Russell Campbell's name is known to a veritable roll call of Kiwi talents, from Simon Bennett (Outrageous Fortune) to writers David Geary and Elizabeth Knox. The roll call derives from 30 years of lecturing film at Victoria University. But Campbell's career encompasses many angles on film: as director, critic, cameraman, and bureaucrat (as the NZ Film Commission's first project officer in 1979, he helped handle funding applications, but left partly "because it was gut-wrenching writing rejection letters").
Campbell began watching films while growing up in Wellington, but it was the rich diet of European cinema at university that hooked him into cinema. But in the 60s studying film was not an option; his degree was in English and Political Science. The Vietnam War proved a key political influence. Media coverage of the war made Campbell realise how topics were "shaped in a particular way when they go into the mainstream media". Campbell would explore other ways of spotlighting issues on film, searching for a more direct, politically-motivated voice.
First he set off for London. There he studied the basics of filmmaking at the forerunner to the London Film School, launched short-lived film magazine Backtrack, reviewed for the prestigious Monthly Film Bulletin, and edited two specialist books on cinematography.
In 1970 he won a scholarship to study film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he began editing his second film magazine, The Velvet Light Trap — still published today — and completed an MA. In 1976, as part of his course work for a PhD at Northwestern University in Chicago, Campbell made three films. Two of them, the experimental Ego-Centricity and McDonalds doco Fast Food, screened at the Wellington Film Festival. He went on to write a dissertation on 30s-era radical cinema in the United States.
Campbell returned home in 1978. From then on his filmmaking career splits into two strands. The largest one involves the Vanguard filmmaking co-operative, where he began making films collaboratively, before directing solo. Alongside the directing are the many projects where Campbell has helped out others (everything from script consulting on Vincent Ward's River Queen and Vanguard drama Hook, Line and Sinker, to helping shoot Springbok tour doco Patu!).
Vanguard Films was born after Campbell returned from the States and got involved in two documentaries with co-founders Alister Barry and Rod Prosser: strike tale Wildcat and A Century of Struggle, a history of the seaman's union. The trio were wary of the traditional television documentary, convinced "its apparent neutrality, objectivity, and balance disguised a class position: justification for, and endorsement of, the capitalist status quo."
Influenced by the political cinema Campbell had written about in America, and recent docos like Oscar-winner Harlan County USA, they were keen to make films which would "wear their oppositional politics openly, be unequivocally committed ... to the working class who were their subject."
In his book Observations, Campbell attacks traditional 'voice of God' style narration as intrusive and overly leading the viewer. With Wildcat, the Vanguard team successfully dispensed with narration entirely. Detailing a strike by Bay of Plenty timber workers, the film was half-financed by a union-run car raffle. Cameraman Alun Bollinger helped out by securing footage from inside inaccessible worksites, after sneaking in as a photographer's assistant. In the same period, Campbell was served a search warrant at Vanguard's offices; he suspects that hidden footage of protestors taken for Patu! may have been the aim.
Campbell went on to co-direct Vanguard's Islands of the Empire, and non-Vanguard doco Kinleith '80. GOFTA-nominated, Islands examines 40 years of military links with the United States. Interviewed by Lumiere's Brannavan Gnanalingham, Campbell argued that the partnership has lasted because none of the members are reliant on Vanguard's films to make a living, and each has been able to develop their own interests. Making films collaboratively gave Campbell the confidence to direct films on his own.
By now he was balancing his film work with film lecturing at Victoria University (he would finally go full-time in 1999). Campbell had also begun an extended involvement with critical magazine Illusions, editing it solo from 1987 to 1990. The following year he began directing solo too, with the 74-minute long Rebels in Retrospect. The film chronicled memories of 60s and 70s protest by ex-members of New Zealand's Progressive Youth Movement.
2005's Sedition (full title Sedition: The Suppression of Dissent in World War II New Zealand) chronicles repressive censorship and treatment of Kiwi anti-war activists. Peace Researcher writer Jeremy Agar praised Campbell for avoiding "distracting gimmickry", and being "sufficiently committed to his topic to give his characters the space to tell their stories."
Sedition won sell-out audiences in the annual round of New Zealand Film Festivals. The following year fourth book Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema was published by University of Wisconsin Press. Awarded by the American Library Association, Marked Women was described by Jump Cut's Chuck Kleinhans as "definitive ... the basic reference point for anyone doing any further work in the subject of representations of female prostitution in world cinema".
Campbell shot his next film over two and a half years. Sisters from Siberia chronicles life for two young Russian sisters after they were adopted by local body politician Stephanie Cook. Capital Times reviewer Dan Slevin wrote that "Campbell cleverly takes the opportunity to get others in the Russian emigr'e community talking about their experience, opening it out into a fascinating discussion about how much original culture is possible (or desirable) to keep in a new country".
Campbell's 2011 book Observations: Studies in New Zealand Documentary culls highlights from his many essays and talks, with new additions on feminist film, music on film and key documentary series. The book echoes the qualities of its author: simultaneously modest yet authoritative, politically-engaged yet open-minded, and adept at sifting through fine detail to get to the bigger picture.
Profile written and researched by Ian Pryor.
Russell Campbell, Observations - Studies in New Zealand Documentary (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011)
Jeremy Agar, 'Reviews: "Sedition", "Tau Te Mauri", "Eyes of Fire"' - Peace Researcher Issue 32, March 2006
Alister Barry, 'Launch of Observations: Studies in New Zealand Documentary' (Broken link). Victoria University Press website. Loaded 17 October 2011. Accessed 13 January 2011
Brannavan Gnanalingham, 'Russell Campbell on Vanguard Films' (Interview). Lumiere website. Loaded 2 September 2009. Accessed 13 January 2011
Dan Slevin, Review of Sisters from Siberia - Capital Times, 16 September 2009