Described by author Emma Jean Kelly as a flamboyant "champion of New Zealand culture", Jonathan Dennis was the founding director of The Film Archive in 1981 and led the organisation into a bicultural era. Dennis, who headed the Film Archive for nine years, was praised for making films more accessible. He also made documentaries (Mouth Wide Open, Mana Waka) and presented Radio New Zealand's Film Show.
This was one of two short promos that screened in cinemas to celebrate 100 years of New Zealand film. A stop motion plasticine figure morphs from one classic Kiwi film moment to another. Director Greg Page starts with National Film Unit newsreels, before jumping to the renaissance of Kiwi film that began in the late 1970s. Included are Goodbye Pork Pie, An Angel at My Table and Braindead. The promos (John O'Shea directed the other) were funded by the NZ Film Commission with support from Kodak, the Film Unit and the Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision).
Directed by Annie Goldson (Brother Number One), this 1995 TV documentary explores the story of Cecil Holmes, who won Cold War notoriety in 1948 when he was smeared as a communist agent, while working as a director for the National Film Unit. This excerpt — the opening 10 minutes — revisits the infamous snatching of Holmes' satchel outside Parliament, his Palmerston North upbringing, war service, and the founding of the Government's National Film Unit. There are excerpts from a 1980 interview where Holmes describes his inspirations (including UK film Night Mail).
Nearly two years after the launch of New Zealand's Film Archive, founding director Jonathan Dennis discusses preserving films and film memorabilia for the public to enjoy. He shows reporter Gordon McLauchlan old nitrate film decaying in a former ammunition bunker, then describes finding a print of 1920s movie The Devil's Pit (aka Under the Southern Cross). One of the film's stars, Witarina Harris (née Mitchell) watches part of the film with Dennis, and recalls her time on set. The pair would work closely together promoting the Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision).
Screening as Goodbye Pork Pie packed cinemas and gave hope that Kiwi films were here to stay, this 1981 TV documentary attempts to combine history lesson with some crystal ball gazing on what might lie ahead for the newly reborn film industry. Host Ian Johnstone wonders if three local movies per year might be a "fairly ambitious" target; producer John Barnett argues for the upside of overseas filmmakers shooting downunder. Also interviewed: Pork Pie director Geoff Murphy, veteran producer John O'Shea, and the NZ Film Commission's first Chairman, Bill Sheat.
Seven decades after he began shooting films, Ted Coubray got his close-up in Mouth Wide Open. The documentary emerged shortly after his death in late 1997. It captured the hive of filmmaking activity that was 1920s Aotearoa — and Coubray's role as a pioneering cameraman, who even directed his own movie (horse racing hit Carbine's Heritage). The arrival of synchronised sound upped film budgets considerably; Coubray was one of the first in Australasia to create his own sound camera. In this opening sequence, he demonstrates one of his many camera-related inventions.
In this experimental drama shot in 1975, four young idealists escape the city for rural Foxton, and set about living off the land. But an act of violence sends the commune into isolation and extremism. Teasing tense drama from rural settings, the 90 minute tale from maverick National Film Unit director Paul Maunder shines a harsh light on the contradictions of the frontier spirit. Although state television funded it, they found it too edgy to screen; instead Landfall debuted at the 1977 Wellington Film Festival. The cast includes Sam Neill as a Vietnam vet, and Mark ll director John Anderson.
This film tells the story of the world’s rarest wading bird, the black stilt (kakī). With its precise beak and long pink legs the stilt is superbly adapted to the stony braided riverbeads of the McKenzie Country, but it is tragically unable to deal with new threats (rats, ferrets, habitat loss). An early doco for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit, the magnificently filmed drama of the stilt’s struggle for survival makes it “stand out as a classic of its genre” (Russell Campbell). It won the Gold Award at New York’s International Film & TV Festival (1984).
Before he achieved worldwide fame as an actor, Sam Neill directed documentary films for the National Film Unit. This film examines the philosophy, early achievements and frustrations of one of New Zealand's most innovative architects, Ian Athfield. Athfield won an international competition in 1975 to design housing for 140,000 squatters in Manila, in the Philippines, yet struggled to gain recognition back home. This film culminates in Athfield's trip to the Philippines to pursue the project. Shooter John Toon later memorably shot feature film Rain.
Should Clive Sowry ever choose to enter Mastermind, his knowledge of the National Film Unit will give his competitors a definite run for their money. Sowry worked at the government filmmaking organisation for 14 years, including nine as the NFU's archivist. He went on to undertake a programme that saved 100s of local films, and has written often about filmmaking in New Zealand — including for NZ On Screen.