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Our Identity on Film

Our Identity on Film

By Kelly Burt
July 20, 2012

When we think of New Zealand film, what is it that we think of? Do we think of our most successful filmmakers? It may surprise you to learn that some of our most prized films are technically not considered New Zealand films. Although Jane Campion’s The Piano depicts both our land and aspects of our historical culture, as well as being directed and written by a New Zealander, it was co-produced between Australia and France. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is technically a Hollywood film series, Niki Caro’s Whale Rider a co-production between New Zealand and Germany. These films have offered to us what we may believe is a reflection of our cultural identity – films that have been influenced by those who have not experienced our own culture. How do we understand ourselves when our cultural products are informed by outside perspective? Here lies the importance of both national production funding and local filmmaking. While the existence of independent film as a whole is vital to our cultural identity, this fact also acts to highlight the vital role documentary plays. While it is problematic to state that documentary shows us how we are, there is an element of realism attached to the documentary form that provides us with the type of engagement with knowledge of our culture that the fiction film simply does not replicate.

It seems we are hesitant to view our own culture as it is, seeking the same kind of romanticism that glazes our view of other cultures. Lord of the Rings offered us a view of our landscape that we had never seen before. Suddenly, what we once took for granted was now a space for epic storytelling. Because of The Piano, our once dreary beaches could now win Oscars. That is not to say that we should not be proud of our country, but it does bring into question what we felt we were missing before. Perhaps it was never clear what it meant to be a New Zealander or what the country meant to us. Should it be the job of those who reside outside our culture to provide us with this identification?

The documentary tends to be downplayed in this country, and while it is true that within each national cinema the non-fiction film does not have the same popularity as its fictional counterpart, both the public and funding bodies in New Zealand place limited emphasis on the positive aspects of not only short format but more often, the longer format documentary. This means that we are not regularly seeing our own documentaries in the cinema, we do not produce many feature length documentary films for that to be an option, and are thus limited to an intimate exhibition within our own homes through television.

Our television viewing options have become even more restricted recently due to the funding cuts to both Stratos and TVN7. The closure of these broadcast stations has severely limited our ability to produce films from our own cultural perspective, which seems imperative for a reasonably young country that is bombarded by outside influences. The importance of this is not to create an identity, but to ascertain who we think we are – to understand our culture as a whole and the sub-cultures that exist within it, as well as individual experiences and isolated events that occur. We are pervaded by the current affairs format, which in itself is not a negative thing, but without a balance, there exists a deficiency. It is very difficult to cover a substantial amount of information within a short format documentary such as the current affairs programme. The reasons for the shorter format are entirely financially based. Shorter format documentaries are cheaper to create and screening is far easier as more segments can be fit into a specified space of time. The consequence of this is that we are not allowed the time to fully understand a particular aspect of society, to see its intricacies.

Film funding bodies, such as the New Zealand Film Commission and Creative New Zealand, exist in this country in order to provide resources to those who wish to create films. This is a valuable resource; however there is a hindrance to this system in that these bodies still require a level of conformity in personal message and also limit the scope of production due to limitations on those who produce films. The most likely receivers of funding are those who are established in the film industry, which isn’t to say that those people don’t face difficulties. These established bodies require particular content within the films that are created. While this allows New Zealand to speak from a local perspective, it restricts the voices of filmmakers enough for there to be limitations on what viewers receive and understand about our own country. The Documentary New Zealand Trust, a charitable organisation that works to encourage New Zealand documentary filmmakers and promote their importance, has been working long and hard since 2004. Each year they exhibit films from New Zealand and around the world during their Documentary Edge Festival, which is held in both Auckland and Wellington annually. It is this collaboration that keeps the form going in this country, but exhibition should be far more supported than this.

While we can never hope to have an entirely truthful or whole representation of our own culture, what is most important is our independent voice. Independently created documentaries need a means of exhibition – if the public cannot access these documentaries, what is the point of making them? This is an issue that plagues film community as a whole, not only those that create documentaries.

While my focus has been placed on identity, and this is by no means a comprehensive account, I must also mention the importance of artistic expression. However, this subject would require an entirely separate discussion. As people who reside within the boundaries of a country, it is important to understand what exists within it. This helps us to interact within the country, recognising social norms, gaining knowledge of our surrounding spaces, and allowing a level of compassion for those who exist around us. But not only this, we are also then able to present our voice to the world. Without varied representation, we are all at a loss.


Kelly Burt has a M.A. in Film Studies from Victoria University of Wellington.

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