For this screen showcase of NZ visual arts talent, critic Mark Amery selects his top documentaries profiling artists. From the icons (Hotere, McCahon, Lye) to the unheralded (Edith Collier) to Takis the Greek, each portrait shines light on the person behind the canvas. "Naturally inquisitive, with an open wonder about the world, they make for inspiring onscreen company."
Savouring the chance to demonstrate that Kiwi cinema is about far more than the usual suspects found on so many top 10 lists, critic Tim Wong provides his own angle on the topic in this film, narrated by Luminaries author and occasional actor Eleanor Catton. Ranging widely — from experimental works, to an often forgotten contender for first Kiwi horror movie — Out of the Mist marked the first of three essay films aiming to “advocate for art on the margins”. Director Wong founded film and arts website The Lumière Reader in 2004.
Director Alyx Duncan set out to make an experimental documentary about her childhood home. What eventually resulted was this acclaimed and award-winning "fictional essay", her first full length feature. Blurring the line between documentary and drama, she cast her conservationist father and Chinese born step-mother as characters partially based on themselves. As they journey from a small NZ island to a big Chinese city, Duncan examines their cross cultural relationship and explores nostalgia, childhood, dreams, environmentalism, globalisation and the meaning of home.
Director Sam Neill uses ‘Architect Man’ — a cartoon superhero trying to save Wellington’s buildings from mediocrity — to open this visual essay on contemporary Kiwi architecture. A montage of construction materials is followed by views on the high rise, woolshed, and Futuna Chapel. Renovation, DIY, prefabs and non-conformist design thinking are offered as hopes for the built environment’s future. Made by Neill when he was working at the National Film Unit, it was released in a shortened version (without the animation) in 1977, the same year he starred in movie Sleeping Dogs.
For this 1987 Kaleidoscope report, architectural commentator Mark Wigley uses Kiwi resort towns as fuel for an essay on local architecture. He visits Waitangi, arguing that Aotearoa should have followed the "rich ornamental example" of the Whare Rūnanga, instead of the restraint of the Treaty House. He praises Paihia’s "cacophony of bad taste" motels. In part two, he compares Queenstown and Arrowtown, and admires a gold dredge and the Skyline gondola. Wigley, then starting his academic career in the United States, would become an internationally acclaimed architectural theorist.
In this 1972 documentary writer James McNeish visits Opononi to examine the life and controversial death of Opo the dolphin. Working from a McNeish idea, director Barry Barclay uses Opo’s mid 50s visit to the Hokianga as the basis for a probing film essay on people, and other animals. Witnesses recall Opo “oomping away”; they include local Piwai Toi, filmmakers Rudall and Ramai Hayward, and author Maurice Shadbolt. Opo is provokingly not shown on screen. Michael King praised Miracle as “without a doubt the most interesting and evocative” slot in the Survey series to date.
This "essay on global warming" was written by Able Tasmans band member Leslie Jonkers. Bagpipes and spinning pomegranates give away to amoeba and swirling shots of trees. The band are shot in colour amongst Christmas decorations, and in black and white in a forest as the song spins and builds. Shots of a Chrysler Valiant give way to footage of a village in Africa, a forest in Asia, the Golden Gate Bridge and Speakers' Corner in London. And why a frog? Because when water is gradually heated, a frog doesn't notice the changing temperature and will be poached.
This fictionalised account of pioneering 19th century photographers the Burton brothers is set partly in Dunedin during the closing stages of the New Zealand Wars. William and Alfred take contrasting approaches to representing their subjects — and are treated accordingly by the authorities, who are attempting to attract new settlers while brutally suppressing Māori. Produced by veteran John O'Shea (who co-wrote with playwright Robert Lord), the tale of art, commerce and colonisation was largely well received as a thoughtful essay at revisionist history.
Billed as "directors' essays on great New Zealand artists", TVNZ’s four part Inspiration documentary series profiled authors Margaret Mahy and Witi Ihimaera, photographer Brian Brake and potter James Greig (who died during production of his episode). In describing his inspiration for the series, director/producer Peter Coates told The Listener, "one of the great weaknesses we have in television is the lack of in-depth material on our artists". Coates made three of the programmes, while Keith Hunter produced and directed the Margaret Mahy episode.
Peter Hayden travels through some of New Zealand's most awe-inspiring environments in this five part series, made to celebrate the centenary of our first national park. This episode looks at the national park closest to our largest city and contemplates that relationship, featuring stories of life on the islands of the Hauraki Gulf. A highlight is the transfer of the rare saddleback or tieke (a lively wattlebird) from Cuvier Island to the ecological time-capsule of Little Barrier Island — "with Auckland's lights twinkling in the background". Catherine Bisley writes about the Journeys series here.