New Zealand’s first filmmakers soon focused their lenses on cities. A common device was to pan cityscapes to show their extent. In 1918 William Hopkins filmed the Auckland isthmus from a hilltop, highlighting the suburban advance into encircling farmland. Another film device was to place the camera at the front of a tram or bus, enabling a virtual tour of streets. Public events such as Labour Day parades and royal visits were also captured, usually from a fixed point above the action. Film provided a new, dynamic perspective on city life. The motionless forms in paintings and photographs of cities ‘came alive’ on film: people moved, flags fluttered and traffic trundled along streets.
The government quickly recognised the publicity potential of film. The genre was established with films like Glimpses of New Zealand: Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city (1931). Opening with a panorama across the harbour, the viewer is taken on a fleeting tour of the main institutions, streets and scenic spots. With ample shots of new buildings and facilities, the film stresses Wellington’s modernity and progress. It ends with the picturesque: evening shadows enveloping ‘Wellington’s seagirt shores’.
Television advertisements also provided fresh images of cities. Among the first to do this was a 1971 Greggs’ coffee advert. A downtown office worker steps onto a balcony and looks down on the city crowd. It comprises people of different ages and ethnicities, some glamorous and others plain. An accompanying jingle includes the line: ‘Different places, many races, living in the sun’ – reflecting a belief in the growing cultural diversity of New Zealand city life. The man returns inside to drink his (then urbane) instant coffee.
Until the arrival of television in the 1960s, publicity films (including newsreels) dominated film images of cities. While the settings and cinematography became more slick and alluring, the scenery-based content and progressive themes remained the same. Long-held stereotypes of particular cities – the ‘Englishness’ of Christchurch, or wind-blown Wellington – were supported rather than examined.
Early television current-affairs programmes like Compass ditched puffery for a social documentary perspective. Reports on Auckland’s Pacific Island community, alcoholics, and Jehovah’s Witnesses highlighted the diversity and complexity of city life.
The approach was taken up by others. The National Film Unit’s To live in the city (1967) sensitively followed several Māori from rural Northland to new lives in Wellington. Paul Maunder broke new ground with Notes on a New Zealand city (1972). It cuttingly critiques issues like suburban neurosis, bored youth, rising traffic congestion and inner-city decline.
In the early 2000s documentaries like Sandor Lam’s Squeegee bandit (2007) continued to provide provocative images. It charts the struggles of Starfish, a Māori man who hustled a living washing car windows at Auckland intersections.
Images of cities in feature films have generally been critical, reflecting literary themes of urban alienation and rural redemption. The first film to tackle these issues was Broken barrier (1952). Tom (a Pākehā) forms a relationship with a Māori girl, Rawi, on an East Coast farm. He follows her to the city, where prejudice and cultural clashes fracture the relationship. Tom runs away to become a forestry worker, but returns to the East Coast to chase Rawi.
Suburbia is another motif. Middle age spread (1979) satirically examines the dysfunctional relationships of attendees at a suburban dinner party. The punk cult classic Angel mine (1984) parodies the quarter-acre suburban dream, following the erotic fantasies of a young couple constricted by suburban life. The most harrowing depiction of suburbia is Once were warriors (1994). It focuses on an alienated suburban Māori family terrorised by a brutal husband and father.
Since then more quirky and demonstrative images have emerged. In Scarfies (1999) a group of Dunedin university students (scarfies) move into an abandoned flat only to discover a basement marijuana plot. They sell it but things get tricky when the grower returns. Sione’s wedding (2006) is a comedy about four immature Samoan men in suburban Auckland who have to find ‘real’ girlfriends to attend a relative’s wedding. It proves a challenging task. The film celebrates the whimsical humour and multi-culturalism of modern city life.
Separation city (2009) is a comedy-drama about a group of married couples who seek new lives outside their stale relationships. Set in the homes, workplaces, cafés and coastline of Wellington, the film positively captures the city in ways few have before.