Book Review New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting The Past
New Zealand’s rich, vibrant history is worthy of study itself. The running histories and cultures of the ‘Pakeha’ (New Zealanders of European – mainly British – descent) and the indigenous Maori have fascinated historians and filmmakers alike. From Rudall Hayward to Peter Jackson, New Zealand cinema has thrived and its enviable reputation, in no small part, is due to the historical film. New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting The Past examines the affect the historical film has had on the New Zealand film industry and the defining of the country’s national identity.
The tagline for 1981 New Zealand film was: “Tomorrow is the harvest of our yesterdays.” The historical film has always been vital in cinema. As scholar Marcia Landy puts it, “filmmakers have engaged in the centuries-old tradition of grappling with the present by writing about the past.”
There has been, according to the contributors of New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting The Past, no comprehensive study of the role of the historical film in New Zealand. In Interpreting The Past, the evolution of the New Zealand historical film is explored with select titles, including Broken Barrier, Mauri, Illustrious Energy and The Piano, examined in greater depth to better explain changing attitudes. So, do not expect any substantial study of The Lord Of The Rings; it is not really about New Zealand history, apparently. New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting The Past is an informative guide to the country’s national cinema and national identity and will help any cineaste better understand the significance of New Zealand’s cinematic heritage.
This comprehensive and surprisingly accessible anamnesis begins with Alistair Fox’s essay on Rudall Hayward. Considered by many film scholars and makers to be the “father of New Zealand filmmaking,” Hayward was a pioneer director who first starting making films in the 1920s. Focussing on the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, between Maori and Pakeha, Hayward’s Rewi’s Last Stand (1925) and The Te Kooti Trail (1927) celebrate the colonists’ achievements over the indigenous. His 1940 remake of Rewi’s Last Stand, however, coincided with the centenary of The Treaty of Waitangi, where the Maori concede sovereignty to the British, and so has a very different attitude towards race relations. Fox argues that Hayward set a precedent of exploring history through film in a more progressive fashion. Jeanette Hoorn and Michelle Smith continue an examination of the films of Hayward, particularly the ‘community comedies’. A series of 23 silent films, each with an alliterative title, like A Daughter Of Dunedin or Winifred Of Wanganui, they are more populist films. They are a record of ordinary people in their own towns and cities, but more importantly they are “about the whitening of New Zealand and the introduction of British culture.” Hoorn and Smith cite the ‘See Yourself in the Movies’ genre as living history. Their essay makes for fascinating reading about the early attitudes towards cinema. Not from the filmmakers, but from the paying audiences.
The history of New Zealand, like many other countries, is one of urbanisation. Rural settings inhabited by Maori are changed to urban locations. Or, as Harriet Margolis puts it, “a saga of strong pioneers settling a virgin territory,” which makes the western apposite as a genre for New Zealand’s history. Through exploring interesting films like The Te Kooti Trail, Utu (1983) and Crooked Earth (2001), Harriet Margolis asks if the western is able to comment on New Zealand’s contemporary political and social events.
There are some particularly passionate pieces of film study and criticism, but the tone of the collection is certainly academic.
The 1970s and 1980s in New Zealand were, as Cherie Lacey puts it, “a troubled time in Aotearoa New Zealand.” The “anxious years” saw race relations between Maori and Pakeha reach a key stage, which gives Michael Black’s Pictures (1981), a film about conflicts between Maori and British colonial forces in the 1870s, a whole new importance. Lacey’s study serves to show how even weaker films – Pictures is not well regarded – can still hold tremendous value. This is juxtaposed effectively by Olivia Macassey’s examination of Vincent Ward’s River Queen (2005). Lauded by indigenous New Zealanders, but not well received critically, it helps raise the following argument: the historical film will always be more effective to a particular audience (based on nationality, ethnicity, etc.). To consider these films properly, the historical period must be understood as well as the time of production.
Annabel Cooper concentrates on Maori chief Titokowaru and his War of 1868-69 with the New Zealand government. Her essay, although an interesting study of how New Zealand historical films are still biased with either a Maori or Pakeha view, requires previous knowledge of Titokowaru. For such an enigmatic character in New Zealand history, not enough is explained about this chief.
In 1950, Journey For Three attempted to encourage emigration from the UK to New Zealand and move away from a cinematic focus on historical wars and conflicts. Sigley’s erudite evaluation concludes with a consideration of the reception the film received. Despite it being commissioned by the government, film critics and scholars thought it was a realistic representation of “the existential and physical challenges that migration to New Zealand could provoke.”
Broken Barrier (1952) continues this idea of changing attitudes toward New Zealand’s conflict-filled past. As Barbara Brookes explores, it both launched the career of John O’Shea and followed the relationship of a Pakeha man and Maori woman. That the film came out after the Second World War is crucial as the post-war period saw an increase in Maori urbanisation. As well as entertaining audiences and achieving commercial success in America, O’Shea’s film did indeed attempt to break barriers, and Brookes’ study of its achievements is both perceptive and edifying.
In the ninth essay of Interpreting The Past, Janet Wilson delves into the cinematic representations of the Maori, and Australian Aborigine, as something more than ‘the other’. In Once Were Warriors (1994) and the extraordinary Whale Rider (2002), New Zealand colonialism is “dehistoricised and depoliticised”. Wilson’s consideration of Ten Canoes(2006) stresses indigenous storytelling as a “process;” oral history passed on to new generations. A sublime film – the first feature to be made in an aboriginal language – Ten Canoes symbolises a shift in indigenous races to an attitude of “greater self-determination.” The only flaw with Wilson’s study is paucity in the discussion of Niki Caro’s Whale Rider – again with Cliff Curtis – but this is an entirely subjective viewpoint.
Mauri (1988), according to Bruce Harding, is “the distinctive work, the defining text, of a postcolonising New Zealand cinema.” Set in the 1950s it portrays ‘Maoritanga’ values in a period when more Maori were migrating to urban areas. There is a lot of Broken Barrier’s influence in Mauri, but Merata Mita’s film goes even further. It “insists on bridging the two primary cultures of Aotearoa… without diluting the indigenous one into patronising gestures of assimilation or vacuous biculturalism.” Harding’s passionate advocacy of Mauri and accomplished documentary filmmaker Mita is inspiring. It will certainly tempt you to find a copy of the film if you have not already seen it.
As will Alison McKee’s essay on Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and its historical context of the Parker-Hulme murder. Moving away from the gory ‘splatstick’ genre (Bad Taste, Braindead), and before the cinematic milestone that was The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Heavenly Creatures is a perfectly measured piece. Unable to be labelled clearly in any genre, and with a respectful depiction of a difficult event, the film has been subject to “numerous scholarly readings.” McKee’s study is a highly entertaining and informative addition to the analysis of a remarkable piece of cinema.
Hilary Radner’s essay on screening women’s histories and Estella Tincknell’s consideration of the importance of historical accuracy in film both use Jane Campion’s The Piano as its subject. A critically acclaimed film, its place in New Zealand cinema – especially as a historical film – is assured. Even if it is mind-numbingly dull. Campion, “New Zealand’s prodigal daughter,” made The Piano with the desire to honour the women of the country’s past. Tincknell claims that Campion’s work is “marked by a careful staging of the past for a contemporary audience” – they show an adroit understanding of the past. The hauntingly evocative score by Michael Nyman, for example, shows both Romantic and Post-Romantic sensibilities. The costumes as well blend “verisimilitude and expressiveness.” The Piano succeeds in capturing an historical accuracy and centralises women’s history, so is an interesting subject of study.
The final essay by Bruce Babington concentrates on migration, mainly Chinese in New Zealand and how this is portrayed in small-scale, low-budget Illustrious Energy (1987). Babington’s meticulous and thorough essay shows why Illustrious Energy is, as he confidently claims, “required viewing for any serious thinking about the filmic approaches to New Zealand’s national past.”
New Zealand filmmaking continues to flourish; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will reach our screens this year. New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting The Past is a scholarly, erudite investigation of the country’s past and its choices of subject matter for each thoroughly researched essay are discerning and inventive. There are some particularly passionate pieces of film study and criticism, but the tone of the collection is certainly academic. Anyone interested in historical films, film studies or New Zealand in general have a lot to take from this work. It is likely you will put it down with a list of films you want to see, and that can only be a good thing.
Release date: 23rd May 2012 / Authors: Alistair Smith, Barry Keith Grant & Hilary Radner / Publisher: Intellect
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