In 1969 Kiwi music legend John Rowles was in his early 20s, and flush with UK success: appearing on Top of the Pops and celebrating a single – ‘If I Only Had Time’ – which got to number three in the British charts. This fly on the wall documentary records his homecoming tour, complete with cigars, turtlenecks, rehearsals, press interviews, dancing, hongi and a civic reception in Kawerau (where he’d been fired from a mill job five years before, for arriving late). Rowles launches single ‘M’Lady’, soon to top the NZ charts, and reflects on how he's changed since leaving Kawerau.
In the 20th Century forests of fast-growing exotic pines were established in the North Island, making one of the world’s largest timber plantations. This short explores timber work in Kinleith and Kawerau: from planting to felling to finished product. Directed by NFU veteran Hugh Macdonald, Logger Rhythms is notable as the first Kiwi film to record sound using Dolby Stereo. Sound men Kit Rolling and Tony Johnson’s efforts capturing chainsaw and machine ambience, along with Steve Robinson’s score, compelled Dolby in London to use the film as a demonstration reel.
The meteoric career of one of NZ’s greatest entertainers is examined in this documentary. John Rowles went from a Kawerau childhood to stardom in London at 21; but, after headlining in Hawaii and Las Vegas, he saw it all slip away. Those roofing ads and near bankruptcy followed, but Rowles has retained his self belief and that voice. A stellar cast of interviewees analyse his strengths and weaknesses, including Sir Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Neil Finn and late promoter Phil Warren. Amongst the star cameos, John’s sister Cheryl Moana explains the downside of his best-known local hit.
The Central Otago gold mining town of Cromwell celebrates its centenary in this 1960s National Film Unit documentary. For a fortnight the townsfolk go about their ordinary business, but in colonial-era costume. They also reenact the frontier-style life of gold rush New Zealand. Just 20 years before the film was shot, Cromwell banks were still receiving deposits of gold dust from customers. The Cromwell put on film in 1966 is also now just a memory. While the old main street still exists, much of the town was flooded with the completion of the Clyde dam in 1993.
This National Film Unit documentary follows the British Lions 1959 rugby tour to New Zealand. Prior to live televised sports coverage, match highlights were rushed onto cinema screens; NFU tour coverage was later edited into this feature length doco. On the field the series was won by the All Blacks 3-1, including the first test where Don Clarke famously kicked six penalties to beat the Lions’ four tries. Off the field, the Lions visited farms and resorts, drove trout and tried Māori song and dance with guide Rangi. A star back for the Lions was Peter Jackson.
Lee Tamahori's searing drama Once Were Warriors made Rena Owen a household name in New Zealand. The 1994 film's depiction of domestic violence within a Māori family left cinema goers shaken, and Owen's performance as the resolute Beth Heke made her career. In this documentary, Owen visits Māori women and men whose lives have been marred by family violence. Men who, with the help of organisations like Homai Te Rongopai Trust, are facing their abusive past, and women rape and abuse survivors who are finding new strength in their Māoritanga.
This NFU film visits the remote Urewera to explore the world of the Tūhoe people. Their independence and identity have been challenged by historical tensions with Pākehā, and now modernity — as ‘children of the mist’ leave for education and jobs (at the mill, in the city). A tribal outpost in Auckland is visited, along with law student James Milroy. At a Ruatoki festival the debate is whether young people should manage tribal affairs. For director Conon Fraser the film (partly narrated by Tūhoe) revisited the subject of his last Looking at New Zealand episode.
These two clips provide a handy introduction to a Kiwi musical classic. The first clip sees John Rowles showing how he can hold the long notes, as he performs 'Cheryl Moana Marie' on a self-titled live special from 1976, made for state television. In the second clip — an excerpt from 2008 Buto Productions documentary The Secret Life of John Rowles — the singer recalls coming up with the chart-topping 1969 ballad, an array of Kiwi musicians provide their own take on it, and Rowles' sister talks about the ups and the downs of finding fame as a child, through someone else's song.
Kawerau-raised John Rowles was inspired to become a singer after witnessing Māori showbands like The Howard Morrison Quartet. Following varied musical ventures in Australia, he was invited to England by manager Peter Gormley, to join Gormley's roster of ballad singers like Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones. Ballad 'If I Only had Time' got to three on the UK charts in 1968; fourth single 'M'Lady' did best in Aotearoa. In the 1970s Rowles became a nightclub fixture in Honolulu and Las Vegas, punctuated by occasional Kiwi hits and tours. By the 80s he was living in Australia. His autobiography landed in 2012.
A passionate advocate for Māori creative control, director Merata Mita (1942 — 2010) chronicled landmark moments of protest and division in Aotearoa. Her work included Patu!, a documentary on the 1981 Springbok tour, and Mauri (1988), only the second feature to have a Māori woman as director. She features in documentaries Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen and Merata Mita - Making Waves.