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Leon Narbey


Leon Narbey is one of New Zealand's most acclaimed directors of photography, as well as the man behind classic goldmining drama Illustrious Energy.

Narbey spent his early years in the Waikato, in landscapes which now remind him of classic film Vigil. He began drawing from an early age. "My mother influenced me", he told the The Listener, "not that she was an artist, but just her appreciation of nature. Being aware of things. Learning to see." Narbey's interest in cinema grew during a spell as a cinema usher while he was a teen.

At Elam Art School, he specialised in sculpture, and developed an enduring interest in light and shadow. Many of his artworks were installations, using changing colours and light sources to alter the look of a room. As film historian Roger Horrocks has written, Narbey "first turned to film merely as a way of documenting his installations but found that colour and lighting needed to be rethought in film terms." One of the earliest was Room 2. Later Narbey created this film from footage of a large installation which he designed for the opening of New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

Beginning in 1972, Narbey lectured in sculpture and mixed media at Canterbury University, and helped establish the Christchurch branch of filmmaking co-op Alternative Cinema. Tiring of the small audience for experimental art and film, he then joined the NZ Broadcasting Corporation as a news/current affairs cameraman. The experience allowed Narbey to hone his technical skills, and in the mid 70s he began to branch out into more political filmmaking.

In 1975 Narbey set off with director Geoff Steven to make doco Te Matakite o Aotearoa, which documents the Māori land hikoi led by Whina Cooper; in 1977 he left his job in television to work with Steven on a series of films for NZ Railways. In this period he was also working on a number of documentaries with Merata Mita and Gerd Pohlmann, including co-directing the seminal Bastion Point - Day 507, which he later described as "one of the most important films I've worked on". Much of this early work — covering protest, strikes, and Māori protocol — helped establish Narbey's reputation for being able to film in demanding situations.

While following the Māori land march, Narbey and Steven had been taken by the North Island town of Raetihi, which reminded them of "something out of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West". Raetihi became the setting for their first feature Skin Deep, which Narbey has called "a story about a young woman who comes from the city .. seeking a better life". It utilised many long takes. Narbey is a fan of films with "dreamlike qualities", and he brought that interest to Steven's moody Strata (1983), with its arresting imagery of the volcanic plateau. The pair encountered more impressive landscapes, and mountains "dusted in cinnamon", while making a trio of ambitious TV documentaries, notably Gung Ho: Rewi Alley of China and The Humble Force

In this period Narbey also shot after-dark car tale Queen Street and sleekly-shot romance Other Halves, which Narbey calls "one of the first films where we were attempting to make the city as dynamic as possible."

Narbey wanted to feel "technically confident before I ventured into directing". His first project directing solo was half-hour documentary Man of the Trees (1981). This portrait of English conservationist and tree-hugger Richard St Barbe Baker sold to 10 countries. Later Narbey made TV doco Visible Evidence (1996), in which Kiwi documentary photographers discuss their work. In-between, Narbey directed his only feature films to date: Illustrious Energy (1987) and The Footstep Man (1992). He co-wrote both with Martin Edmond, who he describes as "a poet" who can "simplify, embellish and polish words and ideas". 

Illustrious Energy provides a poetic evocation of the Chinese settler experience during the gold rush. The project began as a docudrama, inspired by Edmond's reading about an old Chinese man " who set off on a great journey but was arrested and put in to Seacliff Mental Hospital". Over time — and various rejections for funding — the main characters slowly transformed into a Chinese son-in-law and father-in law mining in Central Otago — a landscape whose "amazing" miner-made earthworks had long fascinated Narbey.

North and South reviewer Brian McDonnell called Illustrious Energy "faultless as a work of art". It won eight national and two international awards. But after the collapse of company Mirage Entertainment, the film was taken by the receivers, and the master negative lost overseas; it was later found and restored in time for screenings at the 2011 round of NZ Film Festivals.

The Footstep Man (1992) involved a sound effects man (Brit actor Steven Grives) starting to loose touch with reality while working on a film about French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his muse. The object of both Lautrec and the soundman's obsession was portrayed by Jennifer Ward-Lealand. The ambitious film within a film won praise for its French scenes and insights into the film-making process, but less so for its wrap-up (a drop in budget meant Narbey was forced to remove a major subplot at the eleventh hour). None-the-less The Footstep Man was nominated for eight NZ Film Awards, including Best Film and Best Director (it won for editing, and Allen Guilford's cinematography).

Narbey himself would win the Best Cinematography Award the following year for his lively work on melodrama Desperate Remedies. The first Kiwi feature to be shot entirely in a studio, Desperate features highly mobile camerawork, vibrant colour schemes and many sets constructed from challenging materials like glass and mirrors. Narbey also won gongs for Harry Sinclair's second feature, rural romance The Price of Milk and has worked on the first four films directed by Toa Fraser: No. 2 (2006), based on Fraser's play, shaggy dog tale Dean Spanley (shot mostly in England), ballet Giselle and te reo action movie The Dead Lands.

Leon Narbey was cinematographer on 2002 box office smash Whale Rider, directed by Niki Caro. Narbey's work on the film, a kind of restrained naturalism, won him a feature in American Cinematographer, a rare event for a Kiwi working at home. Whale Rider won audience awards at multiple festivals including Toronto, Sundance, and Rotterdam, and remains one of the highest grossing New Zealand stories outside of its home country.

Narbey has continued to show his versatilitysince, with credits on noir-esque vampire epic Perfect Creature, hit Topp Twins documentary Untouchable Girls, acclaimed Samoan language feature The Orator, and this biopic of Whina Cooper. 

His many short film credits include shooting Front Lawn shorts Lounge Bar and Linda's Body, Brad McGann's Possum, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Flying, Snap, Peter Wells' Napier-set Newest City on the Globe, and Garth Maxwell's 50 minute love story Beyond Gravity. Possum won an award for its cinematography at the 1998 Athens Short Film Festival, and Best Cinematography in a Short Drama at the 1998 NZ Film and TV Awards. In this period Narbey was also shooting tele-features featuring detective John Duggan, including Duggan's first appearance, Death in Paradise.

Narbey has also shot many documentaries involving the visual arts, including Colin McCahon: I Am, Flip & Two Twisters, Marti: The Passionate Eye, and The Man in the Hat

In 2007 Helen Martin wrote a chapter about Narbey's work for the book New Zealand Filmmakers. In December 2014 Narbey was presented with a special NZ Film Award for Services to Cinema. 

- This profile is partly adapted from Duncan Petrie's book, Shot in New Zealand.

Updated on 9 February 2022

Sources include

Duncan Petrie, Shot in New Zealand - The art and craft of the Kiwi cinematographer (Auckland:Random House, 2007)
Peter Calder, 'Movie strikes it rich on the goldfields' (Interview) - NZ Herald, 10 June 1988, Section 3, Page 6
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Leon Narbey' (Catalogue) 1984
Douglas Jenkin, 'A Rare Energy' (Interview) - NZ Listener, 22 October 1988, Page 32
Brian McDonnell, Review of Illustrious Energy - North and South, 1988
Helen Martin, ‘Leon Narbey - Art, Politics, and the Personal’ in New Zealand Filmmakers. Editors Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007)