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Story: Experimental film

Experimental films use innovative strategies to represent time, images and ideas. This differs from traditional short and feature films, which usually work with conventional narratives and character-led drama.

Story by Mark Williams
Main image: Still from Sean Grattan's HADHAD, 2012

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

New Zealand has a rich history of experimental film-making. Most experimental films have been made by one person, who writes, directs and produces the final film. They have not generally been screened in cinemas, but have instead been shown in film-co-operatives, galleries and improvised screening spaces such as bars.

Early days: 1920s–1960s

New Zealand’s earliest experimental works stretched the boundaries of the usual types of films made in the country – such as home movies or government films. Most of the film-makers did not go on to make many more experimental films.

Len Lye was New Zealand’s most prominent and accomplished experimental film-maker at this time. Too broke to hire a camera, he was an early pioneer of direct-to-film animation – painting and scratching on the surface of the film itself.

Expansion: 1970s–1990s

From the 1970s onwards, New Zealand’s experimental film-making began to expand and diversify. A number of local film-makers continued to work under the influence of European avant-garde cinema and classic experimental works from the United States and Europe.

Several artists began to work with film-making as a branch of fine arts, using the medium as a way to represent time. Some film-makers offered different takes on common themes of New Zealand mainstream cinema, such as the road trip, sexual politics and race.

By the 1990s the introduction of computer editing software saw many experimental film-makers shift from film to video.

Throughout this period, various artists made multi-screen presentations. This would become a common feature of moving- image works shown in art galleries from the 1990s onwards.

Artists’ film and video in the 2000s

From the 2000s onwards many makers of experimental films have had a fine arts background, and have exhibited their films in galleries.

In the 2000s experimental films are inspired by themes as diverse as New Zealand’s colonial past, environmental and ecological concerns, pop culture, digital technologies and the re-working of cinema history.

Support

Over the years many experimental film-makers have given up due to a lack of financial support, screening opportunities and critical response. Some film-makers have expanded the kinds of art they create, working across multiple screens, in mixed media, or making work that can be experienced by the casual visitor at any point in a looped presentation.

Various government-funding schemes for independent film-making have come and gone. Meanwhile, those who work in art schools, universities or polytechnics often have more financial support because their film work counts as research.

A comprehensive history of New Zealand experimental film is yet to be written.

How to cite this page:

Mark Williams, 'Experimental film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/experimental-film (accessed 15 December 2017)

Story by Mark Williams, published 22 Oct 2014