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Waka Attewell


Warrick Attewell  or Waka, as he has long been known in the film industry  is a freelance cameraman and director of photography who has worked with many of the major directors in New Zealand cinema. He has won awards both for his cinematography (The Whole of the Moon) and direction (Our Future Generation). These days he is also an opinionated commentator on screen matters, for a range of local publications.

Waka Attewell commandeered his brother's darkroom as a teenager, and was soon taking photographs for the local newspaper. In 1972 he got a job at John O'Shea's Pacific Films, joining a circle of independent filmmakers dedicated to local storytelling. Waka trained as a camera assistant at Pacific, where he worked on landmark documentary series Tangata Whenua - the People of the Land

"To be with Michael King and Barry Barclay on these shoots completely changed my life," Waka has said. "We literally did not know how Māori lived, and you would have thought I would have known, being brought up in Gisborne ... Michael King building bridges in this desperately dysfunctional little country, a place where racial harmony was a thing that everyone talked about but no one did!"

A keen climber and adventurer, Waka would go on to document a number of overseas expeditions by mountaineers Edmund Hillary and Graeme Dingle. Waka found early success working with Dingle on the short film All the Way up There, which chronicled the struggle of young quadriplegic Bruce Burgess to climb Mt Ruapehu. Attewell co-directed the film with Gaylene Preston. It won prizes at the Diableret Film Festival in Switzerland and Canada's Banff Festival of Mountain Films.

When All the Way Up There played in Kiwi cinemas alongside Middle Age Spread, some theatre managers complained that viewers were feeling so emotional that they were failing to leave their seats during intermission, to buy snacks. Waka had previously explored his twin loves of climbing and filmmaking with his first project as director, dramatised doco A Nice Sort of a Day.

Waka helped out on the second unit of the iconic feature film Sleeping Dogs and was a gaffer (electrician) on Middle Age Spread. In the early 1980s, he was one of many to shoot material for Patu!, Merata Mita's documentary on the Springbok Tour.

Waka's big break came in 1983 when he was hired by producer/director Grahame McLean to shoot two low-budget feature films, back to back. Set in 1920, The Lie of the Land tells the story of a shell-shocked war veteran. The film makes bold use of deep shadows and bright exteriors. Second film Should I Be Good? provided a stark contrast in style, creating a gritty urban look to a story inspired by the Mr Asia drug smuggling syndicate.

Waka followed with crime thriller Dangerous Orphans (1986). The film's moody lighting and prowling camera won Attewell a cinematography nomination at the 1988 NZ Film and TV Awards.

Attewell's next film won favorable comparisons to the legendary imagery of Days of Heaven and Paris, Texas. Shot in only six weeks, Starlight Hotel follows a 13-year old girl (Greer Robson) and a young war veteran on the run. The Los Angeles Times and England's Financial Times both namechecked Attewell's work in their reviews, with LA Times critic Kevin Thomas comparing the road movie's visual impact to the cinematography of Days of Heaven. Respected English critic Derek Malcolm (The Guardian) argued that Starlight's visuals were "a very good reason to see it." Partly thanks to the collapse of the company behind it, Starlight Hotel has rarely seen the light of a New Zealand movie screen.

In 1991, Waka worked on Barry Barclay's ambitious but troubled second feature, Te Rua, set in Berlin and New Zealand. Te Rua explores ideas of indigenous intellectual property rights of taonga, held in overseas museums. Rory O'Shea shot the Berlin sequences while fighting illness, with Waka completing the New Zealand scenes.

Attewell's next feature, Chunuk Bair (1991), also explores New Zealand identity; this time through the Wellington regiment at Gallipoli. Most of this low-budget film was shot inside a small studio at Avalon, with Attewell using a variety of lighting to simulate everything from dawn to midday sun. 

The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1992), directed by Brit Michael Tuchner, recreated the bombing of a Greenpeace boat in Auckland Harbour in 1985, and the investigation led by Inspector Alan Galbraith (played by Sam Neill).

Attewell had produced and filmed a documentary two years previously on a related subject  When a Warrior Dies, which examines the murder of Greenpeace photographer Fernando Pereira. It was a finalist at New York's International Film and TV Festival. Attewell also won a Silver Award at the same festival in 1990 for his direction of a documentary for Electricorp, Our Future Generation.

In 1996 he won the Best Cinematography Award at the NZ Film and TV Awards for his work on Ian Mune teen romance The Whole of the Moon. Waka followed it by reteaming with the director for Sunday television tale Dead Certs.

The same period saw Attewell moving increasingly into directing. Mune and Attewell would swap roles for behind the scenes documentary In the Shadow of King Lear, which chronicles Mune rehearsing for Shakespeare's famous play. Waka also wore the directing hat for the short film The Murder House — which won an honorable mention at Germany's Oberhausen Short Film Festival  and headed the creation of the Future Zone Ride at Te Papa.

He was one of the instigators (and cinematographer) on Undertow, which is set to be both a film and a television series. It began as a quartet of plays by Helen Pearse-Otene about Aotearoa's past, present and future. 

As a director of photography, Waka's run of music videos and commercials includes te reo classic 'Poi E', Sharon O'Neill's 'Maxine', 'Bruno's Last Ride' for The Warratahs, and the internationally-broadcast Coca Cola Future Ball commercials. He has contributed to the next generation of filmmakers through teaching cinematography at Unitec in Auckland, and the Film School in Wellington.

He also worked with Graeme Tuckett on this documentary about his longtime friend and colleague, late director Barry Barclay. Waka went on to shoot Ian Mune's feature-length documentary on Billy T James, and in 2017 was Moa award-nominated (alongside Alun Bollinger) for drama The Great Maiden's Blush

Profile partly adapted from Duncan Petrie’s book Shot in New Zealand - The Art and Craft of the Kiwi Cinematographer
Updated on 18 June 2019

Sources include
Waka Attewell
'Waka Attewell: Cinematography highlights...' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded January 2010. Accessed 18 June 2019
Duncan Petrie, Shot in New Zealand - The Art and Craft of the Kiwi Cinematographer (Auckland: Random House, 2007)