“[T]he space in which historical and cinematic narratives intersect remains an insufficiently examined but potentially fecund area of study.” (Reid Perkins cited on p. 16)

The remarkable success of New Zealand cinema is all the more impressive for its relatively brief course. The “new wave” of this national cinema dates back to just the late 1970s. Some such as Ian Conrich have also identified a Second Wave in the 1990s when new filmmakers emerged to produce highly accomplished celluloid works that circulated widely and captured the imagination of a global audience: Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994), The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994) and An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990), amongst others. The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) series has been pre-eminent among New Zealand feature films that have produced what Alfio Leotta, amongst others, refers to as the phenomenon of “film-induced tourism” (1). Before the late 1970s a feature film industry scarcely existed in New Zealand. Indeed, in the 1950s and ’60s film production, such as it was, existed almost entirely under the auspices of the National Film Unit (NFU), and obeyed the strictures of documentary realism and state ideology by churning out picturesque and idyllic stories featuring the landscape. To emphatically illustrate this point it is worth noting that Roger Mirams (who left the NFU in 1947 to form the independent Pacific Film Unit) and John O’Shea produced the only truly New Zealand feature film (Broken Barrier, 1952) to be made between 1940 and 1964. It is no accident that Broken Barrier – discussed in this volume by historian Barbara Brookes – addresses bicultural relations as this theme has long been a key concern of New Zealand cultural producers and mythmakers.

The rise of national cinema in Aotearoa/New Zealand has some similarities with Australia: it led a tenuous existence in the early decades of film production, was moribund in the 1950s and ’60s largely due to the sheer weight of the Hollywood and British imported product, followed by a renaissance from the 1970s underwritten, to some extent, by government support. But this superficial similarity between the two settler societies should not obscure some fundamental differences between them in an era of decolonisation and a shift toward cultural independence. First, whereas a number of key works of Australian film and television in the revival period centred on Australians in overseas wars (especially World War I), one struggles to think of equivalent subject matter in New Zealand cinema. A foundational concern of that industry rested on relations between coloniser and colonised, a lineage that can be traced back to the “father” of New Zealand cinema, Rudall Hayward, and his groundbreaking epics on the New Zealand Wars – Rewi’s Last Stand (1925) and The Te Kooti Trail (1927). Much New Zealand cinema of the late 1970s and early 1980s echoed anxieties in relation to the nation’s unfinished colonial business – a subject much less commonly touched on by Australian filmmakers of the day (See Cherie Lacey, “Unsettled Historiography: Postcolonial Anxiety and the Burden of the Past in Pictures”, pp. 99-118). That weighting toward bicultural relations on screen is reflected in the choice of essay topics in this volume, with over half of the contributors addressing that crucial concern.

Furthermore, whereas Indigenous Australia was still, at best, peripheral to the consciousness of most white Australians, the 1970s marked the beginnings of a political and cultural renaissance among Māori that would later be reflected on the big screen by Māori filmmakers. Stuart Murray notes the coincidence of this shift toward cultural independence and a frequent unease in articulations of the national imaginary that partly turned on scrutiny of Pākehā (white New Zealanders) culture and questions about legitimacy of the foundations of Aotearoa New Zealand as a settler society (2). This interrogation of the national spirit in the era of decolonisation is perhaps nowhere better crystallised than in Mereta Mita’s activist feature length documentary Patu! (1983), about the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. This seminal event in New Zealand national history was marked by greater civil conflict than at any time in the nation’s history since the Great Strike of 1913. The context of the tour was a growing coalescence between the Māori renaissance and “an emergent middle-class Pākehā political consciousness”. By the time of the tour the tiny social movements of the 1960s had broadened their support-base substantially, and the causes they pursued – including opposition to the tour – had become interwoven in complex ways with nationalism (3). Significantly, Mita’s hard-hitting cinéma-vérité documentary makes an explicit link between the racism of apartheid South Africa and that at home.

It is estimated by the editors that over 20 percent of New Zealand’s fiction feature films have taken up historical themes, yet there is a very significant gap between historical film output and the literature that seeks to interpret these visual texts. This edited collection dedicated to interpreting the past using the vehicle of cinema is therefore to be welcomed, especially as it contains some fine essays that add significantly to a very underdeveloped field. The volume itself arose from the XIVth Biennial Conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand at the University of Otago, Dunedin in late 2008. A quick browse of the contributors at the back of the volume confirms my anticipation that the majority of contributors work in film or media studies rather than history departments. Indeed, only one writer identifies as an historian and this piece of evidence alone is surely an important clue in the puzzle that explains the paucity of literature on New Zealand historical film. Historians are rarely trained in reading audio-visual texts and so tend to vacate the field to scholars in other disciplines who are. However, this volume and other work beginning to emerge on New Zealand (and Australian) film points strongly to the value of cross-pollination between disciplines in the deconstruction of historical media texts whether film, television, advertising or myriad other visual forms. For example, Marc Prensky has described the current generation transitioning from schools into the workforce and tertiary education as “digital natives”, a group for whom graphics precede written text as one of the defining features of their engagement with learning (4). Historians would do well to engage with this visual turn so that they are better positioned to make a vital contribution to this expanding field of knowledge, one that holds enormous potential in raising historical consciousness. Such a transition would also require the involvement and intervention of historians in the many and varied forms of public broadcasting that deliver historical content from traditional documentary forms to mock documentary, from fictional feature films to historical reality television.

The editors proclaim three key purposes for their volume: to explore how these historical films illuminate New Zealand identities and their reconfiguration over time; to examine the various sources of provocation for filmmakers in exploring these issues on celluloid; and to investigate how history has been used to tell these stories. Given the ongoing role of historical film as an integral part of the postcolonial revisionist project, this does indeed provide fertile ground for such a collaborative venture. An elastic interpretation is offered in relation to what constitutes “historical” film. In the process, the editors introduce the notion of pastiche, a practice of mixing the past with the present that makes very deliberate use of anomaly and anachronism. Various themes related to this are taken up by many of the authors in their essays. One recurring thread is the notion of occluded or hidden history. Race relations provide the most significant example, but there are other approaches such as the camp counter-cultural Desperate Remedies (Peter Wells and Stewart Main, 1993), set in Auckland around 1840. This film can also be seen as historical in the sense that it takes the conventional features of a heritage film and subverts them by introducing an invented gay discourse – one that provides for a male homosexual gaze rather than the traditional audience for this genre.

Cherie Lacey’s chapter on Michael Black’s Pictures (1981), is commendable for its sustained engagement with historiography, as is Annabel Cooper’s “Tracking Titokowaru Over Text and Screen” on Māori chief Riwha Titokowaru, considered to be “perhaps the greatest war leader either of New Zealand’s peoples have ever produced” (5). As Cooper explains, visual histories of the New Zealand Wars relied on the interpretation of historian James Cowan and its underlying imperialist discourse until the 1980s, when it was displaced by more critically revisionist scholarship. This revisionist approach was led by historian James Belich who also wrote and narrated his own television series Ngā Pakanga Nunui o Aotearoa (The New Zealand Wars, 1998). It was Belich’s work, in particular, that rescued Titokowaru from collective amnesia.

Janet Wilson’s chapter, “Approaches to History in Some Recent New Zealand and Australian Films”, advances some very interesting ways of thinking about the representation of Indigeneity, and the comparative discussion of settler societies in particular. Nevertheless, I have two qualms with such an approach in the context of this volume. First, this comparison is fudged in the book’s Introduction. More importantly, given the very different historiographies and preoccupations of these two national cinemas it seems difficult to justify this comparison without addressing the sharply diverging historical trajectories of the two countries. Whereas New Zealand cinema acknowledged the relationship between its two peoples as central to its colonial history, and was marked by an anxious transition into the postcolonial era, some of the key works of Australia’s “new wave” effectively erased that very colonial past. There is no better illustration of this point than Peter Weir’s highly successful Gallipoli (1981). A superb evocation of the ANZAC Legend, the film supports the notion of Gallipoli as a white (male) creation myth that renders non-whites invisible (including Aboriginal servicemen who remain largely hidden from mainstream history).

20th century subjects are granted a more limited place in this volume. Nevertheless, the book does survey some of the nation’s iconic female subjects and directors, notably Janet Frame and expatriate filmmaker Jane Campion. Alison McKee’s chapter on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson’s cinematic representation of the 1954 Parker-Hulme case, also contributes to the discussion of female icons, but this time in relation to crime. McKee’s engaging discussion of the case explores the collision of history, memory and fantasy. She argues that the film preserves the multiple meanings of the case and therefore constitutes a rich text. Although seemingly not aware of all of the most recent scholarly literature on the case (6), McKee’s current research project – a book length study of the many and varied representations of the event over time and across different media – will be of great interest to fans of Heavenly Creatures as will the most recently published book on the case by lawyer and true crime writer Peter Graham (7).

A few of the book’s chapters are quite quirky: Bruce Harding’s use of neologisms – “ethne”, “Westocentric”, “educultural” – had me scrambling for the dictionary as did a few archaic uses of language. Leon Narbey’s rare and evocative film, Illustrious Energy (1987), about two Chinese sojourners on the Otago goldfields in the late 19th century, is a fascinating case study in its own right. The back story to the production of Illustrious Energy, its loss and then retrieval in Britain almost 20 years later, is a significant and revealing story in the context of New Zealand cinema and the Chinese diaspora; although this theme is touched on in Bruce Babbington’s discussion in the final chapter of the book, it is subjugated to a more prosaic narration of the film’s content. The many threads touched on in this chapter resist resolution as it concludes rather abruptly.

Overall, this is a rich collection of essays on New Zealand film, history and identity and one that is well overdue. It serves as both a provocation for further film-based research, as well as an inspiration to those who seek to tease out the rich multilayered textures of its boundary crossings. The volume is generously illustrated and includes some excellent images garnered from such sources as the New Zealand Film Archive and Archives New Zealand. The filmography included at the back of the book, divided into the primary films discussed and other films cited, is a useful referencing device and a nice complement to the bibliography. Appropriately, this volume is dedicated to the memory of Mereta Mita (who died in 2010), and whose role in Fourth Cinema (Barry Barclay’s term for “cinema made by Indigenous peoples with a kind of Indigenous essence”) was highly significant (8). New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past will be an important reference work for some time to come and a benchmark for other settler societies that seek to open up colonial history to greater scrutiny through visual media.

Alistair Fox, Barry Keith Grant and Hilary Radner (eds.) New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past, Intellect, Bristol, 2011.


  1. Alfio Leotta, “Romantic New Zealand: 1920s and 1930s’ NZ Government Publicity Office Travelogues”, Making Film and Television Histories: Australia and New Zealand, ed. James E. Bennett and Rebecca Beirne, I.B. Tauris, London, 2011, pp. 98-99.
  2. Stuart Murray, “‘Precarious Adulthood’; Communal Anxieties in 1980s Film”, Contemporary New Zealand Cinema, From New Wave to Blockbuster, ed. Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray, I.B. Tauris, London, 2008, p. 178.
  3. Geraldene Peters, “Patu!”, Making Film and Television Histories, p. 46; and James Belich, Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000, Allen Lane, Auckland, 2001, esp. pp. 518-19.
  4. Marc Prensky, “How to Teach with Technology: Keeping Both Teachers and Students Comfortable in an Era of Exponential Change”, Emerging Technologies for Learning vol. 2, 2007, pp. 40-46: http://herkomer.wikispaces.com/file/view/emerging_technologies07.pdf.
  5. Cited in Cherie Lacey, “Reconciling History in Vincent Ward’s River Queen”, Making Film and Television Histories, p. 85.
  6. See, for example, James Bennett, “Fifty Years of Parker and Hulme: A Survey of Some Major Textual Representations and Their Ideological Significance”, Journal of New Zealand Studies no. 4-5, October 2005-October 2006, pp. 11-37; and Alison J. Laurie, “Heavenly Images”, Journal of New Zealand Studies no. 1, October 2002, pp. 131-50.
  7. Peter Graham, So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World, Awa Press, Wellington, 2011.
  8. Jennifer L. Gauthier, “Whale Rider”, Making Film and Television Histories, p. 172.