Vincent Burke has been producing television programmes for roughly three decades. Since launching company Top Shelf Productions, he has worked on history series Frontier of Dreams, acclaimed NZ movie history Cinema of Unease, and long-running consumer show Target.
He’s the most unflappable man I’ve ever met. This is a very desirable characteristic to have in the film business. NZ Film Commission sales veteran Lindsay Shelton on Vincent Burke, Capital Times, 13 September 1995
Director Vea Mafile'o's Tongan father Saia drives this deeply personal film. Vea raises thorny questions about the relationship between money and the church in Tongan culture, questions that caused her Kiwi/Tongan family pain. Pensioner Saia Mafile'o's dedication to raising large amounts of money for Misinale (an annual church celebration) upset his children and splintered his marriage. Mafile'o returns to Tonga with her father and siblings, to attend the Misinale and learn why the financial sacrifice matters to him. The documentary debuted at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
Team Tibet tells the story of Thuten Kesang, who came to New Zealand in 1967, exiled from his Tibetan homeland, his family and his culture. Kesang was Aotearoa’s first Tibetan refugee. Filmed over 22 years by globetrotting filmmaker Robin Greenberg (Return of the Free China Junk), Kesang recounts his story, from his parents’ arrest in the wake of the 1959 uprising, to his advocacy for Tibetan environmental and political issues. He has become a point of contact for the global Tibetan community. The documentary was set to premiere at the 2017 NZ International Film Festival.
With his third feature, director Paul Oremland is also one of the subjects. Oremland’s quest is to track down 100 men that he’s met through sex over 40 years, taking him on a global journey from Raglan to London. Through interviews and personal reflection he charts changing attitudes to gay experience: exploring sex, joy, AIDS, friendship, and the value of monogamy versus polyamory. After debuting at American LGBTQ festival Frameline, 100 Men screened at the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival.
This 2011 episode of the Russell Brown-fronted media commentary show examines how Christchurch is dealing with the aftermath of two devastating earthquakes. First up: the CEISMIC Digital Archive is working to preserve the memories and experiences of Cantabrians, and The Press editor Andrew Holden explains why his newspaper is donating everything it has published to the project. Then CERA CEO Roger Sutton talks about the key role of media relations, and filmmaker Gerard Smyth describes shooting his acclaimed chronicle of the quakes: When a City Falls.
Based on a novel by the late Ronald Hugh Morrieson — whose stories painted hometown Taranaki as a hotbed of colourful characters and dodgy dealings — Predicament is a prohibition-era tale of blackmail, anxiety and criminal partnerships. Awkward teen Cedric (Hayden Frost) meets two oddball misfits (played by Conchord Jemaine Clement and Australian comedian Heath 'Chopper' Franklin), and becomes entangled in a plot to blackmail adulterous couples caught in the act. Jason Stutter's film went on to win six Aotearoa Film Awards in 2011.
Sam Hunt is New Zealand’s best known and most visible contemporary poet; and, in an archive excerpt from this feature length documentary, Ginette McDonald calls him “the most impersonated man in New Zealand”. Director Tim Rose, who has known Hunt since he was a boy, decided too little was known about him beyond his flamboyant, public persona. So Rose spent four years making this documentary — mixing a wealth of archive material with interviews with Hunt, and those who know him best, and new footage of him reading his work and performing with David Kilgour.
When TV began in New Zealand in 1960, posh English accents on screen were de rigueur. As veteran broadcaster Judy Callingham recalls in this sixth episode of Kiwi TV history: "every trace of a New Zealand vowel was knocked out of you." But as ties to Mother England weakened, Kiwis began to feel proud of their identity and culture. John Clarke invented farming comedy legend Fred Dagg, while Karyn Hay showed a Kiwi accent could be cool on Radio with Pictures. Sam Neill and director Geoff Murphy add their thoughts on the changing ways that Kiwis saw themselves.
American-born John Palino made his name as a restaurateur, before two unsuccessful bids to become Auckland's mayor. In this reality series he comes to the aid of struggling eateries around the country, and attempts to set them on the right path. In this episode Invercargill’s Strathern Inn is bleeding money, has a bad rep, and is possibly haunted. With a bit of savvy planning, and help from local mayor Tim Shadbolt, Palino does his best to get the staff trained up and the Inn on the path to success. Unfortunately any success proved shortlived, as the ageing building was later demolished.
The trenches of World War I represented warfare on a new scale and produced facial wounds in numbers never seen before. This Top Shelf doco examines the legacy of Sir Harold Gillies and Henry Pickerill — NZ surgeons who founded modern reconstructive plastic surgery while treating these injuries — and of Sir Archibald McIndoe and Rainsford Mowlem who continued this work during World War II. This excerpt focuses on Gillies and Pickerill, and the rediscovery of the remarkable surgical models, and watercolour paintings of their patients, they used as teaching aids.
AA Torque Show was a Kiwi motoring show following in the wheelspun tracks of international hit Top Gear. In this episode from the second series, architect Roger Walker takes the new Audi TT off the drawing board for a spin on the Central Plateau; actor and host Danny Mulheron tries to convince superbike champ Aaron Slight that a convertible is more than “a hairdresser’s car” as they drive a Volvo and a BMW coupe to the Gladstone Pub in the Wairarapa; and it’s the final of the Motormouth Cup (“which C-lister will walk away with motoring’s glittering prize”?)
In 2006, Th’ Dudes reformed after 26 years. This documentary follows them on a national tour as members Peter Urlich, Dave Dobbyn, Ian Morris, Lez White and Bruce Hambling reflect on their former lives as late 70s pop stars. Encouraged to behave like stars, they didn’t disappoint. There are frank discussions about sex, drugs, an obscene t-shirt, on-stage nudity and other bad behaviour — but also the stories behind classic songs like ‘Bliss’, ‘Right First Time’ and ‘Be Mine Tonight’, which still captivate adoring, if aging, audiences a quarter of a century later.
The often controversial beliefs of Sir Lloyd Geering, New Zealand’s best known theologian, are examined in this Top Shelf doco. In this excerpt, he visits Jerusalem to advance his view that the resurrection of Jesus should not be interpreted literally. Forty years earlier, this assertion divided the Presbyterian Church (where he was Principal of Knox College) and led to his heresy trial on charges of “doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church”. There is archive footage of an unrepentant Geering from the two-day trial which the NZBC televised live.
This motoring show was a Kiwi take on the format that Top Gear made globally famous: motorheads reviewing and having fun in machines that go fast. The first season screened on TV One in 2006; the second screened on Prime the following year. Presenters were actor and director Danny Mulheron, architect Roger Walker, and, joining them for the second season, superbike rider Aaron Slight. Aside from the car reviews, the show included segments like the Motormouth Cup, where Kiwi celebs raced each other to see who could clock the fastest lap on the test track.
This 2006 documentary is a portrait of one of New Zealand politics' most contradictory figures: unionist Ken Douglas. At the time of filming Douglas occupied numerous board positions (eg Air New Zealand, the NZ Rugby Football Union), but early on he was a truckie and Marxist. Rob Muldoon branded him 'Red Ken'. For 15 years until 1999 he led the Council of Trade Unions. Directed by Monique Oomen for Top Shelf Productions, the film is framed around interviews with Douglas and his colleagues, and asks whether he is a turncoat or a strategic realist moving with the times.
This Inside New Zealand documentary examines the experiences of four former members of the Exclusive Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect which shuns contact with the outside world. Those that leave become completely cut off from their families and friends remaining within the church — with often traumatic, and sometimes tragic, results. The Brethren, which played a controversial role in the 2005 General Election, forbid members to use radio, film, TV and the internet, but gave director Kathleen Mantel unprecedented access to their previously hidden world.
On Christmas Eve 1953 a volcanic eruption caused a massive lahar to flow down Whangaehu River. The Wellington-Auckland express crossed the rail bridge at Tangiwai minutes later; it collapsed, and carriages plunged into the flooded river. Out of 285 people, 151 died, in New Zealand's worst rail accident. This 2002 documentary examines events and the board of inquiry finding that the accident was an act of God. This excerpt attacks the story that Cyril Ellis could have warned the train driver what lay ahead, and argues there was a railways department cover-up at the board of inquiry.
Shot on the run in 1998, My Name is Jane is built around the biggest deadline a filmmaker could face: the death of its subject. With a history of cancer in her family, musician and cancer sufferer Jane Devine proposed a film to director Amanda Robertshawe: one in which the personable Devine takes us through the process of making peace with her own passing — and the impossible task of preparing a son for life without her. The resulting documentary, surely among our most affecting hours of television, won repeat screenings and international plaudits.
After years of success manufacturing shoes, employing struggling members of the South Auckland community, and feeding hungry kids with the proceeds, entrepreneur Karroll Brent-Edmondson hit hard times in 1998. This 70-minute documentary follows Brent-Edmondson as she attempts to get her business back on track, and avoid liquidation, under the guidance of a committee led by Dick Hubbard. Brent-Edmondson was named 1995 Māori Businesswoman of the Year, and went on to feature in Top Shelf documentary A Hell of a Ride. She passed away in June 2006.
Postwar Māori, Pākehā and Pacific Island migrants made Ōtara the fastest growing area in New Zealand. But as local industries closed, it became a poster suburb for poverty and crime. This TV3 Inside New Zealand documentary sees eight successes from Ōtara telling their stories — from actor Rawiri Paretene and MP Tau Henare, to teachers and entrepreneurs. They reflect on mean streets, education, community and the Ōtara spirit. The first documentary from Ōtara-raised producer Rhonda Kite (who is also interviewed), it won Best Māori Programme at the 1999 NZ TV Awards.
Flatmates observes six Kiwi 20-somethings as they share a house for three months: four students (one a Miss Howick beauty contestant), a confident young gay financial consultant, and a cameraman (also one of the show's directors). In this first episode the flatties move in, go shopping, have a party, and end up calling the police after partygoers get out of control. Flatmates was one of a number of 90s reality shows observing 'homelife' as created for the cameras. It was broadcast on the now-defunct TV4. Straight-talking student Vanessa became a minor local celebrity.
Pioneering reality TV show Flatmates trained its cameras on the home life of a bunch of young Gen X/Gen Y Kiwis. In this second episode the flatmates clean up after a party gone wild — the landlord ain't happy — and discuss flat finances, chore rosters, gender politics, and Anzac Day. Christian mourns his first love, a Finnish exchange student. Meanwhile Vanessa's pronouncements on apt lecture-wear reveal why she became a minor celebrity (she later co-hosted youth show The Drum). And cameraman/flattie Craig finds the courage to reveal a complicating crush.
The third slot of this 90s reality show mixes a beauty contest with the follow-on from Craig’s cliffhanger romantic revelation at the end of the previous episode. In pieces to camera the flattie/cameraman, his new girlfriend Vanessa and the other flatmates discuss what the burgeoning relationship means. Meanwhile the flatties watch the Warriors lose, Geoffrey gets a bit tiddly, and Christian ends the episode recalling Vanessa’s embarrassingly loud off-stage behaviour while Natasha was competing for the title of Miss Howick 1996.
“After the trouble at Miss Howick I realised that life with Vanessa was going to be a roller coaster.” These immortal lines from flatmate and cameraman Chris Wright open the fourth episode of the 1997 ‘docu-soap’. Sexual strife is in the house: Craig is having doubts about whether his relationship with Vanessa is monogamous; Christian gets a rejection letter from Finland; Natasha appears to have a tiff with Nick; and too much drinking at Ceilla’s 21st results in conflict. Elsewhere, the flatties face up to vomit, cleaning, freeloading boyfriends and a game of hacky sack.
In this final episode of the 90s ‘docu-soap’, reality bites for the household of young Aucklanders. Vanessa demands to talk to cameraman/boyfriend/flattie Craig off-camera, and Craig's refusal to do so fails to help things. Geoffrey can’t remember vomiting in the bathroom; there’s frisbee in Cornwall Park and moments of romance; Christian gets a letter from his on/off Finnish girlfriend, and flunks chemistry at uni. But no flat lasts forever and Natasha packs up (taking her freeloading boyfriend with her), before the rest of the flatties go their separate ways.
A homage to Dusky Maiden images as well as a playful take on the low art of velvet painting, Sima Urale’s Velvet Dreams provides a tongue-in-cheek exploration of Pacific Island stereotypes. Part detective story, part documentary, an unseen narrator goes in search of a painting of a Polynesian princess that he has fallen in love with. Along the way he meets artists, fans and critics of the kitsch art genre, as well as the mysterious Gauguin-like figure of Charlie McPhee. Made for TVNZ's Work of Art series, Velvet Dreams played in multiple international film festivals.
Predating hit show Survivor, this early TV3 reality TV documentary saw Kiwi teens fending for themselves over eight days on Rakitu Island. Among the three females and three males facing off Lord of the Flies-style were future National MP Nikki Kaye, who later argued she was meant to represent the "private school girl who couldn't survive without a hairdryer". Instead Kaye took the leader’s role and clubbed an eel, while many of her companions showed little inclination to help with the fishing. Kaye later opposed her party’s proposal to mine on nearby Great Barrier Island.
Sam Neill weaves portions of autobiography into an idiosyncratic, acclaimed yet controversial analysis of Kiwi cinema — from its crude beginnings, to the dark flowering of achievement seen in the breakthrough films of Peter Jackson, Lee Tamahori, and Jane Campion. Directed by Neill and Judy Rymer, as one of 18 films commissioned for the British Film Institute's Century of Cinema series, the award-winning documentary debuted at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. The New York Times' Janet Maslin rated it a series highlight. The opening sequence looks at the role of the road in Kiwi film.
This tale of a girl, her dog and a strange old man sees the tomboyish Daphne gleefully ruining a wedding, before her imagination unleashes monstrous forces. Made under the umbrella of Peter Jackson's company Wingnut Films in the early days of FX maestros Weta, Dirty Creature features contributions from many longtime Jackson cohorts, including Weta's Richard Taylor. Directed and co-written by Grant Campbell (who worked on Bad Taste), the film shares the anarchic, child-like spirit — plus a little of the crimson food colouring — of Jackson's early features.
Between 1964-1972, 4,000 young New Zealanders volunteered for service in Vietnam. Itching to get out into the world and do something exciting, the thrills were soon replaced by the grim reality of war. Things deteriorated further when they returned home to face an angry public; they were told to get out of their uniform quickly and not to tell anyone where they had been. This documentary gives the soldiers a chance to tell their stories for the first time. Interspersed with the interviews are 8mm film clips and selected official war footage.
This documentary tells the heart-wrenching story of Eve van Grafhorst, who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion after she was born three months premature. 1980s' attitudes to HIV saw Eve banned from her pre-school in Australia, leading her family to settle in New Zealand, where Eve became a high profile poster child for AIDS awareness. This award-winning film chronicles Eve’s medical struggles, her HIV AIDS awareness work, and her astonishing bravery in the face of illness and death. Eve died peacefully in her mother’s arms in 1993, at the age of 11.
"My life is here, but my soul is there." So says immigrant Maria Stanisich in this look at NZ's Dalmatian community which, after more than a century down under, maintains a strong connection to its European homeland. Using interviews with a range of people, this episode examines the history of those arriving in New Zealand from the Dalmatian area of the Adriatic, now Croatia. Many worked on the gumfields, where discriminatory laws favoured British subjects; some formed relationships with local Māori, before bringing proxy wives over from Europe.
Footprints of the Dragon examines immigration from China and Taiwan, through interviews with three families: the Kwoks, already into their fifth generation down under; and two families from Taiwan, who are far more recent arrivals. One woman is forced to return frequently to Taiwan, to earn money for the family. The documentary also examines discrimination against early Chinese migrants in the late 1800s, who were required to pay a 100 pound poll tax. The episode is directed by Listener film critic Helene Wong, herself a third-generation Chinese-New Zealander.
The Wellington seaside suburb of Island Bay is sometimes called Little Italy, thanks to the many Italians who have moved there. This episode of Immigrant Nation is based on interviews with Italian migrants to the suburb — from the woman who remembers the time during World War II when locals stopped talking to her, to the young man feeling "a magnetic pull" back to Italy. Although Italian fishing boats are now rarely seen in Island Bay, old traditions live on; and one woman talks about the responsibility of carrying on Italian traditions and culture into the future.
Soldiers, rubber bullets and an uncertain future: for the McKenna family, memories of life back in hometown Belfast are hardly rose-tinted. Made shortly before the Good Friday agreement radically altered Northern Ireland’s political landscape, this Immigrant Nation episode opens with Irish expats Mick McKenna and mother Mary. In between making rebel music in Wellington, Mick returns to Belfast and recalls an environment that bred violence. Meanwhile presenter Teresa O’Connor (cousin of West Coast MP Damien O’Connor) delves into her own part-Irish ancestry and identity.
This documentary about the sex industry in New Zealand features frank but sympathetic interviews with sex workers (including the Prostitutes Collective) and their clients. Topics discussed include the sex workers' reasons for doing the job, physical and sexual safety, the impact of AIDS, the role of drink and drug abuse, and managing a relationship with a husband or boyfriend. The film screened on TV3 after arguments about censorship, which Costa Botes writes about here. A Double Standard makes a compelling case for the industry to be decriminalised. Law change occurred in 2003.
This seven-part documentary series examines New Zealand as a nation of migrants. The original idea behind the show was to concentrate on upbeat personal stories. But many of the completed episodes go wider, balancing modern day interviews with a broader historical view of each group's immigrant experience down under. Immigrant Nation saw camera crews travelling to Europe, China, Sri Lanka and Samoa. Stories of escape, longing and prejudice are common - along with a feeling of having a foot in two worlds. An Immigrant Nation screened on TV One.
Made to mark the Women’s Suffrage Centennial in 1993, this documentary features seven women in their 90s. By telling their own personal stories, the women give an insight into NZ history in the 1900s. The women speak frankly about their lives, with often very moving stories of losing boyfriends and family members to the world wars, having small children die from illnesses that would now be easily treatable, getting married with no knowledge of the facts of life, and dealing with illegitimate babies from liaisons with American soldiers.
Brian Edwards was working as a television reporter when the Wahine sank on 10 April 1968 in Wellington Harbour. Twenty-five years later Edwards presented this TV3 documentary about the tragedy, which remains New Zealand's worst modern maritime disaster. Wahine - The Untold Story interviews passengers and crew, and features harrowing rescue footage and stills. Interviewees criticise the way the evacuation was handled — "we'd been lied to continually" — while helmsman Ken MacLeod remembers the challenges of trying to keep the Wahine on course.
In this film, late choreographer Douglas Wright's work Gloria is captured on camera by Alun Bollinger, in a rare directorial effort from the legendary Kiwi cinematographer. Antonio Vivaldi's Gloria RV589, a hymn praising the birth of Christ, plays behind a yellow and black flurry of limbs and gestures. The journey from gymnastic leaps to rest, marks the cycle of life. The work was shot soon after Wright returned from his dance OE and formed the Douglas Wright Dance Company. The screening attracted attention from morals groups worried about nudity on television.
In 1989 dancer Douglas Wright returned home to choreograph and form his own company. This half-hour TV documentary, marking the launch of his work Gloria, looks back on a blossoming career that began at 21 — when he took up ballet to overcome a heroin addiction. After becoming a star with Limbs, Wright joined prestigious troupes in London and New York. Now, as opening night looms, he is acutely aware of the danger of pushing his dancers too hard as he fights to get the best out of them on an ambitious, demanding piece. Douglas passed away in November 2018.