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National Film Unit Celebrates 80 Years

Rarely seen online film footage is now available to view as Archives New Zealand celebrates 80 years since the National Film Unit was formed.

The National Film Unit (NFU), New Zealand’s state-owned film production company, is being remembered from 27 October in conjunction with the 2021 World Day for Audiovisual Heritage.

Footage ranges from a story on Aroha, a 1950s university student and descendant of Māori chiefs who tries to combine te ao Māori with a European-based way of life, to ‘Dustie’, a portrait of Wellington’s rubbish collectors going about their important work in the 1970s.

The treasure trove of New Zealand’s past can be found online at

The NFU was established in 1941 to help publicise the country’s efforts in the Second World War. By the time it was sold to Television New Zealand in 1990, the unit had made thousands of films capturing what was unique about life in New Zealand.

Archival footage is still being used today, with researcher Paula McTaggart using NFU material in her documentary series Runanga – Home of Champions, which explores the rich history of the West Coast town where she grew up.

“The films of the National Film Unit offer a unique and rich insight into our history and culture. The 80th anniversary is a great opportunity to re-discover this wonderful content,” says Caroline Garratt, Preservation Technician, Archives New Zealand.

The NFU served as a training ground for many New Zealand film makers and actors including Sam Neill, David Stubbs, Paul Maunder, Ian Mune, Bruno Lawrence, Sam Pillsbury and Hugh Macdonald. Many well-known New Zealand artists contributed to the productions of these films, including Douglas Lilburn, Denis Glover, James K. Baxter and Brian Brake.

In the late 1990s, Sir Peter Jackson purchased the former National Film Unit studios at Miramar, from TVNZ, where he established Park Road Post Productions.

Women were a significant part of the NFU and worked in roles vital to the NFU’s operations. Directors Margaret Thompson and Kathleen O’Brien were responsible for many iconic NFU productions, challenging contemporary attitudes towards female directors.

In 2011 the ‘Weekly Review’ and ‘Pictorial Parade’ newsreel series were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World New Zealand Register.

Archives NZ continues to preserve and protect the audio-visual collection through physical preservation copying and digitisation, ensuring it remains accessible and part of New Zealand’s history and culture. It’s important to future-proof this taonga due to playback equipment becoming obsolete and the age-related decay of audio-visual media.

Staff have hand-picked a selection of films from the archive and they are available on the website. These include two films that have been digitised especially for this exhibition and will be making their online premiere. Letter By Robot (1960) follows the journey of Brosco the robot walking from Wellington to Wanganui to promote the Wanganui Industries Fair. Night Flight (1951) is a documentary demonstrating how pilots use radio beams and beacons to help stay on course during night flying or at times of poor visibility.

You can also read interviews with former NFU staff and discover what Archives NZ is doing to preserve the collection for future generations.

The anniversary celebrations highlight the Ā Mātou Mahi values at the Department of Internal Affairs where an inclusive New Zealand is built through sharing people's sense of belonging and collective memory.


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