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Mothers Day: New Zealand cinema makes history; & the NZFC breaks a record!

This is an historic weekend for New Zealand cinema. Three New Zealand feature films have opened in cinemas to great reviews. And as far as I know the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC), our state funder, did not invest in the development or production of any of them, although I understand that it contributed to post-production costs for two. There’s Operation 8, directed by Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright:

There's  Hook Line & Sinker, directed by Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader:

And there's Stephen Kang’s Desert, which premiered at the Pusan International Film Festival last year:

(And Stephen Kang’s short Blue, also independently made, has been selected in Competition at Cannes, for La Semaine de la Critique).

Exciting times. But they’ve been coming for a while, and they reflect exciting times in global cinema. Feature films developed and produced outside the NZFC have well outnumbered those made with NZFC support for some years now, and it was inevitable that in time any differences in quality would diminish. The precursor of this trend was last year’s The Insatiable Moon, now on release in the United Kingdom. But THREE films on one weekend. That’s amazing. Many congratulations to all involved.

I like it that women co-directed two of this weekend's three films, and that Mike Riddell wrote and Rosemary Riddell directed The Insatiable Moon, and that another mixed gender team Tom Burstyn and Barbara Sumner Burstyn made This Way of Life, short-listed for an Oscar this year. There’s a fascinating study in there somewhere, about mixed gender domestic and professional partnerships, which I wrote about a while back, in another context (I have no idea whether Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright’s professional partnership is also a domestic one). And another study's in there too, about the various ways these partnerships conceived, funded and are now distributing these features.

Operation 8 had some funding from Creative New Zealand’s now-defunct Screen Innovation Production Fund. Hook, Line & Sinker’s funding depended on a strong community developed over years of work (their last film was Taking the Waewae Express). They’ve paid everyone the same and some cast and crew share ownership of the work. The Insatiable Moon’s funding started conventionally and went through many transformations, wonderfully documented in Mike Riddell’s blog (see sidebar). I don’t know about Desert, but Stephen Kang is a commercials director at Curious Film, who are his producers, and I imagine that this has helped him resource his work.

By coincidence, this week the NZFC announced a New Zealand season at the Barbican in London, in association with the New Zealand High Commission, New Zealand's Ministry for Culture and Heritage and NZ-UK The Link Foundation. It is part of the City of London Festival. Films included are Taika Waititi’s Boy and Eagle vs Shark, Roseanne Liang’s My Wedding & Other Secrets, Chris Graham’s Sione’s Wedding, Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, Ian Sharp’s Tracker and Brad McCann’s In My Father’s Den. Only one (16%) of the six narrative features written and directed by a woman.

It seemed a slightly odd selection to me. Why Tracker, currently on release in the UK? Why one film released in 2004 (In My Father’s Den), one released in 2006 (Sione’s Wedding) and another in 2007 (Eagle vs Shark)? After some feedback from others, I wrote on the NZFC’s FB wall:
Is this the complete list? My London friends are really disappointed that Home By Christmas isn't included, because of its current relevance and because they're interested in innovative film-making. And also want to see This Way of Life, because they've heard so much about it and it was short-listed for an Oscar. Who selected the programme, and what criteria did they use? Will there also be short films, and if so, how will they be selected?
The NZFC’s response, unsurprisingly, was incomplete:
Hi Marian, yes that’s the complete list selected by the organisers in London.
[Who were the organisers? The Barbican all on its own? And/or others in London at the time?] Home by Christmas wasn’t chosen this time around as had already screened at the BFI London Film Festival, which was great. This Way of Life isn’t on the list either as has already played at the Barbican. Thanks for asking about short films – Take 3 will be screening too. It’s a short from Roseanne Liang the director of My Wedding and Other Secrets, which is of course also showing. So lots to see you Londoners – get out there!
I was left to work out possible criteria for myself. One criterion seems to have been that the selection should prioritise particular New Zealand producers. I inferred this from the way the films are paired. Two from Whenua Films, two from South Pacific Pictures and two from T.H.E. Film, including Tracker, which seems to fall squarely within the same category as Home by Christmas and This Way of Life, since it’s not only been shown in London but is still showing there, right now. The choice-by-producer would make sense if those involved in the selection wanted to introduce New Zealand producers to new possible funders in Europe. If that’s the reality, or part of it, why not say so? And if people at the Barbican selected the films, who advised them? The ‘new’ NZFC has often talked about transparency, and some transparency would have been good here.

It would also have been good if the Ministry for Culture & Heritage and the others in the partnership had stepped back a bit to take a wide view, and asked “Where are New Zealand’s points of difference to showcase to the world?” “What’s happening right now in New Zealand cinema?” “What other new movies match the warmth and vitality of Boy, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, My Wedding & Other Secrets?”

On this weekend’s evidence, one of New Zealand cinema’s points of difference is that a diverse group of skilled filmmakers is using New Zealand’s famous number 8 wire techniques to make inexpensive films-from-the-heart that are finding appreciative audiences. Doing just what lots of others are trying to do around the world. And doing it very well indeed. To showcase them in London would make us all proud and give New Zealanders and others there a real treat.

New Zealand also has a strong cohort of women writers and directors. And Home by Christmas, popular as well as innovative, is arguably Gaylene Preston's best work; she's in her prime. Including only one narrative feature with a woman director isn’t good enough, and isn’t compensated for by including a woman-directed documentary, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. The Barbican programme, no doubt funded in part by the taxpayer, isn’t doing justice to the vibrant world of the second decade of twenty-first century New Zealand cinema.

My sadness about the Barbican selection is compounded by the latest NZFC newsletter. It details its recent feature development investments and provides another historical moment. For the first time since I started my research six years ago, in this round the NZFC has invested ZERO in development of projects written and/or directed by women. ZERO. As I showed recently, NZFC investment in the development of women’s feature projects has been dropping steadily for a while, so I guess that this dismal news is as inevitable as this weekend's strong releases. But is it acceptable?

The newsletter also details the 13 narrative features that the NZFC’s funded in some way, but are not yet released, from one for which financing has closed, to one which is coming soon. Two (15%) have women writers and directors. One more has a woman writer.

lisa gornick there is no revolution without women making the agenda

What can be done? At our state funder's place here in New Zealand the celluloid ceiling is firmly in place, though it’s easy to ignore it when there are intermittent gains, which appear to be unsustainable because the NZFC has no coherent gender policy. I think it’s time for Women in Film & Television NZ (WIFT) to step up, with strong support from the other professional guilds, all of which have many women members. I hope that NZFC’s funding of WIFT does not preclude the organisation from working for change, especially as it seems that its members would like WIFT to advocate for them. A recent WIFT survey showed that 70% of its members believe that advocacy is the most important issue for the organisation, even though its strategic plan lists events and professional development above advocacy. And members’ desire for WIFT to engage in advocacy is not new; when WIFT canvassed its members before contributing to a pan-Guild response to the NZFC review last year, members wanted gender equity to be included in the WIFT response. If WIFT needs one, Nga Aho Whakaari provides an advocacy model that works, and it retains its NZFC funding. If women aren't applying for development money, perhaps the NZFC needs to reconsider its approach, as MOFILM is doing. Alternatively, perhaps the NZFC is no longer necessary. A film-maker lottery could replace it? But that’s a discussion for another day. Today belongs, really, to Operation 8, to Hook, Line & Sinker, and to Desert. To The Insatiable Moon. To This Way of Life.

Finally, Mother’s Day offers an opportunity to express love and gratitude and respect to two national 'mothers'. Warm greetings to our pre-eminent writer, Patricia Grace. I hope that by this time next year a film adaptation of her novel Cousins will be in production, as longed for by the late Merata Mita. Warm greetings to Gaylene Preston, too, now New Zealand’s senior film-maker, who has mothered many other film-makers, while continuing to produce her own remarkable body of work.

Coming soon: the next episode in Help An 'Activist' Today - Questions Please! It's complicated...


  1. Excellent blog. Thank you for the comments. This is such a comprehensive and clear analysis of the environment we are working in. Sumner Burstyn

  2. Thanks so much, Barbara. I'm never sure that I make sense, so it's terrific to read your comment.

  3. Brilliant and staunch discussion Marian! Since October last year we at The Insatiable Moon have been talking with the NZ High Commission re screening the film at the Barbican festival. Highly pissed off that we have been passed over without any communication. Big ups to your advocacy of genuinely indie films and the role of women directors.

  4. Thanks, Mike, love that feedback. And it's always great to hear another bit of the story!

  5. To me it is more significant that independent films and new ways of making, funding, distribution and thinking are ignored, rather than the gender of the makers. I think it a scandel that in times of high unemployment, when low-paid workers and beneficiaries are taking a hammering, film funding institutions (and the institutionalised filmmakers and producers) continually refuse to think outside the square, and spend such huge amounts of money on films that will never even recover their costs - and that means almost every film that goes through the NZFC. What I find really distasteful, is that for all the emphasis placed on 'knowing who your market is', the funding gatekeepers completely ignore the fact that it is women over 30 who make up by far the largest cinema going audience. In the absence of a publicity budget, we continue to struggle to keep Hook, Line and Sinker on screens, despite our first week's GBO($27,000) being only $10,000 less than Tracker ($10,000,000 budget)! I'm sure we could have made Hook, Line and Sinker on the Tracker publicity budget alone!

  6. Having read the NZFC newsletter...haven't all three of those films received post production funding? I dont believe the NZFC is the be all and end all for making good NZ Films. Instead of poking out your tongue how about instead celebrating the fact that such wonderful films can be made without the help of the NZFC.

  7. Yes, Hook, Line and Sinker received $24,000 post-production grant from the NZFC for sound mix, colour-grading, picture post-production and file preparation for distribution. Operation 8 something similar. The others, I don't know. What we in Torchlight Films (Hook, Line and Sinker) are about about is working to change the culture of film-making, financing and distribution in the country, to work towards a sustainable way of making and distributing films SO THAT MORE INDEPENDENT FILMS CAN BE MADE with a little more grace and ease than has been our own personal experience in making two feature dramas. That is an enormous challenge in such a money-hungry industry where notions of sustainability are not part of the language, (in fact there is a positive resistance to it) because, I believe, it challenges the entire dominant filmmaking culture.

  8. Always love to receive comments, so thank you, Andrea and Lucy.

    Andrea, I agree with you that there needs to be more discussion about sustainability and film here in New Zealand. I understand that until very recently "Once Were Warriors" was the only New Zealand feature that had made a profit from distribution in New Zealand; perhaps "Boy" has now done the same. As you may know, a filmmaking sustainability standard has recently been established in the United Kingdom, and some organizations and projects have used it: I’d love some discussion about how something similar could be introduced here.

    As for gender, I’m with Jane Campion, who in Cannes last week said in response to reactions to Julia Leigh’s 'Sleeping Beauty": 'We really need women's voices out there...People that may have problems with this film, they are just not used to a strong feminist voice being shown on the screen'– I don’t know why Jane Campion believes that we need women’s voices or whether she believes that they need always to be strong feminist voices. She's also said 'Women may be 50% of the population but they gave birth to the whole world, why wouldn't we want to know what they think and feel?' But I know I want many more films about the diverse ways that women express how they see and experience and understand the world, and that I share this desire with many others.

    Lucy, I’m not sure if your comment refers to Andrea’s comment or to my post, but if it refers to the post, here’s why I’m concerned about NZFC funding decisions and discuss them in relation to films made without NZFC development and production assistance. The NZFC exists to administer the New Zealand Film Commission Act and it uses public money. I think it’s essential to ask who benefits from NZFC investments, how, and why, whether its decisions are being made wisely, and whether the public is getting value for its money. If features made without NZFC development and production investment are being made more cheaply and sustainably than those it invests in and are of comparable quality, what are the implications?

    Also, the NZFC decision-makers are public servants. They have to administer the Act fairly and reasonably and in accordance with the law. New Zealand law includes the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which New Zealand ratified in 1985, so the NZFC as a state agent must encourage the participation of women in public life on equal terms with men (article 7). Screen-based storytelling is certainly part of public life. But in my view—supported by statistics—because the NZFC has no gender policy it does not encourage women’s participation in its programmes on equal terms with men. How has this affected the current situation? Finally, is women filmmakers’ strong representation in most of the features I wrote about evidence that when the NZFC privileges male filmmakers and fails to invest in women filmmakers it limits the potential vitality of New Zealand cinema?

    And if the post didn't convey my pleasure in the films I wrote about, here it is now: these are films I celebrate.

    And thanks again for your comments!

  9. More on gender via Erica Jong's Fear of Fifty (1994), just found at the library:
    "The new hype trumpets that fifty is fab because the baby boom run[s] things...But I look around and see the best minds of my generation still bucking the system. Women directors are still begging male studio heads for money; women writers and editors are still pleading their causes to male CEOs; women actors are still scrambling for a handful of parts that truly reflect their lives; women artists are still paid and exhibited far less than their male counterparts; women conductors and composers are still seldom heard. Women everywhere are settling for half a loaf or even crumbs. Not losers, these women, but the fiercest and brightest. Not complainers, not whiners, and certainly not lazy, but still subject to a relentless double standard." Except for women writers, this double standard is alive and well in New Zealand, for women artists of every kind and of every generation. Every so often there's a little shift, some hope. My dream is that the end of the double standard for women writers here will influence a similar deep change in all the other arts.

    But I'm now witnessing the difficult ageing of the 'fiercest and brightest' as they deal with poverty & ill-health and it's heartbreaking.


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