Cinema by Fits and Starts: New Zealand Film Practices in the Twentieth Century

By Gerstner, David; Greenlees, Sarah | CineAction, February 2000 | Go to article overview

Cinema by Fits and Starts: New Zealand Film Practices in the Twentieth Century


Gerstner, David, Greenlees, Sarah, CineAction


Introduction

Former executive director of the New Zealand Film Commission (1983-1988), Jim Booth, suggests that "cinematograph expressions particular to New Zealand ..." are essential to generating income because this national expression will "do much to announce the existence of New Zealand to the world at large."(2) Barry Grant in fact identifies 1994 as "the year that New Zealand cinema established itself in the consciousness of North American film-goers."(3) He is right to the extent that in 1994 New Zealand feature film left the limited scope of North American art-house venues (as well as the historically exported newsreel-type genre) into more mainstream visibility. Academy Award winner, The Piano (1993) and Once Were Warriors (1994) made their way into North American parlance, but their economic viability still remained questionable for the New Zealand film industry.(4)

Indeed, this is the crux of an historical key concern of New Zealand filmmakers: how can the New Zealand film industry simultaneously make films that indelibly mark a certain New Zealandness for a domestic and international market, while making a financial profit both at home and overseas? More importantly, what are the conditions that define this national and international profitability or what some have recently termed, "cultural capital"?(5) In what way does the concern for overseas acceptance serve to delineate the terms under which a consecrated New Zealand film canon emerges? Finally, what are the ways in which New Zealanders creatively negotiate their cultural anxieties over the Americanization/Hollywoodization of national identity? While these anxieties are nothing new on the world scene, it is perhaps this anxiety itself that is the aesthetic sine qua non of New Zealand's national identity in relationship to its filmmaking practices. We will demonstrate that there is indeed a national set of film practices that has developed through a series of historical fits and starts.(6)

Historical Context for Filmmaking in Aotearoa, New Zealand

New Zealand's current dilemma in the face of a rapidly changing world economy (and not a dilemma only reserved for its film industry) is its population, size, and geographical location. While it is true that New Zealand's economy (under Protectionist and Social Welfare schemes during the early and mid-part of the century) was self-sustaining, the international pressure to open New Zealand's markets after World War II has had drastic social and psychological impact on the country.

Through the 1960s and early 1970s New Zealand depended especially upon Britain for its economic survival. According to Jane Kelsey, when Britain "sought more fertile pastures within the European Economic Community" New Zealand's "protected, state-centered, vulnerable agricultural economy was set adrift."(7) 1984 is generally considered the year that a radical "New Zealand Experiment" begins. With the loss of England as a major trading partner and a series of traumatic oil shocks in the 1970s, the government desperately, if not over-determinedly, set out to restructure the economic framework of the social welfare state that had been implemented under the 1930s Labour Government. The most astonishing aspect of the economic turn-around in the 1980s was its initiation by the very political party that had put the Social Welfare State into existence in the first place.

The perceived paternalistic beneficence of New Zealand's Labour Party took a sudden shift as it opened the floodgates to multi-national ownership of once state-owned industries and natural resources. The multi-nationals came, opened administrative offices throughout the country, yet they neglected to provide a stable production base in the economy. In effect, New Zealand runs the risk of becoming more a consumer society and less a production society. While the country has always relied on imports for a good deal of their industrial products (movies being one of the prominent cultural and technological imports), importation has magnified considerably leaving New Zealand in a precarious economic situation. …

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