Ex-pat actor New Zealander Sam Neill takes a personal journey through the history of New Zealand cinema, starting from around 1950. We are left in no doubt that this take is as viewed from his driver's window. He argues that New Zealand cinema reflects a lonely place. He sees the desolate roads of Aotearoa as symbolic of the role that journeying plays in this nation's narratives - both physically and metaphorically. He holds movies like Good Bye Pork Pie up as examples.
This documentary was made the year after Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures put him on the world stage. Neill grew up down the road from the real-life murder in this film and uses this tie-in to take us back through his childhood in Christchurch to show what New Zealand was like in the 1950s and 60s for the rest of the nation. (As narrator, he goes a bit too far setting the reminiscent mood by riding a kid's bike while wearing a child's baseball cap.) Growing up in this era, film was a night out and a part of the social fabric of society. The material on offer, however, was almost always foreign and New Zealanders liked it that way, hankering as they did to be "somewhere else." This was the days of "bodgies" and "troubled youth" watching forbidden cinematic fruit (fast cars, shoot-em-ups and Jayne Mansfield). At one point, the army was brought into the town square to control the movie-going youth.
Neill puts forward New Zealand as place seething with horror and madness, especially citing Janet Frame's Angel at My Table and the killing spree at Aramoana. Until the release of Sleeping Dogs, 1977, (starring Neill), New Zealanders on the whole didn't much care about seeing New Zealand film. Dogs (dir. Roger Donaldson) depicted authority as violent and foolish. Scenes featuring rioting protesters being subjected to police brutality eerily foreshadows the later real riots of the 1980s Springbok Tour (as covered by the documentary Patu!). Neill suggests that New Zealand film is often focused around authority or a strong patriarch that would remain with film well into later films like Once Were Warriors. Fear was a subject of study for Kiwis filmmakers. The work of early New Zealand directors like John O'Shea and John Laing (Bad Blood) is looked at to support this. In contrast to depictions of what Neill calls "psychological interiors," however, was the portrayal of New Zealand as a picturesque place, epitomised by the release of the nationalistic scenic This is New Zealand (1970). This now iconic film was produced by the National Film Unit while Neill worked there as a trainee director.
In the second half of this 50-minute documentary, Neill argues that New Zealand's national cinema gains distinction by its performers as much as its auteurs, such as the archetypal "man apart" Bruno Lawrence. This recurring "man alone" figure (based on the book) is hand-in-hand with the image of the road and the promise of freedom and anarchy that it represents. Neill sees cinema as a reflection of a nation. In this case, the reticent New Zealanders had gotten over their initial disapproval of homegrown films and began to show a real approval and enthusiasm for their own cinema. The old cultural cringe of film in New Zealand was slowly being broken down, giving rise to a cultural renaissance of film. Around this time, Vincent Ward helped bring New Zealand cinema into an era of art-house. Film also began to reflect more political commentary and a sense of Maoridom and Polynesia started to really surface.
Neill's sometimes pretentious one-sided view of New Zealand's national cinema is peppered with some quirky funny moments in his narration. Whether one agrees with his analysis of New Zealand as a place of psychological distress, he puts forward an argument worth watching. Who knew that in the ten years following this documentary, New Zealand film would rise to the meteoric heights that it has internationally.
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