for ecological values. New Zealand’s first large-scale environmental campaign ensued, and its “damn the dam” victory was a spur for the modern conservation movement — drawing an unprecedented petition, Forest and Bird, and figures like farmer Ron McLean and botanist Alan Mark into the fray.
Jack Winter's Dream is an unusual entry in the library of government filmmakers the National Film Unit: a poetic account of drink-fuelled males telling tales, adapted from a radio play by James K Baxter. Built around themes of age, death and love, the hour-long film starts with an old swagman bedding down in the ruins of an Otago pub. Time drifts: back to the night a newly rich goldminer found himself swapping memories and reveries — some of which unfurl on screen — with three drinkers and the barman (Bernard Kearns). But which one of them is planning murder?
Bookended by cameo appearances from the Queen and Robert Muldoon, this National Film Unit short offers a brief history of the various buildings that graced Wellington’s parliamentary lawns, before moving to the main event: the design and building of the Beehive. Plans are drawn up after acceptance of Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence’s “bold, circular design”. Then we watch as one of NZ’s most iconic structures is born from a gaping hole in the ground in 30 seconds of swift cuts. At the official launch, a still youthful looking Queen expresses her approval.
This 1978 National Film Unit documentary provides a potted history of settler groups that came to New Zealand from Europe. Archive material and narration covers the colonials. Then visits are paid to the German-descended Eggers, tobacco growers from Moutere, and newly arrived French bakers and Dutch dairy farmers. Aptly for a film directed by actor and future winemaker Sam Neill, the film drops in on an Italian play and the Babich family of Dalmatian winemakers. Neill worked at the NFU in his 20s, around the time of his breakout acting role in Sleeping Dogs (1977).
A 1978 documentary that follows the attempt by three young people to be the first windsurfers to cross Cook Strait. Directed and narrated by Sam Neill (soon to be famous as an actor) for the National Film Unit. The skeptical Cook Strait pilot John Cataldo asks them: "do you wanna have a crack?" "Yeah, bloody oath" one of the surfers replies. They face the Strait's infamous winds, tides, swells, sharks and exhaustion. Some stunning helicopter shots include a windsurfer clipping through whitecaps with a pod of dolphins in its wake.
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
TV drama The Governor examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's 'Good Governor' persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ televison's first historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. In first episode 'The Reverend Traitor', Grey arrives to colonial troubles: flag-pole chopping Hōne Heke, missionary Henry Williams, and rebellious Te Rauparaha. Writer Keith Aberdein goes behind the scenes here.
There is a Place is one of many Kiwi tourism films that Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand) made for the National Film Unit. After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proved unhappy with the original version, the director was forced to remove “all parts of the film that offend the sensitivities of Foreign Affairs.” Macdonald ended up cutting it in half, removing "anything that reflects badly on the country". The end result is a quick stroll through New Zealand’s four main cities, and a brief look at everything the locals hold dear: rugby football, agriculture, public bars, and pottery.
This chronicle of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marked one of the National Film Unit's most ambitious productions. Though a range of events (including famous runs by John Walker and Dick Tayler), are covered, the film often bypasses the pomp and glory approach; daring to talk to the injured and mentioning that most competitors lose. The closing ceremonies of the "friendly games" feature the athletes gathering to — as the official song's chorus put it — "join together". The directing team included Paul Maunder, Sam Pillsbury, and Arthur Everard.
This National Film Unit documentary records the 18-month-long building process of a waka taua (war canoe): from the felling of the trees — opening with an awe-inspiring shot of the giant totara selected by master carver Piri Poutapu — to the ceremonial launch. The waka was commissioned by Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, and built at Tūrangawaewae Marae. The Harry Dansey-narrated film was significant in showing the importance of the canoe-building kaupapa alongside the everyday lives of the workers (at the freezing works, the pub).
This advertisement was part of a 70s campaign promoting New Zealand for New Zealanders. This episode targets the elderly with the narration encouraging seniors to take a closer look at the country they've spent all their lives in but never really seen. Scenic wonder and relaxation is the focus as a bus-borne group of elderly folk travel on a southern tiki tour. This Queenstown is generations away (in both senses) from bungees, rafting and world adventure tourism capital status; with a trip in the gondola to the Skyline the most likely to set pulses racing here.
In November 1971 more than 70,000 visitors converged on Hamilton over six days for the first ever World Rose Convention. What's in a name? Well it can help you locate favourite flowers in the vast exhibition, but "form, substance and freshness" rule as this NFU short film shows the meticulous preparation, judging and reactions. Side-trips for international visitors to Paradise Valley and Rotorua's thermal areas add a travelogue element. But from the opening time-lapse shot of a blooming rose it's clear what these 'rosarians' are there for.
This 1972 NFU documentary looks at the care of children born with physical disabilities. Aimed at families with ‘crippled’ children, the film was directed by Frank Chilton for the Crippled Children Society (now CCS Disability Action). Parents, doctors, teachers and field officers are shown engaging with children and young adults at home and in the community, from spring-loaded splints for spina bifida patients to Māori stick games as therapy for cerebral palsy. It is introduced by Mrs New Zealand 1970, Alison Henry (whose son was born with a congenital foot defect).
This National Film Unit film follows Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ernest Rutherford, from farm boy in the Marlborough Sounds to leading Cambridge University's legendary Cavendish Laboratory. Described by Einstein as "a second Newton", Rutherford was one of the founders of modern atomic physics. Director David Sims pays special attention to Rutherford's colonial upbringing and education, and how it encouraged him to experiment. The atom-splitter famously said of Kiwi ingenuity, "we don't have the money, so we have to think". Rutherford is voiced by actor Grant Tilly.
In this 1971 film pianist Barry Margan ‘humps’ his grand piano around NZ, on a mission to bring classical piano to places where it might not typically be heard. Aiming to break down barriers to enjoying live chamber music, Margan plays his pop-up piano (including Douglas Lilburn’s ‘Sonatina’) at coffee bars, libraries and art galleries. The trailer-borne grand is not easy to set up, but the audiences (from soldiers to children) are willing. Narrated by Margan, this was the last film in the National Film Unit's three decade-spanning Pictorial Parade magazine series.
Made by the NFU for the NZ Water Safety Council this film enlists shock to provoke punters to consider water safety. On a summer’s day a fisherman, surfer and boatie all reckon it's “a great day for it”. But thoughtlessness results in tragedy. Directed by Hugh Macdonald (This is New Zealand), the disjunct between the jaunty song on the soundtrack and sunken bodies onscreen anticipates the graphic horror of the late 90s/early 00s road safety ads (sharing kinship with 1971 bush safety PSA Such a Stupid Way to Die). Grant Tilly cameos as a radio DJ.
It's 9am, and people have been queuing for hours. Welcome to Expo '70 in Osaka Japan, with 70 plus countries showing what they are made of. This National Film Unit documentary combines an overview of the expo, with a closer look at the New Zealand presence. There is extensive footage of the Kiwi pavilion, including background to screenings of Hugh MacDonald's three-screen spectacle This is New Zealand, which was one of the most acclaimed films at Expo '70. The Maori Theatre Trust also perform.
Directed by Hugh Macdonald, This is New Zealand was made to promote the country at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan. An ambitious concept saw iconic NZ imagery — panoramas, nature, Māori culture, sport, industry — projected on three adjacent screens that together comprised one giant widescreen. A rousing orchestral score (Sibelius's Karelia Suite) backed the images. Two million people saw it in Osaka, and over 350,000 New Zealanders saw on its homecoming theatrical release. It was remastered by Park Road Post in 2007. This excerpt is the first three minutes of the film.
A rod and rally race is the angle for this 1969 light comedy. Legendary angler ‘Maggots’ McClure lures “glamour boy” lawyer and fishing novice Applejoy (Peter Vere-Jones) into a contest to catch three trophy fish in Russell, Taupō, and Waitaki. The old dunga versus Alvis ‘Speed 20’, north versus south duel transfixes the nation; snags, shags and scenic diversion ensue. Directed by noted UK documentary maker Derek Williams, the caper was made with NFU help and funded by energy company BP. It showed with Gregory Peck western The Stalking Mood in New Zealand theatres.
This 1968 tourism promo follows two Aussie sheilas, Helen and Beverly, on a champagne-fuelled trip across the ditch. The tour kicks off with an obligatory sheep's 'baa', but offers some surprises alongside the scenic wonderland way, such as a detour to a Kaingaroa Forest mill and an Otago gold rush history lesson. Surprisingly trippy, Blow Up-inspired opening credits, some bold cutting and a jazzy score enliven the jaunt; a highlight is the lasses and hip local lads Monkee-ing around a Māori village and geothermal power station ... it's not PC, but it's definitely pop-tastic!
Auckland is known as the City of Sails and each Anniversary Day, the Waitemata Harbour hosts the world’s largest one-day regatta. The culture of yachting on the Hauraki Gulf gets full-blown homage in this 1968 National Film Unit film. The short documentary sets up sailing as a way to escape the bustle of the city, and follows the tacks and jibes of a race — “The hum of straining rigging, the sting of flying spray on the lips … the feeling that only a yachtie knows as his craft lifts and surges.” The narration is by Tim Eliott, who had recently helped found Wellington's Downstage Theatre.
Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was crowned King of Tonga on his 49th birthday. This NFU film covers the lead up to and the entire ceremony on 4 July 1967. It was the first coronation in the island kingdom since Tupou’s mother, Queen Sālote, in 1918. Tongans from the outer islands had been arriving in the capital Nuku'alofa for a month. Dignitaries included the Duke and Duchess of Kent and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, plus opposition leader Norman Kirk. Director Derek Wright covers the ceremony with decorum, reflecting the dignity of the occasion.
The Central Otago gold mining town of Cromwell celebrates its centenary in this 1960s National Film Unit documentary. For a fortnight the townsfolk go about their ordinary business, but in colonial-era costume. They also reenact the frontier-style life of gold rush New Zealand. Just 20 years before the film was shot, Cromwell banks were still receiving deposits of gold dust from customers. The Cromwell put on film in 1966 is also now just a memory. While the old main street still exists, much of the town was flooded with the completion of the Clyde dam in 1993.
This National Film Unit newsreel offers a wide-ranging look at ‘the national game’ in 1966. A muddy potted history (scored to rugby folk song ‘On the Ball’) rakes from the age grades to a Ranfurly Shield match, to the apex: the All Blacks. Ex-All Black fullback Bob Scott talks about the need for ‘four stone bantams’ to enjoy the game, while fellow AB Don ‘The Boot’ Clarke discusses the problems for a country player; Wellington College’s 1st XV plays a ‘traditional’ against Nelson in front of a mass haka on the terraces; and club players explain why they play (“it’s a manly game”).
This NFU film presents the funeral of Tongan Queen Sālote Tupou III in December 1965. Queen Sālote had a special bond with New Zealand — she studied at Auckland Diocesan School, spent summers in NZ and lived her last days at 'Atalanga, the Tongan residence in Auckland. Among the 50,000 mourners at her funeral in Tonga were NZ Governor General Sir Bernard Fergusson, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake and Norman Kirk. Tongan tradition holds that the casket must never pass through a gateway; 108 pall bearers carried it over walls in a procession to the royal tombs.
Sponsored by the Crusader Shipping Company, this 1966 National Film Unit production joins one of the firm's ships as it transports NZ products from Auckland to Asia — home to “one quarter of the human race, 900 million customers”. As milk powder, wool, mutton, apples, cheese and deer antlers are delivered to ports in the Philippines, China, Japan, and Hong Kong, director Ron Bowie observes cultural difference and economic opportunity; and a “westernising” Orient is beautifully captured by Kell Fowler. The NFU crew were rare foreign observers in Chairman Mao’s China.
President Lyndon B Johnson's whirlwind visit to New Zealand on 19 October 1966 is chronicled in this National Film Unit documentary. The visit came as controversy grew over Kiwi involvement in the Vietnam War. But aside from a few protestors, the first visit to NZ by a serving US President and his wife was greeted with enthusiasm by about 200,000 Wellingtonians. State and civic receptions were followed by the obligatory farm visit to watch a shearing gang, before the President flew out at the end of 'New Zealand’s day with LBJ'.
These New Zealanders was the first National Film Unit series produced for television. Presented by Selwyn Toogood (in one of his first TV roles), it looked at six Kiwi towns in the 1960s. In this episode Toogood visits the Waikato coal mining town of Huntly and learns about efforts to develop industry and opportunities for the local labour force, at a time when coal is being stockpiled. Existing businesses — the brickworks and an earthmoving equipment manufacturer — demonstrate the benefits of being located in Huntly.
New Zealand’s Antarctic presence is still in its infancy as this striking Academy Award-nominated NFU documentary chronicles the six month polar summer of 1963/64. Sled teams pulled by teams of huskies are despatched to explore far flung corners, nothing is too small — or too great — to be analysed by a battery of scientists, and the base at Cape Hallett is resupplied (it suffered a serious fire shortly afterwards). However, all of this activity seems to make little impression on a remarkable polar landscape constantly threatening to reassert itself.
This documentary series was presented by the legendary Selwyn Toogood. These New Zealanders was one of Toogood's first appearances for television, having previously become a household name as a radio host. The National Film Unit production was part-documentary, part-magazine, and part-travelogue, and took Toogood to six towns to capture their character and people. The towns visited were Gore, Benmore, Motueka, Huntly, Gisborne and Taupō. It provides a fascinating perspective of New Zealand life in the 1960s.
These New Zealanders was a magazine-style series produced by the National Film Unit and presented by Selwyn Toogood (one of his first television roles), that looked at six Kiwi locations in the 1960s. In this episode Toogood visits the North Island East Coast city of Gisborne. By 1964 improved road, rail and air links had brought about the end of Gisborne's isolation from the rest of the country. Here Toogood meets food processor James Wattie, and talks to the locals about the problems, achievements and hopes for the region.
Directed by David Fowler for the National Film Unit, tourism promo Holiday For Susan enthusiastically follows 22-year-old Aussie Susan's tour of Godzone with Kiwi lass Lorraine Clark. En route, Susan finds a husband in Auckland's David Thomas. Abounding with shots of scenic wonder (cleverly integrated with signs of the country's industrial progress), and Susan's legs (many aspects of the film would have had Kate Sheppard rolling in her grave), the film presents a jaunty portrait of 60s NZ as a destination for young, well-to-do, globetrotters.
This edition of the NFU's long-running magazine film series boards the Wellington to Auckland 'experimental express', to test its 11 and a half hour trip claims. Then it's south for the opening of Christchurch Airport's new modernist terminals, designed by architect Paul Pascoe. At Waitangi, ships and a submarine from the New Zealand, Australian and British navies train, and Waitangi Day is commemorated. A reel highlight is Australian Formula One champion Jack Brabham meeting jet boat inventor Bill Hamilton, and trying out a 'Hamilton turn' on the Waimakariri River.
An edition of the Pictorial Parade magazine-film series, 'The New Army' provides a short potted history of Kiwis in combat overseas, from World War I to the then-current Malayan Emergency. From the First New Zealand Expeditionary Force being reviewed by King George V in England, through desert warfare and island hopping in World War II, to the New Zealand Regiment's 2nd Battalion training for jungle warfare. The reel finishes with the battalion displaying new weapons and techniques, before parading through Wellington and embarking for Malaya.
This 1959 Pictorial Parade edition begins with the opening of the ‘Milson Deviation’: a rail bypass which diverted trains from the Palmerston North CBD. Then it’s to Hastings for the National Ploughing Championship, where the prize is a silver plough modelled on the first (Pākehā) plough used in NZ. Lastly, the Echo (a flat-bottomed Kauri scow that sailed between Wellington and Blenheim) turns a wetter furrow and sails up the Opawa River. With the onset of competition from ferries the Echo was retired in 1965; she’s now ‘on the hard’ on the Picton Foreshore.
This NFU documentary goes behind the scenes as Selwyn Toogood and his team prepare an episode of 50s radio quiz show It's In the Bag, long before it hit the telly. Questions are prepared and booby prizes — epsom salts, toy ducks — selected, before Toogood hits the stage at the Lower Hutt Town Hall to utter the ultimate poser. The big prizes du jour included washing machines and flash (New Zealand-made!) fridge-freezers. The show was so popular with '50s radio audiences it was said cinemas closed their doors on Tuesday nights when it went to air.
This National Film Unit documentary follows the British Lions 1959 rugby tour to New Zealand. Prior to live televised sports coverage, match highlights were rushed onto cinema screens; NFU tour coverage was later edited into this feature length doco. On the field the series was won by the All Blacks 3-1, including the first test where Don Clarke famously kicked six penalties to beat the Lions’ four tries. Off the field, the Lions visited farms and resorts, drove trout and tried Māori song and dance with guide Rangi. A star back for the Lions was Peter Jackson.
In this November 1955 newsreel, Sir Edmund Hillary addresses 2000 Wellington school children, as part of a pitch to win support for an Antarctic expedition. Ed shakes hands with pint-sized fundraisers, and one of his crew models Kiwi-made cold weather gear. The voiceover mentions a "New Zealand Antarctic expedition", but Hillary's team would actually form half of a Commonwealth team, led by UK explorer Vivian Fuchs. After leaving supplies for the British crossing party, Hillary controversially went on ahead to the South Pole. Both BP and the NFU filmed the expedition.