Story: Documentary film

Page 4. From the 1980s to 2000

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Film school graduates

In the 1980s, for the first time, students were able to learn film-making skills in tertiary institutions, increasing the potential for documentary projects. Art school graduate Vincent Ward used cinéma vérité (interaction between the film-maker and documentary subject) in his evocative In spring one plants alone (1980), and Shereen Maloney created an intimate portrait of her mother in Irene 59 (1981). Other experiments with the documentary form included Peter Wells’s idiosyncratic Napier: newest city on the globe (1985), in which the film-maker brings a queer aesthetic to his account of Napier’s 1931 earthquake and the city’s subsequent recovery.

Left-wing documentaries

The decade also saw production of some important left-wing films, including:

  • Bastion Point: day 507 (1980), a powerful work by Merata Mita, Gerd Pohlmann and Leon Narbey, which documented the land-rights occupation of Takaparawhā (Bastion Point) by members of Ngāti Whātua
  • Even dogs are given bones: women workers fight back, Rixen, NZ (1981), about a 14-week workers’ protest, directed by Carole Stewart
  • The bridge: a story of men in dispute (1981), directed by Gerd Pohlmann and Merata Mita, on a long-running industrial dispute over the building of the Māngere Bridge.

Hidden footage

Merata Mita’s 1981 Springbok Tour documentary, Patu!, was compiled from hundreds of hours of film and video footage shot by various camera crews during the tour. Wellington film-maker Russell Campbell ‘was there with my windup Bolex [camera] when the police … started bashing bare heads with their batons.’ The resulting footage had to be kept hidden, since a squad of police and plainclothesmen arrived at the production office with a search warrant. The finished film was not shown on New Zealand television at the time, although the London Film Festival called it ‘a major documentary of our time’.1


One of the most significant documentaries of the 1980s was the feature-length Patu! (1983), on the protests against the 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand by apartheid South Africa’s Springbok rugby team. Directed by Merata Mita with input from a large number of New Zealand’s film-makers, Patu! was an important counter to the government’s version of events and was the first feature-length New Zealand documentary directed by a woman.

Vanguard Films

Vanguard Films, a left-wing collective formed in 1979 by Alister Barry, Russell Campbell and Rod Prosser, made a considerable contribution to dialogue about New Zealand’s political and cultural life. Its films include Wildcat (1981), documenting a Timber Workers’ Union dispute, and Islands of the empire (1985), outlining military relationships between New Zealand and America. The introduction of new-right economics by a Labour government in 1984 provided Vanguard Films with material for a substantial body of critical work including Someone else’s Country (1996), In a land of plenty (2002) and The hollow men (2008).

Mana waka

Mana waka (1990), directed by Merata Mita, told the story of war canoes (waka taua) built to celebrate the 1940 centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, and screened in 1996 to celebrate the centenary of cinema. It used footage shot by Pākehā film-maker Jim Manley in the 1930s. Support came from the New Zealand Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision), Manley’s descendants and the Māori queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu. Later the Manleys attempted to have the project stopped, believing the film was not as Jim Manley had wanted it.

War stories

Gaylene Preston made the internationally acclaimed War stories: our mothers never told us (1995), in which seven elderly women, shot in talking heads style against a black backdrop, describe their experiences during the Second World War. This film appeared on television after it had screened in cinemas, and spurred increased interest in the documentary form from both film-makers and audiences.

Annie Goldson

Punitive damage (1999), by Annie Goldson, telling of a New Zealand woman’s successful fight for justice after the murder of her son in East Timor by the Indonesian military, brought accolades from audiences around the world. Goldson’s subsequent Brother number one (2011), the story of New Zealander Rob Hamill’s fight for justice after the murder of his brother by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1978, was similarly acclaimed.

  1. Russell Campbell, Observations: studies in New Zealand documentary. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011, p. 51. Back
How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Documentary film - From the 1980s to 2000', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014