Story: Documentary film

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.

Story by Helen Martin
Main image: Natural History Unit camera operator Robert Brown gets up close to a sea lion

Story summary

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Documentary films take images and sound from real life and present them as a story.

Early documentary film

The first documentary film footage in New Zealand included Māori welcomes. The oldest surviving film is from 1900 and shows troops preparing to leave for the South African War.

From 1907 the government made films. One reason was to promote New Zealand to tourists and settlers. Some films recorded Māori culture.

During the First World War New Zealand troops were filmed and Henry Sanders, the first official war camera operator, was posted to the Western Front to record what was happening.

1940s to 1960s

The government’s National Film Unit was founded in 1941. Its aim was to foster national identity and educate the public. It made newsreels to be shown in cinemas and short documentaries. In the 1950s and 1960s it focused on tourist promotions and government propaganda. There were also some independent film companies, including Neuline Film Studios and Pacific Films. All were important training grounds for filmmakers such as John O’Shea and Barry Barclay.

Television era

After the arrival of television in 1960 documentary-makers had a new outlet for their work, though cinema attendance fell.

In the 1970s counterculture began to influence documentary film, and new, more challenging subjects were explored, such as unmarried mothers and psychiatric illness. More films were made by and about women. The 1974 Tangata whenua television series was significant for Māori telling their own stories.

1980s to 2000

In the 1980s for the first time students could study film-making in tertiary institutions, and some documentary-makers were graduates.

Many left-wing documentaries were made about topical issues, including Māori land rights, labour disputes, protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour and new-right economics. Important documentary-makers who emerged at this time include Merata Mita, Alister Barry, Gaylene Preston and Annie Goldson.


In the 2000s New Zealand documentaries have been successful both in New Zealand and overseas. They have covered topics such as environmental and political issues, art and artists, sexuality and gender, and alternative lifestyles.

How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Documentary film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 October 2014