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Documentary film

by Helen Martin

Many New Zealand documentaries of the 20th century featured the country’s stunning landscape in an effort to attract tourists and settlers. Since the 1970s social and political issues, and art and artists, have been major subjects of local documentaries.

Early documentary film

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.

    • 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
    • Quoted in Jonathan Dennis, ed., ‘The Tin Shed’ – the origins of the National Film Unit. Wellington: New Zealand Film Archive, 1981, p. 11. Back

Educating the public – 1940 to 1960

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.

The television era

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.


From the 1980s to 2000

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.

    • Russell Campbell, Observations: studies in New Zealand documentary. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011, p. 51. Back

Documentary films in the 2000s

Documentaries to prove popular both locally and internationally include:

Pulp non-fiction

Kiwi director Florian Habicht built a reputation for making endearing films about likeable eccentrics. Jarvis Cocker, frontman for the British band Pulp, fits that description. The two men met in London at the premiere of Habicht’s film Love story, and agreed to record Pulp’s final concert at the band’s hometown of Sheffield. Many Sheffield residents, including bystanders, fans and senior citizens, were interviewed for the film. The resulting 90-minute documentary, simply titled Pulp, premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in 2013.

  • avant-garde film-maker Florian Habicht’s Kaikohe demolition (2004), a tribute to a Far North community; Rubbings from a live man (2008), a view of performance artist Warwick Broadhead; and Land of the long white cloud (2009), which profiles the surfcasters on Ninety Mile Beach
  • Sándor Lau’s Squeegee bandit (2007), a revealing profile of an urban Māori manmaking a living washing car windows, which won Best Documentary Feature Film at the 2008 Asia Pacific Screen Awards
  • Vincent Ward’s part documentary, part historical re-enactment Rain of the children (2008)
  • Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: untouchable girls (2009), a documentary about comedic twin singers Lynda and Jools Topp, which won prestigious awards internationally (including Best Feature Documentary at New York’s NewFest 2010) and nationally, where it broke box office records for documentary in New Zealand.


Locally made documentaries that screened at the 2012 Auckland International Film Festival included: Christopher Pryor and Miriam Smith’s How far is heaven (2012), a portrait of the Whanganui River community of Jerusalem and the nuns who live and work there; Pietra Brettkelly’s Maori boy genius (2012), which follows a talented scholar to Yale; Mathurin Molgat’s Song of the kauri (2012), celebrating the iconic native tree and the work of a luthier; and Paul Janman’s Tongan ark (2012), about what may be the world’s most unconventional university.

Documentary subjects

New Zealand’s changing ethnic make-up has determined that documentaries showcasing the indigenous culture, for example Jan Bieringa’s Te hono ki Aoteaora (2012) and Paora Te Oti Takarangi Joseph’s Tatarakihi: the children of Parihaka (2012), have been joined by films interrogating challenges faced in an increasingly multicultural society, such as Russell Campbell’s Sisters from Siberia (2009) and Roseanne Liang’s Banana in a nutshell (2005).

Other recurring topics include:

  • New Zealand’s film history – for example Sam Neill and Judy Rymer’s Cinema of unease: a personal journey by Sam Neill (1995) and Graeme Tuckett’s Barry Barclay: The camera on the shore (2009)
  • pressing environmental issues – such as Simon Marler’s Restoring the mauri of Lake Omapere (2007) and Peter Young’s The last ocean (2012), documenting the international movement to end fishing of the Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea
  • the contribution of artists, musicians, writers and dancers to New Zealand culture – including Shirley Horrocks’ Flip and two twisters (1995), on sculptor and film-maker Len Lye; Merata Mita’s Hotere (2008); Tim Rose’s Sam Hunt: purple balloon and other stories (2010); and Leanne Pooley’s Haunting Douglas (2003)
  • state abuse of power – such as Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones’s Operation 8: deep in the forest (2011)
  • issues arising from sexuality and gender – for example Peter Wells and Annie Goldson’s Georgie girl (2001) and Grant Lahood’s Intersexion (2012)
  • alternative lifestyles – including David Blyth’s Bound for pleasure (2004), Tom Reilly’s Gordonia (2008) and Thomas Burstyn’s This way of life (2009)
  • stories of global relevance and interest – for example Briar March’s There once was an Island: te henua e noho (2010), about the low-lying Pacific atoll of Takuu; and Costa Botes’s The last dogs of winter (2011), which follows a New Zealander working in Canada to help save that country’s indigenous dog.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Helen Martin, 'Documentary film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 October 2014