Story: Documentary film

Page 1. Early documentary film

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In a documentary film, images and sounds taken from real life are constructed into a story containing a point of view. Film-makers and filmgoers in New Zealand have been fascinated by screen depictions of actual people, places and events since moving images were first recorded and exhibited at the end of the 19th century. Those early depictions were not ‘documentaries’ as such, but ‘actualities’, in which events, people and places were filmed in an observational manner.

First documentary footage

Prolific film-maker Joseph Perry, working with the Salvation Army Biorama Company, recorded the Māori welcome given to the Salvation Army commander in New Zealand and Australia, Herbert Booth, in December 1898. Between 1898 and 1910 the Biorama Company shot hundreds of films. The only surviving footage is of a Māori welcome to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901.

The earliest surviving documentary footage includes A. H. Whitehouse’s The departure of the second contingent for the Boer War (1900). Thirty-three seconds of this film have been preserved by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision and is the oldest footage in the archive’s large collection.


The popular Auckland animated news (1912–13) was the first local newsreel, and screened in the Hayward cinemas. This was followed by the New Zealand animated news (1913–14), made by Charles Newham. Some of the films made for this survive.

Government films

A milestone in New Zealand’s non-fiction film record was provided by James McDonald, who was employed as government ‘kinematographer’ from 1907 to 1912. He filmed many significant events such as British explorer Ernest Shackleton’s departure to Antarctica, following the government brief of promoting New Zealand to tourists and would-be settlers. McDonald was fascinated by Māori culture and the films resulting from his Dominion Museum-sponsored expeditions from 1918 provide detailed accounts of traditional Māori skills and practices such as making and setting eel traps.

First World War footage

New Zealand’s first official war camera operator, Henry Sanders, was posted to the Western Front in 1917. G. Cory wrote that ‘poor old “movie” as we call him was up close to the line soon after our last big fight to take photographs and got caught in a shelled area or in a barrage. He had his wits nearly scared away and instead of taking pictures he sat in a shell hole all day.’1 Twelve of Sanders’ films of the New Zealanders in France have survived, but most were not seen by the public during the war because of censorship restrictions.

Documentary during the First World War

There was intense public interest in the First World War, and film was shot of training camps and departing New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) troops, and then of the soldiers overseas. Henry A. Sanders, the government-appointed NZEF still and movie photographer, created a valuable record of what the government wanted the public to see of New Zealand troops’ overseas experience.

Public interest in local events, and in industrial and scenic films, remained strong. Sydney Taylor became government photographer in 1912. His work included films such as New Zealand whale hunting with motor launches in Cook Strait (1918), and these are regarded as among the best from the time.

Tourist publicity films

In the 1920s the introduction of 16-mm film stock made film-making more accessible. Both the Government Publicity Office (GPO), formed in 1921, and independent film companies such as Miramar Film Studios and New Zealand Films, continued to celebrate New Zealand as an idyllic haven of scenic beauty. Some of their productions, such as New Zealand in a hundred minutes (1923), Glorious New Zealand (1925) and Where the blue Pacific rolls (1926), were also seen overseas. Sporting events, royal visits, local industry promotional stories, screen tests and screen beauty contests were all very popular subjects.

Flammable film

In the early 20th century the Government Photography Office, which produced documentaries aimed at the tourist market, was housed in a decrepit Wellington building known as the Tin Shed, made of rusty corrugated iron. ‘A sanitary inspector declared the place unfit for animals to be in, let alone humans, but no improvement resulted.’ To speed up the drying of film prints ‘we often poured methylated spirit into a large tin placed in the middle of the workroom floor, lit it, and waved racks of film to and fro beside the fountain of flame – and this with highly inflammable nitrate film!’ 2

Ted Coubray

A key figure in the country’s film-making history was Southland-born Edwin (Ted) Coubray. Assisted by his wife, Nellie, he made newsreels of local events and short sponsored industrial documentaries. Hilda Hayward, in her (uncredited) collaborations with her husband Rudall, was New Zealand’s first known woman film-maker.

Changes in film

With the introduction of film sound in 1929, New Zealand screened its first ‘talkie’ – the first edition of Ted Coubray’s Coubray tone news – in 1930. Other developments included Rudall Hayward’s use of a multi-camera system to film horse races, Jim Manley’s formation of the company Eppics to produce films focusing on Māori and historical content, and a government inquiry into the cinema industry.

In 1936 the Tourist Department leased Miramar’s Filmcraft Studios, and bought them two years later. These became the Government Motion Picture and Advertising Studios. They produced One hundred crowded years, a sound film re-enacting the history of New Zealand from 1840, from a very European viewpoint, for the country’s 1940 centennial.

  1. Quoted in Christopher Pugsley, ‘“Who is Sanders?” – New Zealand’s official cameraman on the Western Front 1917–1919’, Stout Centre Review 5, no. 1 (1995), p. 21. Back
  2. Quoted in Jonathan Dennis, ed., ‘The Tin Shed’ – the origins of the National Film Unit. Wellington: New Zealand Film Archive, 1981, p. 11. Back
How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Documentary film - Early documentary film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014