Rain and the Tradition of Art Cinema in New Zealand (1). (New Zealand in Focus)

Article excerpt

WHILE RAIN (CHRISTINE JEFFS, 2001) is a film overtly steeped in New Zealand culture and landscape, from one perspective it is not a typical New Zealand film but a European style 'art film'. Its emphasis on the psychological rather than the physical, and its subtlety are very different from the violence and special effects that characterize so many New Zealand films. Yet from another perspective, it is another example of what represents New Zealand's most important film tradition in artistic terms and in terms of critical recognition. This 'other tradition', which draws on elements of the European-style 'art film', has in its quieter way, made more impact internationally than the low budget horror films, comedies and road movies that often dominate perceptions of New Zealand film.

The most influential statement of what characterizes New Zealand cinema is Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill (Sam Neill and Judy Rymer, 1995), in which the theory is posited that New Zealand's national cinema is a reflection of our troubled psyche. While Neill and Rymer have drawn attention to some psychological aspects of New Zealand film, clearer distinctions could have been made between the different manifestations of the 'troubled reflection of ourselves' that they see in so many New Zealand films. The discussion of this aspect is primarily limited to one strand--the blokey 'man alone' phenomenon, epitomized by films such as Smash Palace (Roger Donaldson, 1981) and Bad Blood (Mike Newell, 1981). Cinema of Unease points to John Mulgan's novel Man Alone, based on the true story of Stanley Graham, as being the literary antecedent of this filmic strand. (2)

There is however, another strand of NZ film which stems from a different literary tradition and that is what might be described as New Zealand 'art cinema'. As opposed to the action-orientated 'man alone' strand, the films which can be identified as belonging to this art cinema tradition are mostly made by women--with the exceptions being two of the early films by Vincent Ward, A State of Siege (1978) and Vigil (1984). These films centre around female protagonists and tell the story primarily from a female perspective. Like other films in this tradition, they emphasize mood and the psychological state of the characters rather than the film's action and have a character-driven plot. Typically, this type of film is associated with 'high art', especially literature. Other films in this vein include Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table (1990) and The Piano (1993), Alison MacLean's Crush (1992) and Nicky Caro's Memory and Desire (1998). Christine Jeff's Rain belongs to this primarily feminine filmic tradition.

Lawrence Jones has referred to the New Zealand literary tradition that these films are associated with as 'the other tradition' in New Zealand writing. (3) He argues that there is a 'direct line of development' from Katherine Mansfield to Robin Hyde, Janet Frame, Yvonne du Fresne, Patricia Grace and Keri Hulme and he describes the primary unifying feature of this literary tradition as being 'a concern for the inner life and subjective perception'. (4) It is significant that a number of the films mentioned as stemming from this tradition are adaptations of literary works. Vincent Ward's A State of Siege, for example, is an adaptation of a Janet Frame novel of the same name and Rain is adapted from a novella of the same title, by Kirsty Gunn.

The development of the art film in New Zealand owes a great deal to producers John Maynard and Bridget Ikin, both Fine Arts graduates with an interest in the New Zealand art scene. (Maynard, before he began producing films, was the director of the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth). Bridget Ikin worked on Vigil as production assistant and later produced Alison MacLean's Crush and Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table. John Maynard produced Vigil and The Navigator, a Medieval Odyssey (1988) and without his belief in Vincent Ward's talent and artistic vision, and his sheer persistence in attempting to find funding for the films, they would quite possibly never have been made. …