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Story: Feature film

New Zealand’s film industry had a late start, with few films made before the 1970s. Since then everything from large blockbusters to small low-budget digital films has been made in the country, many reflecting a peculiarly Kiwi way of seeing the world.

Story by Helen Martin
Main image: Actors Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee with The lord of the rings director Peter Jackson

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New Zealanders are among the world’s keenest filmgoers. While most films watched by Kiwis have been made overseas, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, the New Zealand film industry has grown since the 1970s.

Themes in New Zealand cinema

New Zealand films have been characterised as dark and troubled, and frequently about a search for identity. Other themes that have been identified are:

  • the landscape, which is symbolic of a psychological state
  • horror or ‘unease’ (anxiety)
  • adolescence and rites of passage
  • Kiwi male culture.

Film pioneers

The earliest films made in New Zealand have been lost due to the fragile nature of film. The first were made in the 1910s by overseas crews. Early films often used Māori culture as an exotic drawcard. One New Zealander to work on early films was Ted Coubray, who first worked as a cameraman in 1921 and made important technological innovations, including a sound-on-film system.

Rudall Hayward had a 50-year career in film, beginning with black and white silent films. His To love a Maori (1972) was the first colour feature film made by a New Zealander. He is notable for including a Māori perspective in his films. His first wife Hilda and his second wife Ramai were both important collaborators.

John O’Shea has been called the father of New Zealand film. He was also interested in looking at race relations in his films, such as Broken barrier (1952).

1970s film renaissance

The arrival of television in 1960 led to opportunities to develop professional skills, and the New Zealand film industry developed. The counter-culture movement influenced film-makers such as Geoff Steven and Geoff Murphy. Murphy worked closely with other members of Blerta, a performance co-operative that included actor Bruno Lawrence.

In 1977 Roger Donaldson made a political action thriller, Sleeping dogs. Like many New Zealand films, it was adapted from a novel. Films like this led the government to set up the New Zealand Film Commission, which funds and supports local films.

Film in the 1980s

There was an explosion of film-making in the 1980s and more than 50 films were produced. Women directors, including Melanie Read and Gaylene Preston, challenged the male domination of the industry. Merata Mita’s Mauri (1988) was the first feature directed and written by a Māori woman, and the first from an entirely Māori perspective. Barry Barclay was another notable Māori film-maker.

Many iconic New Zealand films were produced during the 1980s, including Geoff Murphy’s Goodbye pork pie and Utu, Vincent Ward’s Vigil and Roger Donaldson’s Smash palace.

In the early 1980s, because film productions could get tax breaks, overseas companies invested in New Zealand-based co-productions. Many of these films had little to do with the country, but some told New Zealand stories, for example Beyond reasonable doubt, which was a dramatisation of a controversial murder case.

1990s: a maturing film industry

Jane Campion’s film An angel at my table (1990), based on the autobiography of writer Janet Frame, was initially made as a television miniseries, as was Gaylene Preston’s Bread and roses (1993), based on the life of politician Sonja Davies. Campion went on to direct The piano (1993), which, in a first for a New Zealand film, won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, and two academy awards.

Films with Māori and Pacific themes included Once were warriors, which was an international success.

Director Peter Jackson had begun making low-budget splatter movies such as Bad taste in the 1980s. His 1994 film Heavenly creatures gained international attention and by the end of the decade he was making The lord of the rings trilogy of films with Hollywood studios and US money.

2000s: the digital wave

Making films with digital cameras is generally cheaper than using film, and made lower-budget and home-made films more possible. Several development schemes and competitions were started for digital films.

Significant films in the 2000s included:

  • Whale rider (2002), directed by Niki Caro, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera
  • Te tangata whai rawa o Weneti (The Maori merchant of Venice) (2002), directed by Don Selwyn, the first feature entirely in the Māori language.
  • The world’s fastest Indian (2005), directed by Roger Donaldson after he had spent 20 years working in Hollywood, which became New Zealand’s highest-grossing film
  • Boy (2010), written and directed by Taika Waititi.

Future of New Zealand film

Working on overseas productions is one possible future for the New Zealand film industry. The country has become an increasingly popular place for international films to be made, mainly due to Peter Jackson bringing big-budget Hollywood films such as The lord of the rings and The hobbit trilogies to New Zealand, and the establishment of digital effects companies Weta Digital and Weta Workshop.

However, films are still being made that tell local stories. Recent examples include The orator (2011), the first-ever Samoan-language film, and Mt Zion and Shopping (2013), both about young Polynesian men.

How to cite this page:

Helen Martin, 'Feature film', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/feature-film (accessed 17 October 2017)

Story by Helen Martin, published 22 Oct 2014