New Zealand Film: National Identity and the Films of Vincent Ward: The Development of New Zealand's National Cinema Attests to the Changing Nature of New Zealand's National Identity

By Read, Lynette | Metro Magazine, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

New Zealand Film: National Identity and the Films of Vincent Ward: The Development of New Zealand's National Cinema Attests to the Changing Nature of New Zealand's National Identity


Read, Lynette, Metro Magazine


EARLY films made in New Zealand, often by filmmakers from Europe and America, rested on a vision of New Zealand as a remote pastoral paradise; a kind of Antipodean Arcadia, populated by Maori noble savages and dusky smiling maidens. Other early films depicted various aspects of colonial life from the point of view of the colonizers, but this began to change when films such as Rewi's Last Stand (Rudall Hayward, 1940), Broken Barrier (John O'Shea, 1952) and To Love a Maori (Rudall & Ramai Hayward, 1972) attempted to come to terms with New Zealand as a bicultural society, and deal with the complicated interface between Maori and Pakeha. By the 1970s, a strand of New Zealand film had developed which had its origins in a pioneer culture of the lone man (the Man Alone myth), struggling against the odds to survive in a hostile natural environment, and often himself at odds with society. The protagonists of Sleeping Dogs (Roger Donaldson, 1977), Smash Palace (Roger Donaldson, 1981), and Bad Blood (Mike Newell, 1982) exemplified a macho sensibility that reflected the toughness and resilience of the true 'Kiwi bloke', who needed no one (especially a woman) to aid him in his battle against the natural elements, and against a society that misunderstood him.

In contrast to this frontier conception of national identity, Vincent Ward, whose films began to appear in the late 1970s and 80s, appeared at first to be the most 'un-New Zealand' of filmmakers. As this essay seeks to show, he and his work provide a particularly interesting example of the complexity of notions of 'New Zealand film'. Our assumptions about 'New Zealandness' have changed profoundly in recent years. The British migrants who colonized New Zealand in the nineteenth century brought with them the English language and culture and a strong sense of Britain as 'The Mother Country' to which many of them aspired to return one day. Even after achieving independence, New Zealand remained fiercely loyal to Britain--29,000 young New Zealanders died fighting in the defence of Britain in both World Wars--but in 1973, Britain joined the Common Market, thereby cutting many of its economic ties to New Zealand and obliging New Zealand to find new markets in Asia and elsewhere for its agricultural exports. This severing of ties with Britain strengthened New Zealanders' sense of national identity and encouraged the notion of a culture that is specific to New Zealand, a notion which has become increasingly complex in recent years in response to the changing nature of New Zealand society. Identity remains a key theme in Ward's work, and if we approach that work with a more flexible sense of what the New Zealand tradition represents, then it can be seen as significantly shaped by regional experience, at the same time as it has remained open to an unusual range of international influences.

Although Ward was born in New Zealand, grew up on a farm in a relatively isolated part of the country, and completed his training as a filmmaker in New Zealand, his films seemed to New Zealanders to call for a new frame of reference that linked him with European cinema and European art. A State of Siege (1978) and Vigil (1984), two of his early films, strongly suggested the influence of the European 'art film', in their emphasis on mood and the psychological state of the main characters, their strong authorial vision, subjective point-of-view and expressionistic visual style. Ward's first three major films were produced in New Zealand, but he then became an expatriate filmmaker, further loosening his links with New Zealand. Subsequently, however, he has returned to New Zealand to make his most recent film, River Queen, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and is shortly due for general release.

Despite most of Ward's films having been produced overseas, Ward has been described by John Maynard, a leading Australian producer and himself a New Zealander, as 'a living national treasure, astonishing and visionary.

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