New Zealand film history

A poster from a past film festival

A poster from a past film festival

The New Zealand International Film Festival is the only thing about Wellington’s winter to look forward to, even though the soundtracks are frequently drowned out by audience coughing. It’s just finished its annual run in Wellington, though continues in other parts of the country.

This year’s programme was outstanding and Te Ara staff exchanged tips and personal favourites. A few of us have also been recalling the odd and colourful origins of New Zealand’s own film-making industry.

Some of the first moving images in Australasia were shot by the unlikely figure of Joe Perry, a New Zealand Salvation Army officer and keen photographer. From 1890 he raised funds for the Salvation Army by giving shows in Australia and New Zealand on a ‘magic lantern’ – an early type of slide projector. A fire in Marton in 1896 destroyed his equipment, but Perry replaced it with the latest movie camera and projector. He could shoot, process and screen film in the same day and began making films on contract, as well as for the Sallies. In 1901 the New Zealand government commissioned him to record the state visit of the future King George V and Queen Mary. Perry also shot and toured footage of the Christchurch Exhibition and the US Navy’s visiting ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1908. In 1910, after almost 300 productions, his operation was shut down by a Salvation Army leader who thought his films ‘had led to weakness and a lightness incompatible with true Salvationism’.

Two years later a dapper French director named Gaston Méliès arrived in Wellington as part of a world tour to shoot films in exotic locations. The government sent him to Whakarewarewa, the model Māori village in Rotorua, where he met Reverend Frederick Bennett, the superintendent of the local Māori mission. Bennett led a fundraising concert party whose members were all expert at interpreting Māori cultural customs for an international audience. Although Méliès had brought his own professional actors to New Zealand, he used members of Bennett’s group for all three of the features he shot in Rotorua. One of his American cast later told a reporter that, ‘The Maoris are born actors. In this respect they knock all the other natives we ever came across endways.’

Méliès’ three New Zealand movies were the first feature films made in this country. They screened in the US during 1913 but apparently nowhere else, and later disappeared altogether. However, it is not impossible that they may someday reappear. In recent years parts of a film shot by Méliès at Angkor Wat, in present-day Cambodia, were rediscovered. Future film festival audiences may yet see his pioneering Rotorua productions showing what one US reviewer called, ‘the customs and character of a people so wholly and strangely different from ourselves.’

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