I am no film critic but I am a big film lover. I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival since I was a wee lass and I enjoy art house and indie cinema with the best of them.
Two weeks ago I found myself sitting down with a lovely young film-maker from Ukraine who had moved to Wellington via her degree at the Dubai branch of New York University, studying film. She had relocated to study a Masters at Victoria University of Wellington and is hoping to crack into the movie business here. I often get emails from people who have recently moved to Wellington, wanting to have a coffee and get to know someone ‘IRL’ in the city. And would would I be to say no to such wonderful invitations! That’s one of the reasons I have this blog - to create connections with people from all over!
As we chatted, we stumbled upon an interesting thread to our conversation - what makes New Zealand movies unique. With a new director having been appointed to the New Zealand Film Festival for 2020, I felt like it was a good time to share here on my blog what makes Kiwi film special, in my own non-educated opinion, and share some of the best in our back uncatalogued.
(Slight side tangent: For those of you who are interested in Wellington and the New Zealand International Film Festival - the NZIFF 2019 will be going ahead in July/August this year and the line-up has been programmed with significant input from Bill Gosden who retired at the end of March after 40 years of service. I can’t wait to see what new New Zealand films come out! It will be delivered by the existing NZIFF programming team which includes Programme Manager Michael McDonnell and Programmer Sandra Reid. After an international recruitment process the New Zealand Film Festival Trust Board have confirmed a new Director to lead the New Zealand International Film Festival from 2020. Marten Rabarts (Ngāti Porou / Ngāpuhi), current head of EYE International at the EYE Film Museum Netherlands, has been appointed to join the organisation as Film Festival Director – Kaiurungi from October 2019. Anyway - back on track).
In the meantime, here is what I think of New Zealand film. English essay hats on please!
1. Main/key themes touched upon in NZ films?
New Zealand cinema, is in my opinion, frequently touches on themes of isolation; being an outsider with a need to belong. We see this theme reflected in many Kiwi films across all genres - from Taika Waititi’s ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ (2014) (about undercover vampires living in Wellington) through to ‘The Piano’ by Jane Campion. New Zealand filmmakers tend to reflect the fact that New Zealand is far away from the rest of the world, and that we constantly feel like the underdog or outsider.
Kiwi films are often dark, and even when humourous. For example, while ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ was a hit because it’s humour about a squad of less-than-cool Vampires highlighted how being ‘the weirdo’s’ who sit outside the mainstream can affect anyone - even the un-dead. Misfits around the world could relate to the gags about awkward friends who don’t always love each other, but stick together, no matter what (in between bloodsucking, of course). Humour is almost always dark and witty in Kiwi flicks. We don’t do dumb-comedy.
Gender and tradition indigenous culture is also a popular theme. For example, the highly successful movie ‘Whale Rider’ was a huge international success for New Zealand, all about a girls quest to appease her grandfather who wishes she were a boy. Similarly, ‘The Piano’ focuses on Ava, a mute who moves to New Zealand from England in the 1800’s with her new husband. Ava only communicates through the music she plays on the piano. She is subjected to abuse and rape by the men around her who see her as a possession to be owned.
2. What are the topics, issues, themes that are perhaps overlooked and there can be more films representing those?
New Zealand films typically share Pakeha or Maori stories. However, our country is changing. We don’t yet have many stories that have reached mainstream success about minorities who are migrants or refuges in the New Zealand film catalogue. Films made in New Zealand to date tend reflect the established face of what it is to be Kiwi. There also aren’t many films about about queer perspectives either. This is changing, however, with content such as the web-series ‘Tragicomic’ which was a retelling of Hamlet by local film-makers ‘The Candle Wasters’ (currently on a hiatus). It would be great to see more films from diverse perspectives about New Zealand and what it means to be a New Zealander in the future.
3. What are the common character types?
The archetype in New Zealand film is the isolated loner who wants a better life, alientated from the rest of society (whether outwardly or inwardly). We see this in ‘Boy’ (2010), ‘Hunt For The Wilder-People’ (2016), ‘Whale Rider’ (2002), ‘Heavenly Creatures’ (1994), ‘In My Fathers Den’ (2004) and many more. We even see this to a lesser extend in how Frodo comes across in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Our lead character tends to have a burden to bare that only he or she can carry. There is an inner quest that he or she must embark on that will lead them towards greater self knowledge.
4. What do films say about communities and families?
Many New Zealand films comment on our post-colonised society and the challenge for Maori to find their place. This is most famously depicted in ‘Once were Warriors’ (1994) - a film which was a huge hit on the international circuit in the 1990’s. It has been criticised, parodied and much debated for arguably showing a dark and slanted view of life in New Zealand. Whether pretty or not, this film proved it was impossible to ignore the poverty and disillusionment that sat in the underbelly of New Zealand’s clean, green image.
There is often a parent/child dynamic that creating tension in New Zealand films - the gap between old and new, young and grown-up. For instance, Boy’s father in ‘Boy’ wants his son to love him and yet he doesn’t know how to be a father. Again, ‘Whale Rider’ is a story of intergenerational family love which can’t be easily resolved until there is a shift in mindset, usually brought about by the courage of a young person.
Some Kiwi stories on film end on a positive note where a connection is regained. Others however prefer to be less conclusive and realistic. They can end unresolved, with questions lingering about the future - not only for our character but for New Zealand’s cultural identity.
5. Culture of film viewings: do people still go to the theaters, what films get most attention, etc?
We still love going to the movies, but Netflix and other streaming platforms are getting more popular here. This means Kiwis are starting to stay home more to watch Kiwi movies. The exception is the annual International New Zealand Film Festival which always creates buzz. There’s a group of passionate film addicts who support the festival and look forward to it each year! However, some New Zealand film makers have made it onto Netflix - like David Farrier’s excellent documentary ‘Tickled’ (2016) and Miranda Harcourts’ ‘The Changeover’ (2017).
6. How is film connected to urban landscape of Wellington?
Film is connected in three main ways:
(1) Wellingtonians work in the film industry; it is the home of Weta Studios, the film studio opened by Sir Peter Jackson on the back on making The Lord of the Rings. This means lots of people from overseas move to Wellington to work (or have a chance at working) for this industry. Employee rights in New Zealand film however are poor so most people are contractors and don’t get paid for holidays or sick leave.
(2) Places such as Mount Victoria, Courtenay Place and suburbs like Hataitai have all been featured in films set in Wellington (or alternatively, Middle-Earth). It may have been 20 years ago since The Lord of The Rings was made, but it is still important tourist capital for the capital. People continue to visit New Zealand and Wellington because of the trilogy and subsequent Hobbit films. This brings tourist dollar to the city. Therefore, this is something which our local people and council care about a great deal.
7. What are your must see recommendations for New Zealand films (fiction, docs, etc.)
Chronosthesia - a great Wellington love story!
Heavenly Creatures - Kate Winslet’s first film ever about two teenagers who murdered their mother.
Boy - a sad but brilliant directorial debut by Taika Waititi.
What we do in the Shadows - A quirky, mad-cap vampire movie.
Top of the Lake - I loved this dark gripping series by Jane Campion.
8. What would you like to see more on screen?
I’d love to see more New Zealand women making movies, especially movies set in contemporary Wellington!
What are your favourite Kiwi films?