Story: Documentary film

Page 2. Educating the public – 1940 to 1960

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Forming the National Film Unit

British documentary producer and writer John Grierson visited New Zealand in 1940 at the invitation of the government. He maintained that documentary’s role was to carry out the social purpose of fostering a national identity. This idea was taken up by New Zealand’s Labour government as a brief for the National Film Unit (NFU), which it established in 1941. Headed by Stanhope Andrews, the NFU was for many years the only significant film production facility in the country. From 1941 until 1950 it produced 459 episodes of what was known from 1942 as the Weekly review – 10-minute newsreels covering three or four topics.

Educating the public

In addition to its newsreels, the NFU made individual documentaries. The NFU’s films and Weekly review newsreels did not critique the war effort or the post-war economic recovery that followed. Rather, they aimed to develop in viewers the sense that the country had evolved from colony to nation through ‘educating’ the public. The NFU also made training films for New Zealand troops during the Second World War.

Cecil Holmes

The Hawke’s Bay-born director Cecil Holmes was an active unionist and campaigned for higher wages for his NFU colleagues. In 1948 his satchel was taken from his car and handed to the government. Acting Prime Minister Walter Nash then released a personal letter and Holmes’s Communist Party membership card to the press. The resulting scandal damaged Holmes’s union, and he was sacked from his job. After a legal challenge he was reinstated, but moved to Australia where he made many highly regarded documentary and feature films. In 1995 Holmes’s story was told in Annie Goldson’s dramatised documentary Seeing red.

NFU film-makers

The first woman to direct films in New Zealand was Margaret Thomson, whose innovative NFU documentaries included Railway worker (1948) and The first two years at school (1949). Other Weekly review film-makers included Alun Falconer (Hokianga … backblock medical service, 1947), Roger Mirams (Round up on Molesworth, 1946), Michael Forlong (Pilchard fishermen, 1945) and Cecil Holmes (The coaster, 1948).

Partly because some NFU film-makers were seen to present a political view that did not coincide with government policy, in January 1950 the National government abolished the Weekly review. The NFU’s attention was turned to shooting footage for the feature-length documentary British Empire Games (1950). The monthly Pictorial parade began in 1952.

Under the Department of Tourism and Publicity, the NFU remained the most prolific film production company in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on tourist promotions and government propaganda. Talented director and camera operator Brian Brake made the tourist promotional film Snows of Aorangi (1955), with scripted narration by poet James K. Baxter. It became the first New Zealand film to be nominated for an Academy Award. After Margaret Thomson returned to England, the only woman director was Kathleen O’Brien, who specialised in educational documentaries. One of her films, Exhibition loop (1947), shows the various stages of film production at the NFU.

Film family

Working in the film industry can be an occupation followed through several generations. Stanley Wemyss became an NFU camera operator during the Second World War. He worked in North Africa and Bougainville, earning an MBE for his services. He later ran a cinema in Brooklyn, Wellington, and formed a production company making television commercials. In the 1970s he produced a documentary on Māori land, and the drama Uenuku, directed by Geoff Murphy. Stan Wemyss’s daughter Jocelyn worked as a caterer on film and television sets in New Zealand and Australia. Her son is the internationally renowned film star Russell Crowe.

Independent production companies

Other independent companies included Neuline Film Studios which, under the leadership of Australian Robert Steele, produced some lively and innovative work including Thrifty nifty (1949) and Songs and dances of Maoriland (1959). Another was Morrow Productions, which, unusually, made animated informational films, such as the government-commissioned Tuberculosis: how it spreads and how to prevent it (1955). Rudall Hayward, who had worked as a cameraman for the NFU during the Second World War, continued to produce many documentaries, and educational and travel films with his second wife Ramai. These included the popular The amazing dolphin of Opononi (1956).

Pacific Films

The founding in 1948 of the Pacific Film Unit by Roger Mirams and Alun Falconer (later replaced by John O’Shea) provided film-makers with an alternative to government control. As producer, editor, writer and director, O’Shea worked on well over 100 non-fiction productions in an influential career spanning more than 40 years. Although his was the only company to produce feature films between 1952 and 1966, most of its early productions were sponsored documentaries such as Think about tomorrow (1961), the monthly newsreel Pacific magazine, and commercials. Pacific Films was also important as an informal training ground in the 1960s for film-makers such as Tony Williams and Barry Barclay, and Gaylene Preston the following decade.

How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Documentary film - Educating the public – 1940 to 1960', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014