Story: Documentary film

Page 3. The television era

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Arrival of television

The arrival of television in 1960 meant that independent film-makers had a new outlet, hungry for product. Documentaries screened on television had to fit a half-hour or one-hour time-slot, with commercial breaks factored into the edit. The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, formed in 1962, gave its staff the opportunity to learn the documentary craft. Other film-makers initially suffered since popular interest in going to the cinema waned considerably for a time.

This is New Zealand

Pacific Films and the NFU made documentaries for television as well as for screening theatrically. At the end of the decade the NFU’s popular three-screen promotion, This is New Zealand (1970), made for that year’s World Expo in Japan but also screened throughout New Zealand, took the film-as-spectacle notion to a new level.

Sam Neill

Before becoming a renowned film actor, Sam Neill worked as a documentary director for the NFU. He found an informal agreement that he could make ‘one for them’ (ie. a client such as the Post Office or Railways) ‘and one for yourself.’1 He therefore made a film about his friend, architect Ian Athfield, and his design for a community urban redevelopment project in the giant Tondo slum in Manila, Philippines. The rapport between Neill and Athfield meant that even glitches were sometimes left in the final edit. Athfield later designed Neill’s house.

Counter-culture influences

The influences of counter-culture movements began to be felt in New Zealand in the early 1970s. One of several documentaries Sam Neill directed for the NFU (before his acting career began), Red Mole on the road (1979), details the antics of an alternative theatre troupe on tour.

Feminist, gay and Māori demands for equality were given vigorous cultural expression, paving the way for other inequalities to be addressed (such as disability and mental health issues). NFU director Paul Maunder made Gone up north for a while (1972), about the prejudice suffered by an unmarried mother, and One of those people who live in the world (1974), tackling the devastating effects of psychiatric illness.

Tony Williams made most of his ground-breaking films for television. In one of these, The day we landed on the most perfect planet in the universe (1971), children explore the meaning of freedom.

Tangata whenua series

The six-part Tangata whenua television series (1974), directed by Barry Barclay, produced by John O’Shea and written by Michael King, was a breakthrough in terms of Māori telling their own stories. Barclay used this method of film-making in later documentaries such as The neglected miracle (1985), a global survey of plant stewardship and indigenous rights; and The Kaipara affair (2005), produced by Don Selwyn, which examined the threat commercial fishing and development posed to the Kaipara Harbour and Treaty of Waitangi obligations.

Women’s documentaries

Documentaries by and about women proliferated, with the films of home-birth advocate Mary Dobbie, such as Birth – the beginning (1971), paving the way. In International Women’s Year in 1975 the government’s Committee on Women commissioned New Zealand’s first feminist documentary, Some of my best friends are women (1975). Directed by Irish film-maker Deirdre McCartin and with Robin Scholes on camera, the only male input was from John Barnett’s production company Endeavour. The film spurred a groundbreaking television series on women in which formerly taboo subjects such as menstruation were aired, and other feminist films, such as Stephanie Beth’s I want to be Joan (1978), in which a woman talked about her mental breakdown.

Off the edge

The nomination of Michael Firth’s feature-length skiing documentary, Off the edge (1977), for an Academy Award boosted confidence in the local industry. The New Zealand Film Commission was established the following year.

  1. ‘Sam Neill on directing ski ballet and architects’. New Zealand on Screen, (last accessed 17 January 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

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

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014