Story: Feature film

Page 5. The 1990s: deregulation, accolades and a maturing industry

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Jane Campion

An angel at my table (1990), an adaptation of Janet Frame‘s autobiographies directed by Jane Campion, was made as a three-part television series but was first released as a feature film. A New Zealand–Australian co-production, with some funding from Britain’s Channel 4, it richly evokes the life and work of one of New Zealand’s most treasured writers and won several international awards. Jane Campion then directed The piano (1993), another New Zealand–Australian co-production, funded largely by France. It was the first (and, by 2023, only) New Zealand film to win the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or. Campion was also the first female director to win the Palme d’Or. The piano also won New Zealand’s first Academy Awards, for best original screenplay for the script and best supporting actress (11-year-old Anna Paquin).

Desperate remedies

Arguably New Zealand’s most stylish feature, the colonial queer-themed Desperate remedies (1993), co-directed and co-written by Peter Wells and Stewart Main, won several awards and screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival.

Māori- and Pacific-themed films

Once were warriors (1994), directed by Lee Tamahori from a script by Riwia Brown based on Alan Duff’s novel, was also the recipient of many accolades. It is a harrowing story of family dysfunction and alcohol-fuelled violence plaguing an urban Māori community.

Martyn Sanderson’s Flying fox in a freedom tree (1990), an adaptation of a short story and novel by Albert Wendt, was shot in Western Samoa using a largely inexperienced local crew.

Te rua (1991), a German–New Zealand co-production directed by Barry Barclay, centres on a quest for the return of Māori carvings stolen and taken to Germany a century before.

Television turns to features

Bread and roses (1993), a four-part television series that also screened theatrically, was based on the autobiography of activist Labour politician Sonja Davies and directed by Gaylene Preston. In 1995 Preston and producer Robin Laing released the acclaimed feature documentary War stories our mothers never told us.

Television drama production company South Pacific Pictures produced its first films aimed at screening in the television and theatrical markets. While Once were warriors used a hyper-real style, its sequel, What becomes of the broken hearted? (1999), directed by Ian Mune, opted for a down-to-earth, scruffy realism.

The end of the golden weather

The end of the golden weather (1991), directed by Ian Mune and adapted by Mune from Bruce Mason’s much-loved play about a 1930s New Zealand childhood, won several international awards and was also a big hit with audiences at home.

Directors in the 1990s

Other films made in the 1990s included:

  • John Day’s thriller The returning (1990)
  • Leon Narbey’s art-house drama The footstep man (1992)
  • Harry Sinclair’s improvised and ultra-realist Topless women talk about their lives (1997)
  • Athina Tsoulis’s comedy I’ll make you happy (1998)
  • Robert Sarkies’ dark comedy Scarfies (1999)

Faking history

Peter Jackson and his collaborator Costa Botes convinced some viewers that their 1995 ‘mockumentary’ Forgotten silver was genuine. The film pretended to describe the achievements of a pioneering New Zealand film-maker named Colin McKenzie. Jackson and Botes told their story using fake archival footage and staged interviews with internationally known figures such as producer Harvey Weinstein and film critic Leonard Maltin. McKenzie and other invented characters were played by actors with long experience of radio drama, so they sounded believable but looked unfamiliar.

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson delivered more cult comedy splatter. Meet the feebles (1990) was recognised as the first creature film for an adult audience and won many international awards, as did the parodic zombie movie Braindead (1992).

In 1993 Jackson, editor and producer Jamie Selkirk and effects specialists Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger established effects company Weta, which later split into Weta Digital (specialising in computer-generated effects) and Weta Workshop (focusing on physical effects). CGI (computer-generated imagery) was important in Jackson’s next feature, Heavenly creatures (1994), a fictionalised portrayal of Christchurch schoolgirls Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, who murdered Parker’s mother in 1954. Weta was also the base for the big-budget The frighteners (1996), which had some 500 complex special effects. This film gave Jackson his start in Hollywood. In 1998 he signed with New Line Cinema to make the US$320-million fantasy adventure trilogy The lord of the rings.

How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Feature film - The 1990s: deregulation, accolades and a maturing industry', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014, reviewed & revised 21 May 2024 with assistance from Emma-Jean Kelly