This is New Zealand: The film that took the country by storm

by Paul Little / 24 November, 2018

Hugh Macdonald’s three-screen, 21-minute salute to Aotearoa.

Before there was a New Zealand film industry to speak of, belching out attention-getting global blockbusters, there was one New Zealand film that took the country by storm: This is New Zealand, a technically adventurous ad for our land made to screen at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.

International expos grew out of the world fairs that became popular in the mid-19th century. Goods, products and entertainment from as many countries as cared to turn up were showcased to visitors. They aren’t quite as big a deal as they once were. The most recent – in 2017 – was held in Kazakhstan, which may be why you didn’t notice it. We weren’t there but have signed up for Dubai in 2020.

For the Osaka Expo, the National Film Unit-produced This is New Zealand was made to be shown on three screens. Sometimes each screen tells its own story, sometimes all three are combined into one image, to never less than spectacular effect. There’s no narration, just live sound and a stirring soundtrack.

There are vertiginous swooping shots across alps, rivers and farmland. There are bustling crowds going about their business. Misty mornings and majestic mountains. All social and cultural boxes are ticked off.

The film was years in the planning and execution and, technically, hasn’t dated at all. It’s a 21-minute snapshot not just of people and places, but also of prevailing attitudes, in terms of what it chooses to show.

In some respects, it is very much of its time. On the evidence here, mid-20th century New Zealand was a giant farm with a few cities scattered round it. And it’s doubtful such a film, if made today, would kick off with music by Finnish composer Sibelius.

Hugh Macdonald (left) and cameraman Kell Fowler take time out at Expo 70 in Osaka.

Hugh Macdonald (left) and cameraman Kell Fowler take time out at Expo 70 in Osaka.

The film drew so much attention at Expo 70 that those of us stuck back here were consumed with curiosity. We just had to find out what the rest of the world was talking about. Consequently, cinema screenings were arranged and hundreds of thousands turned out to see it. It ran for months. It was genuinely engrossing, moving and thrilling, with nary a special effect in sight – just the reality of New Zealand.

Since then, it hasn’t been easy to see the film. It’s not online [an excerpt of it is available at the top of this article]. There was a rare opportunity to view it in all its three-screen glory at Wellington’s City Gallery earlier this year, and a DVD was produced in 2014. It includes That was New Zealand, a short feature covering the background and impact of the film. It’s available to buy online from director Hugh Macdonald’s website

Macdonald, whose name should probably be writ larger in the story of New Zealand cinema, was the creative driving force behind the project. At just 25, he was given the job of making the National Film Unit’s biggest project to date.

How big? Peter Jackson big. According to his website: “Between January and July 1969, three crews were simultaneously on the road filming, and at the end of the main shoot cameraman Kell Fowler spent a further six weeks filming from the air.”

Macdonald produced a remarkably diverse body of work over several decades, including TV drama and an Oscar-nominated animated short film The Frog, the Dog and the Devil. But it is This is New Zealand for which he will be best remembered.  

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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