The arrival of television in New Zealand in 1960 provided additional valuable opportunities to develop professional skills. Former National Film Unit film-maker Michael Forlong made a serial for the Children’s Film Foundation of Great Britain, Rangi’s catch (1973). In a first for New Zealand film, it was re-cut for theatrical release. The film was well received and marked the beginning of 11-year-old Temuera Morrison’s acting career.
The influence of counter-culture movements began to take effect in the early 1970s. Whereas radio, film and television had traditionally favoured actors with British accents, film-makers now talked about developing a distinctive New Zealand voice.
The first experimental feature was Geoff Steven’s Test pictures: eleven vignettes from a relationship (shot in 1973, released in 1975), about the failure of a rural commune. Steven also co-founded the energetic film co-operative Alternative Cinema. In the spirit of collaboration the Test pictures cast and crew, who were unpaid, lived communally in the rural house that provided the film’s setting.
Geoff Murphy and Blerta
Wellington’s anarchic Blerta (Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) was a performance co-operative that combined music, theatre and film. The film-making arm of the group, the Acme Sausage Company, with key input from director Geoff Murphy, actor Bruno Lawrence and composer and musician John Charles, made a number of short films and a six-part television series (1975). These became the basis for their first feature, Wild man (1977). It was an important precursor to later features made by Geoff Murphy and friends (known fondly as The Murphia).
Expatriate Australian Tony Williams made the second feature of the renaissance, Solo (1977), which explored issues of personal freedom, commitment and environmental protection. Solo had some Australian investment and was New Zealand’s first international co-production.
Local productions made in the 1970s were sometimes criticised as ‘boy films’, since they were almost entirely made by and about Pākehā men. This imbalance changed somewhat in the next decade. In 1987 Helen Bollinger, wife of cinematographer Alun Bollinger, and Pat Robins, wife of director Geoff Murphy, made the short film Instincts, showing the drudgery of women’s lives on the Waimārama commune shared by four film-making families.
In 1976 the rite-of-passage psychodrama The god boy – directed for television by Murray Reece, with a screenplay adapted by Ian Mune from a novel by Ian Cross – was the first feature based on a New Zealand novel. Mune’s next screenplay, co-written with Arthur Baysting, was based on the C. K. Stead novel Smith’s dream. Re-titled Sleeping dogs, this 1977 political action thriller marked a career breakthrough for actor Sam Neill and Australian-born director Roger Donaldson.
New Zealand Film Commission
The government set up the Working Party on Film in 1973 to explore the establishment of a cinema industry. The critical and popular success of Sleeping dogs resulted in the announcement of an interim film commission. One of the features it funded was David Blyth’s experimental psychodrama Angel mine (1978). Another feature was Geoff Steven’s Skin deep (1978), shot in rural Raetihi by cinematographer Leon Narbey in the documentary observational style favoured by East European film-makers. The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) was permanently established by act of Parliament in 1978 to provide financial assistance to selected films with significant New Zealand content.
Films from New Zealand literature
Two more films sourced from New Zealand literature received NZFC funding. Middle age spread (1979), directed by John Reid and adapted by Keith Aberdein from Roger Hall’s popular play, delighted audiences with its provocative satire of the white middle class. It became the first New Zealand feature to be screened by the BBC. Sons for the return home (1979), directed and written by Paul Maunder in an adaptation of Albert Wendt’s novel, exposed the racism faced in New Zealand by Pacific Island immigrants.