‘Experimental’ is a term often applied to films that use innovative strategies to represent time, images and ideas. New Zealand’s earliest experimental works used a mixture of technical and formal strategies to stretch the boundaries of established forms such as home movies or government films. Most of the film-makers did not go on to build a significant body of experimental work.
The most recognised figure in New Zealand experimental film is the earliest: Len Lye. Born in New Zealand in 1901, but spending over half of his life in the United States, Lye was a pioneer of direct-to-film animation, using paint, ink and tools to draw on the surface of 16mm film.
One of his best-known works was Tusalava (1929), an animated black and white film that embodied Lye's unique combination of theory and practice. Showing the dramatic evolution of a cellular creature, Tusalava combined Lye's ideas about the creative subconscious with the painstaking labour of making 4,400 individual drawings for a nine-minute film.
In later works such as Tal Farlow (1980) and Free radicals (1957) soundtracks of modern jazz and African drumming complemented the kinetic physicality and energy of Lye’s dashes, scratches and lines.
Len Lye was a pioneer of ‘direct’ film-making – painting and scratching the surface of the film itself. Necessity was the mother of invention – Lye did it because he was too broke to hire a camera.
Seldom acknowledged or recognised, a handful of home-movie makers expanded the perimeters of 8-millimetre movie making beyond celebrations of home and family:
In the post-Second World War decades a few film-makers made notable experimental works as a detour from or preface to a commercial career.
From curves to contrasts – the camera art of Robert Steele (1946) featured a series of Olympian tableaux of naked dancers (Harold Robinson, Freda Stark and an unknown American sailor). Although well known as a producer of industrial films such as The brewery behind to-days great drink (1945) Robert Steele's high-camp film is a local forerunner to the later works of American film-maker Kenneth Anger.
Broadcast on state television, Tony Williams's The sound of seeing (1963) followed a painter and a composer to a jazz concert, an art gallery and nature. Forgoing dialogue and plot, The sound of seeing was a journey led by the senses.
Rodney Charters’s Film exercise (1966) was a similar example of a film-maker favouring a more sensuous approach over narrative.
Director John King slipped a reference to an avant-garde French film into a government newsreel commissioned by the Romney Sheep Breeders Association. Influenced by Alain Resnais' Last year at Marienbad (1961), King signalled a transition from shearing to wool inspection by cutting from upbeat jazz music to statuesque slow motion. What viewers of Pictorial parade 182: wool gathering (1965) made of it is not known.
People working for the government-owned National Film Unit were sometimes able to experiment:
In the 1970s a number of film-makers and artists began to explore film-making as a fine art practice.
Philip Dadson's Earthworks (1971) was constructed from a 10-minute performance and recording event staged across multiple locations around the world at the same time (1800 hours Greenwich mean time). Rather than assembling the resulting audio, film and photograph records into a narrative, Dadson edited the film to evoke the simultaneity of people spread across the planet.
Working on 8-millimetre and 16-millimetre film, Joanna Margaret Paul made a remarkable number of films of home, family and place. In works such as Jillian dressing (1976), Bag (1976) and Task (1982), Paul depicted domestic activities including ironing, packing and dressing. Other works chronicled the subtle impressions left by time, human presence and urban settlement in locations including Port Chalmers and Wellington.
In the world of drama, the influence of the European avant-garde weighed heavily on psycho-sexual surrealist short film Circadian rhythms (1976) by David Blyth and George Rose's Art man (also known as The sadness of the post-intellectual art critic) (1979). Film historian Roger Horrocks offered a balanced assessment: ‘Art Man ... is at times too eager to score points, but it is clear that the director has an unusual gift for pure image.’1
In the 1980s and 1990s a handful of film-makers emerged who combined an extreme visual sensibility with the dynamics of pop.
The Auckland-based group Fetus Productions (around 1980 to 1989) presented multi-media performances featuring their own live music with film images of human deformity, nature and medical procedures. Similarly confrontational, Brent Hayward’s excoriating explorations of sexuality, state control and AIDS were marked by occasional humour and the film-maker’s brilliance as a cinematographer and editor. Lisa Reihana's Wog features (1990) was a dynamic piece of editing with a political heart; mixing animation and live action to address racism in culture and gender. The animation and stop motion of musician Chris Knox showed a taste for the comic grotesque, often located in his own body.
Travelling down the highways that carve through the unpeopled wilderness of New Zealand's South Island, Lissa Mitchell's direct-to-film animation Bowl me over (1995) paid homage to Colin McCahon, Mina Arndt and Rita Angus, local artists whose work was inspired by the landscape. With text rallying against the flooding of the town of Cromwell for the construction of a government-owned dam, Bowl me over lent a political edge to the New Zealand scenic.
The New Zealand art exhibition Headlands, at the Museum of Sydney, Australia, in 1992, featured a 13-part screening series which freely combined experimental films, short films, music videos, documentary films and government newsreels. In the exhibition catalogue Horrocks wrote: ‘The most startling work being done today is by the mysterious group Popular Productions ... the extremism of this work, its subversive play with national icons, its suspicion of language as a pre-existing structure, its low-tech and low-budget ingenuity, its off-beat humour – these ... qualities are the opposite of what we see on our television and cinema screens.’2
In the 2000s editing suites were replaced by computers. While a number of experimental film-makers continued to value the aesthetic qualities and physicality of film, new technologies became the norm.
Two works made on video by Martin Rumsby, Brown’s barbeque (2006) and For Dots (2008) focused on African American family life and street culture in Chicago. Rumsby had been part of New Zealand’s experimental film community before leaving for Canada in 1985. A distributor of films as well as a maker, Rumsby returned to New Zealand every few years with a suitcase of North American experimental work.
Between 1996 and 2010 New Zealand expatriate Peter Wareing used several generations of video technology to make the feature-length documentary Not everybody can do everything. Shot in a New York home for blind people with severe mental disability, the film is a moving portrait of love, friendship and loss.
Young film-makers based in Wellington (dubbed the Aro Valley movement) made a series of feature-length narrative dramas, which they edited and assembled on computer editing suites. Often based on extended takes, works such as Uncomfortable comfortable (1999) by Campbell Walker and Shifter (2000) by Colin Hodson were about unsustainable relationships.
Nova Paul's This is not dying (2010) was based on filmed studies of daily life around her marae, Maungarongo, under the mountain Whatitiri. Observing food preparation, leisure and interaction in communal space, Paul's original 16-mm images were later transformed by an optical printing technique called three-colour separation into a series of vivid, evocative after-images.
M. D. Brown's seldom-seen 8-mm dramas On the low shore (2001) and Falling out (2004) were explorations of memory and youth. Alternating passages of black with recollected images of friends and encounters, they unravelled as late-night ruminations. Also adopting the monologue, Gabriel White made a number of travelogues characterised by a stream-of-consciousness address to camera.
The diverse styles of Alex Monteith's surrealist film Pause the rising tide (2000) and feature-length documentary Chapter and verse (2001) marked her as one of the strongest and most diverse voices in experimental film. Her subsequent work focused primarily on gallery-based video installations. In 2011 a 35-mm short film, 2.5 kilometre mono action for a mirage, marked her brief return to cinema.
Sean Grattan's HADHAD (2012) and Carmen San Diego out of work and on the run (2011) were ambitious explorations of contemporary malaise. Shot in the United States, they featured characters drawn from suburbia and Hollywood whose cultural systems threatened to collapse inward.
Berlin-based Andrew de Freitas made a number of 16-mm film and video works which challenge the audience’s perceptions of everyday places and activities.
Photographer turned film-maker Gavin Hipkins made a number of short works that adapted 19th-century literary references to contemporary settings. The quarry (2013) addressed the post-earthquake reconstruction of Christchurch, with a voiceover based on the writings of John Ruskin.
Sorawit Songsataya is an artist situated between post-medium and post-internet art. He combines available online footage, documentary, music and films with footage he has shot himself.
Historically the experimental film community has suffered from stuttering institutional support.
Alternative Cinema, an Auckland film-makers’ co-operative (1972–86), offered a workspace, equipment, a magazine and collegial engagement. A smaller film-makers’ co-operative was set up in Christchurch in 1973.
Creative New Zealand (which provides government funding for the arts) funded The Moving Image Centre in Auckland (1993–2011). The centre offered staff, space and public programming for ‘the promotion of creative media arts’.1
Various government funding schemes for independent film-making came and went.
The New Zealand Film Archive, which became part of Ngā Taonga in 2014, holds copies of most of New Zealand's experimental films, but in 2014 many of those works remained uncatalogued. Many existed only as primary material, awaiting preservation and duplication within their original film medium and transfer to contemporary digital formats that would make them more available for research or study.
A lack of institutional support meant that over the years many film-makers ceased to produce films, overwhelmed by cost, lack of screening opportunities and lack of critical response. Others, like Alex Monteith, decided to work predominantly in video. Some film-makers were supported by galleries.
Those who worked in art schools, universities or polytechnics got time and financial support, as their film work counted as research. Others, such as Martin Rumsby and Gabriel White, continued to work alone or in close co-operatives, operating on small budgets.
Some film-makers have expanded their practice, working across multiple screens, mixed media, or making work that can be experienced by the casual visitor at any point in a looped presentation.
A comprehensive history of New Zealand experimental film is yet to be written.
In 2012 CIRCUIT Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand was set up by Creative New Zealand. It was dedicated to distribution of works, research and professional artist development.
The term ‘experimental film’ suggests techniques and materials forged in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 2014 it was debateable whether the term was still relevant; many experimental film-makers had emerged from the context of contemporary art, often moving between film and digital platforms, or combining the moving image with object-based installation in physical spaces.