Page 1: Biography
Dennis, Jonathan Spencer
Film archivist, broadcaster, critic, writer
This biography, written by Emma Jean Kelly, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Film buff, archivist, award-winning radio producer and film critic Jonathan Dennis had a sardonic wit, a brutal honesty and a genuine passion for his work. As founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive he pioneered a bicultural approach to preserving the country’s film heritage which embraced Māori values. He also presented The film show on Radio New Zealand, co-authored several books and curated a number of film exhibitions. At the time of his death the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand described him as ‘distinctive and lively…. His clothing and personal attire were generally a visual feast, and he was readily recognisable on dour Wellington streets – the archetypal flamboyant gay man, with his own endearing twist.’1
Jonathan Spencer Dennis was born in Taumarunui on 27 September 1953, the fourth and final child of Patricia O’Reilly and her husband, Lawrence (Lawrie) Dennis. The couple ran the Chateau Tongariro, a grand state-owned 1920s-era hotel at the base of Mt Ruapehu; Jonathan later remembered its ‘splendour’ and its ‘extraordinarily spacious, beautiful lounge, with dripping chandeliers and the great picture window looking over the mountains.’2 The family’s accommodation there was nonetheless basic: two rooms at the end of a corridor. In 1958, they moved to the Hermitage Hotel, at the base of Aoraki/Mt Cook, where Lawrie was appointed manager.
Jonathan was drawn to the films played for Hermitage guests, a mixture of National Film Unit tourism fare and American and British feature films in which he imagined himself the star. His uncle Ron O’Reilly, chief librarian at the Christchurch Public Library, was a friend and early champion of modernist artists such as Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston, whose work appeared on his walls. O’Reilly shared and encouraged his nephew’s interest in film and the arts.
A series of live-in governesses provided Jonathan’s early schooling, and he boarded in Christchurch for post-primary education. Boarding school was a shock, as he transitioned from treasured youngest child to living with a crowd of boys at Cathedral Grammar School and then St Andrew’s College. He ‘practis[ed] invisibility’ to avoid the ‘horrors’ of bullying and used the cinema as an escape from a masculine world he could not relate to – and to feed his growing passion for film.3
Jonathan knew he was gay from a young age. His parents were open minded and understanding, comfortable with his sexuality and supportive of his relationships. He had a handful of significant partners in his life, including Ferry Hendriks, Sef Townsend, and Fergus MacGillivray; the friendships endured even after the relationships ended.
University and theatre
In 1968 the family moved to Wellington, and Jonathan finished his schooling at Wellington College before commencing a BA in English Literature at Victoria University of Wellington. A lecture by pioneer New Zealand film makers Rudall and Ramai Hayward introduced him to the country’s early film-making traditions, and he attended ‘crazy repertory screenings’ at the Lido, Roxy and Princess theatres in his spare time.4
Jonathan revelled in the university’s theatre scene, and was the youngest member of the Amamus Theatre Group, which was formed with a revolving cast in 1971. Their director Paul Maunder worked for the National Film Unit, and the group began creating television programmes. Jonathan participated in the production of Landfall – a film about ourselves (1975) about a Foxton commune, and Gone up north for a while (1972), about an unwed young woman falling pregnant.
Joining the film society
Jonathan joined the Wellington Film Society in the 1970s and helped select films for the New Zealand International Film Festival. Public interest in film culture was increasing, and Minister for the Arts Allan Highet was sympathetic to implementing state support for the film industry. Jonathan had helped catalogue the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies’ national collection, and in 1977 became a member of a senior working group to campaign for the formation of a national film archive. The New Zealand Film Commission was established the following year, though it was not specifically charged with preserving film. David Gascoigne, Jonathan and National Film Unit archivist Clive Sowry addressed the 1979 New Zealand Federation of Film Societies conference about the pressing need for a dedicated film archive. They argued that New Zealand’s ‘national culture’ would be diminished by the loss of its film heritage which would surely occur if its films continued to be housed in poor facilities.5 Jonathan and Sowry were then in the process of sorting through a million metres of old nitrate film owned by the National Film Unit, which were held in an ammunition store (in case the nitrate exploded) at Wellington’s Shelly Bay.
Sowry was then the only formally trained film archivist working in New Zealand, but Jonathan hoped to join him. He decided to study film archives overseas in 1979–80, supported by a small Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant and money from his parents, friends and the film commission. He attended the Cannes and Berlin film festivals and visited film archives, directors and exhibition spaces. He went on the unemployment benefit for a time after returning home, but soon afterwards, in 1981, the film commission drew up a trust deed for a national film archive, and Jonathan was appointed its founding director and sole employee.
The New Zealand Film Archive, to Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua
The New Zealand Film Archive was an independent charitable trust which set out to collect and preserve films either made in or relating to New Zealand. It brought together films from private collections, commercial studios and some newsreel broadcasts. As Jonathan later noted, the archive’s philosophies concerning preservation and public access were initially modelled on European film archives, which focused on making the films accessible to the public.
Jonathan soon realised that the archive needed to adjust its practices to embrace Māori cultural values and tikanga, and engagement with Māori. An interest in Māori concerns became central to his vision for the archive. In the early 1980s he sought out Ngāti Whakaue kuia Witarina Harris, star of The devil’s pit (1929), and she eventually became the archive’s first kaumatua. Harris, who became a personal friend and ally, was also central to his growing awareness of and interest in te ao Māori. The archive’s collection included a series of highly significant early twentieth century films depicting Māori, made by early ethnographic filmmakers such as James McDonald. Jonathan and the other staff regularly took these and other films to their communities of origin, such as Matahiwi marae and Jerusalem on the Whanganui River, where they were rapturously received. Jonathan’s decision to involve iwi Māori in the cataloguing, editing, archiving and exhibition of film related to them made the archive unique, both locally and internationally, and the rewriting of the archive’s constitution to focus on Te Tiriti o Waitangi was an important step towards co-design and meaningful partnership with Māori. The 1988 constitution/kaupapa supported the archive being a ‘storehouse/pataka tuturu of moving image materials/taonga whitiahua in accordance with the Treaty principles of partnership’, and particularly stated that ‘mana tuturu’ (roughly translated as Māori intellectual property rights) would be upheld.6 The archive incorporated the name Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua into its title in 1989.
Jonathan also ensured these films were exhibited in culturally appropriate ways, such as screening them in conjunction with Roger Neich’s exhibitions Māori art for America and Nga Taonga Hou o Aotearoa: New National Treasures in 1983 and the epochal Te Māori exhibition in 1987. When Te Māori returned to Aotearoa the archive launched a national tour of a collection of films called He Pito Whakaatu ā Ngā iwi Māori: Films of the Tangata Whenua. Jonathan worked in the international context too, curating with Sergio Toffetti a museum-based documentary exhibition, Te Ao Marama: Il Mondo della Luce, Il Cinema della Nuova Zelanda, in Turin, Italy in 1989. It remains New Zealand’s largest-ever international film retrospective. Lily Amohau, a Ngāti Whakaue kuia from Rotorua, accompanied Jonathan to the exhibition and supported and ‘warmed’ the films there, providing context and connection to iwi.
In the late 1980s, the film archive was given footage commissioned by Te Puea Hērangi depicting the building of waka taua for the 1940 centennial commemoration. Jonathan asked acclaimed filmmaker Merata Mita (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāi Te Rangi) to create a film using the archival footage, and her Mana waka (1990) was edited by Annie Collins at Tūrangawaewae marae in the Kīngitanga heartland.
Film maker Barry Barclay (Ngāti Apa) believed that the 2001 film archive memorandum regarding returning of films to iwi ‘somehow vindicated Jonathan’s stumbling prescience back in the first years of the archive, and showed, at least in film archive circles, how he was much ahead of his time’.7 However, Jonathan’s tenure as director was sometimes rocky; he was very forthright, and his passion created both wonderful friendships and strong animosities. He resigned in 1989, frustrated with the archive’s direction as it began transitioning into a larger organisation.
Publications, exhibitions, The film show
Jonathan remained involved in the field of film history, but also expanded into contemporary film review and the creation of soundscapes and other cultural productions. In 1993 he co-curated the Italian Pordenone Silent Film Festival with Paolo Cherchi-Usai. The retrospective film exhibition, entitled Aotearoa and the Sentimental Strine: Making Films in Australia and New Zealand in the Silent Period, presented archival New Zealand films to an international audience, with Harris accompanying the screenings and ‘warming’ the films to provide connection between the living and the dead. Jonathan co-edited the textbook Film in Aotearoa New Zealand with Jan Bieringa (1992, second edition 1996), which included significant essays such as Leonie Pihama’s critique of Once were warriors (1994) and work on queer and experimental film making. Elizabeth Alley interviewed him about the publication for her Radio New Zealand show Anthology, and subsequently suggested he turn the publication into a radio series, which became Voices on film. This began a fruitful decade of film reviews and soundscapes, often co-created with Alley, who became a good friend. A number of their productions attracted local and international radio awards. Jonathan described this as some of the most enjoyable work of his career, creating what he called ‘cinema for the ears’.8
Jonathan’s own programme, The film show, commenced on Radio New Zealand in 1994 and continued until shortly before his death. This review show, often sound-engineered by Gareth Watkins or Jeremy Ansell, critiqued contemporary films and the international film festival, replete with sound bites, effects, music and witty dialogue; it was playful and thoughtful, and often featured Jonathan’s favourite word: fabulous. In 1995 Jonathan and Alley released a World AIDS Day soundscape entitled A day without art, incorporating experimental film maker Derek Jarman’s Blue with local artists’ descriptions of being diagnosed. The following year he created the Centenary of cinema soundscape for Radio New Zealand while also producing a short film celebrating a century of cinema. Two years later Jonathan and Annie Collins completed Mouth wide open, a film about pioneer local film maker Ted Coubray, featuring interviews recorded shortly before Coubray’s death. Jonathan and Matthew Leonard also produced the millennium soundscape Ocean of time (2000), a joint Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Radio New Zealand production consisting of playful juxtaposition, montage and serious political and social commentary.
Jonathan’s interest in preserving Māori cultural heritage remained strong, and during the 1990s he compiled two compact disc collections of waiata drawn from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s archival collection. Ana Hato raua ko Deane Waretini: legendary recordings 1927-1949 (1995) documented the work of singers Ana Hato and Deane Waretini (Ngāti Whakaue and Tūhourangi), while The Tahiwis: historic 1930 recordings (1998) presented the work of Kingi and Pirimi Tāhiwi (Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Whakaue) and their family. He also co-authored the book The silent migration, stories of Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club (2001), with Patricia Grace (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, and Te Āti Awa iwi) and Irihapeti Ramsden (Ngāi Tahu and Rangitāne). It used new oral histories of club members to tell the story of the iconic Wellington inter-iwi rōpū, which produced some of the archival recordings Jonathan had made available on compact disc.
Jonathan Dennis died of cancer, at home in Wellington, on 24 January 2002, aged just 48. During his final months, surrounded by friends and family, he issued instructions regarding who was and was not welcome at his funeral, was interviewed for two significant oral history recordings, and was the subject (with Harris) of Peters Wells’ film Friendship is the harbour of joy (2004). Jonathan and his friends were aware of the importance of his legacy, and spent his final months creating a record of his work and correspondence which would enrich the work of future film makers, researchers and historians.