NZ film from the Sallies to Sir Peter

New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History
Edited by Diane Pivac with Frank Stark and Lawrence McDonald.
Te Papa Press
RRP $85.00

The Salvation Army and Peter Jackson are not a pairing one normally associates with the New Zealand film industry. We certainly all know about Jackson creating Wellywood but the fact that the Salvation Army was the biggest film producer at the beginning of the twentieth century here and in Australia.

The Sallies realised early on the power of the mass media and used it to make films with good Christian social messages. Film makers from then on used film as a way of taking stories to large audinece. The history of film is the story of the intertwined attempts to make meaningful stories both fictional and factual. It is also an account of the people who made films and who built the ever changing film industry.

With the newly published New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History we have a new account of film in New Zealand which builds on the many previous histories of New Zealand film which have all been contributed to our understanding of why we have the sorts of locally produced films.

The book features a dozen major articles by some the of the best writers on film including Frank Stark, Chris Pugsley, Clive Sowry and Bruce Babington. There is even a superb introduction by Roger Horrocks which is a complete history in itself.

As well as being a history of film the book is a social history showing the films that were produced in this country were a reflection of the both the wider community as well as individuals, governemnet and non government agencies attempts to make films which would influence society.

One of the early chapters elaborates on the government’s early involvement with films which depicted New Zealand. Through the Tourism Department (the first in the world) the government saw a means of showing New Zealand to the world with documentaries and newsreels.

The book traces the film-going habits of New Zealand which has always been dominated by the British and American film giants. It also traces the erratic growth of film making and the ways in which both the early pioneers and more recent ones have sought to make films which truly reflected New Zealand.

There are several references to issues around censorship which now seem quaint but are a measure of how film was regarded in the past. The Eisenstein film “Battleship Potemkin was banned in the 1920’s and 1903’s while the Wild One (1953) starring Marlon Brando was banned for several years. Even the art house film “Ulysses was released only as a film to be shown to segregated audiences, a move which even the radical University film societies complied with.

The notion of “New Zealand Film” is dealt with in various ways including in the chapter on Peter Jackson, “The Jackson Effect” which examines the balance between films made in New Zealand which are blockbusters and films about New Zealand which more often than not go bust.

The book provides great accounts of the early film makers such as Rudall Hayward and his historical dramas (Rewi’s Last Stand & The Te Kooti Trail) and John O'Shea (Broken Barrier & To Love a Maori) who tackled controversial social subjects.

The chapters are generally historical and thematic – “The Rise of Fiction Between the Wars”, “Political and Alternative Film Making 1940 – 1950”, “Waking From A Fretful Sleep: Film in the 1970’s” and cover the wide sweep of the social history of film. There are also a number of smaller sections and single page entries devoted to individuals and organisations who contributed to the development of film, Sam Pillsbury, Bruno Lawrence, John Barnett, Women Amateur Film Makers Alternative Cinema and Taika Waititi.

You probably don’t really need to read the book, the copious illustrations tell the story pretty well. The you watch the enclosed DVD which features some great New Zealand films.