Prelude to Aspiring is one of series of promotional documentaries made by the National Film Unit. Ostensibly it is about mountaineering in the Matukituki Valley, west of Wanaka in the South Island. However the film's roving camera work never settles long on the ‘subject' — probably due in part to the film's length. The result is some glorious footage of the peaks of the Southern Alps; the real stars of this show with their breath-taking cliffs, snow-clad tops and beech-clad slopes.
Prelude to Aspiring was filmed and directed by Brian Brake, known internationally for his documentary photography. Brake grew up in Arthur's Pass where he gained his love for the alpine landscape; he felt he was assigned the project because "I was brought up among the mountains" (The Listener, 11 January 1957). He joined the National Film Unit as a cameraman in 1948.
The pretext for the film is the conclusion to a burst of activity by the Otago Section of the NZ Alpine Club in the Matukituki Valley, in Easter 1949. Club members and mountaineers from all over New Zealand are seen walking up the valley to the opening of Aspiring Hut, or being driven in a ramshackle but determined supply truck.
There's an appreciation for the risks taken by the people who blasted out the tracks and built the huts in these isolated spots; the iflm conveys a sense of the hardiness required to visit these mountains in the times before Department of Conservation signs, OSH-approved grading and Search and Rescue services.
Climbers are later seen with materials lashed to their packs, scrambling up slopes and fording rivers on their way to repair a makeshift hut demolished by winter storms at the snowline.
As with other NFU promotional films, Prelude to Aspiring is overlaid with omniscient BBC-style commentary (narrated by William Austin), which was conventional at the time. Brake is clearly at home as a cameraman in this breathtaking setting. His reverence for the landscape and respect for the people forging an accommodation with it, makes for some romantic 'man and mountain' imagery.
Blake would continue his cinematographic fascination with the Southern Alps, later directing and shooting a film on high country life (The Snowline is Their Boundary) and the award-winning Snows of Aorangi (1955). Snows of Aorangi was the first New Zealand film to compete for an Oscar, nominated in the Best Short Subject (Live Action) category in 1959.
- Mary-Jane Duffy has written for magazines (The Listener), museums (Te Papa) and art galleries. She wrote an arts column for Wellington magazine FishHead, and now manages and teaches for the Creative Writing Programme at Whitireia Institute of Technology.