Melanie Rodriga’s Trial Run (1984) was the first narrative feature to be written and directed by a woman in New Zealand (though the Yvonne MacKay-directed, Ian Mune scripted Silent One narrowly beats Rodriga as first Kiwi feature directed by a woman).
Rodriga’s career began in Sydney in 1974 at the ABC, where she was trained in production management and film editing for both drama and documentary. In 1977, Melanie came to New Zealand to visit her parents in the Bay of Islands, and ended up staying.
She met actor Ilona Rodgers at a barbecue. Rodgers, who was then moonlighting as a market gardener, made it her mission to keep Rodriga in New Zealand. She threw Melanie in the back of her ute with a load of capsicums and drove her down to Auckland, then introduced her to the city’s editing houses, plus producers Ian Johns, Roger Donaldson and George Andrews.
As a result, Melanie joined South Pacific Pictures’ Perspective team, doing weekly half-hour documentaries with George Andrews, Marcia Russell, Malcolm Hall and Bob Saunders. When Perspective ended its second year, Rodriga moved to Dunedin to join the TVNZ Natural History Unit and edited their first five documentaries, including award-winners Seven Black Robins and Island of Strange Noises.
In 1980, while living in Wellington and editing commercials with future advertising legend Geoff Dixon at Silverscreen, she began writing and directing her first three films: Second Sight, about Sally Rodwell and Deborah Hunt of legendary theatre group Red Mole, Them’s The Breaks, a dramatised documentary about street kids. She also adapted Hooks and Feelers, from the Keri Hulme story of the same name. The 47 minute film involves a painter haunted by the accident that resulted in her son losing his hand.
In collaboration with Hooks and Feelers producer Don Reynolds, Rodriga (then Melanie Read) began developing her first feature Trial Run (1984), which starred Annie Whittle as an isolated nature photographer menaced by an unknown figure. "I wanted to create a non-stereotyped woman's role," Rodriga told The Listener. "I wanted to choose an area where I thought the most damage had already been done - the thriller/horror genre."
A number of articles before the film's release described it as a feminist thriller. “That wasn’t necessarily the smartest marketing move,” she recalls, “but it was truthful and it helped raise the profile of women in the New Zealand industry as Don and I were big on ‘positive discrimination’, placing women in many crew and cast roles for the first time.”
The feminist ethos of the production is detailed in Deborah Shepard’s book Reframing Women. Trial Run screened in the marketplace at Cannes in 1985, where it was picked up by the BBC and various film festivals. Locally the movie was written about extensively, some reviewers framing it a groundbreaking feminist work. Herald critic Diana Bagnall wrote that "the feminist slant lifts the film out of the ordinary by challenging not only our expectations of how women behave but also of how a thriller works".
After Trial Run Rodriga worked in Wellington on her next two projects, TV series The Marching Girls and feature film Send A Gorilla, a movie about a day in the life of a singing telegram company. Pioneering female-led TV drama series The Marching Girls, was a special experience for Rodriga. “It is an iconic moment in NZ screen history," she says. "It was originated by one of our most interesting writers, Fiona Samuel, and is a really fine example of our best television film drama.” Mindful of the show's women front and centre storyline, producer Steve La Hood was keen to get an all female team of directors behind the scenes. In the end four episodes were directed by men, and Rodriga directed the other three. She was nominated for best director in 1988 for her work on the series.
Rodriga then wrote Send A Gorilla, with Dorothee Pinfold as producer. The screenplay was based on Marching Girl Perry Piercy’s experiences working for a singing telegram company, and was developed with actors Carmel McGlone and Katherine McRae. Set on a busy Valentine’s Day in Wellington, Send A Gorilla was a brash commentary on the commercialisation of romance. The film's subplots also offered the opportunity to showcase many local actors, who Rodriga felt deserved more screen time than they normally got. "It's the sort of film most people woudn't attempt if they were sensible," she said at the time, "because it's a logistical nightmare. It's got a huge cast, it's got untold locations and not enough time to shoot it ... Nobody would be stupid enough to write a script like that, but it's the sort of film that I really wanted to make."
"Audiences loved it, most New Zealand critics hated it", she later recalled. “The film (remember it’s about singing telegrams) generated a classic off-the record response from a festival director: ‘this is the most violent film I have ever sat through.’ The Italians loved it, maybe because they are used to seeing female characters who exude intense vocal energy and extreme emotion.”
Rodriga then sidetracked into a quiet life in rural Northland, where she worked on documentaries for some years and was the cinema editor and columnist for Grace magazine under founding editor Lindsey Dawson. Her screen work included Standing In The Sunshine, which commemorated the centenary of women’s suffrage, Once A Convent Girl, about prominent New Zealand women who had been schooled in the convent system and The People Next Door, the first primetime gay-themed documentary funded by TVNZ.
Though she often returns to Northland, since 1997 Rodriga has been based in Western Australia, where she is now head of the graduate screen programme at Perth's Murdoch University.
In 2001, she shot her third feature.Teesh and Trude starred Susie Porter (Better than Sex), Linda Cropper (Offspring) and Peter Phelps (Kiwi film Starlight Hotel). Labelled “one of the best Australian films of the year” by The Australian, the two-hander drama was nominated for three AFI awards, and screened at various international film festivals.
Rodriga's fourth feature, myPastmyPresent debuted in 2011. Shot with a largely undergraduate cast and crew in Western Australia, the lesbian romance focuses on a young woman trying to finish her college film project.
Diana Bagnall,'New twist to old theme' (Review of Trial Run) - NZ Herald, 13 October 1984
Debby Gee, 'monkey business' - Agenda 1987, page 9
Kirstie Hamilton, 'A feminist thriller?' (Interview) - NZ Listener, 6 October, 1984, page 23
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Melanie Reid' (Catalogue) 1985
Deborah Shepard. Reframing Women - A History of New Zealand film (Auckland:HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000)
'My Past My Present' Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival website. Accessed 19 August 2016