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How pioneer John O'Shea kept the indigenous film industry alive

O’Shea on the 1964 shoot of Runaway. Photo/Supplied

John O’Shea knew long before anyone else that making distinctively New Zealand films meant recognising the importance of Māori.

A 1993 television documentary, Breaking Barriers, told the story of Pacific Films and its dogged supremo John O’Shea, who virtually single-handedly kept alive the idea of an indigenous film industry in this country in the lean years between World War II and the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission.

Reading this exhaustive history of Pacific Films prompted me to rewatch the documentary and be reminded that O’Shea, who died in 2001, knew long before anyone else that making distinctively New Zealand films meant recognising the importance of Māori.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“Most of the films I’ve made have had a Māori element,” he told the documentary-makers. “It’s hard to make a truly New Zealand film without paying due attention to the unique, special and dramatic feature of New Zealand, which is the interaction between Māori and Pākehā.”

Pacific Films’ feature filmography bears out O’Shea’s quiet pride. The first, Broken Barrier in 1952, was a cross-cultural love story that simmered with barely suppressed cultural anxiety; the second, Runaway (1964), sent a culturally adrift Pākehā briefly and problematically into a Māori community; Don’t Let It Get You in 1966 was a musical with a strong Māori component (Howard Morrison, Herma and Eliza Keil, the Quin Tikis and even a young Kiri Te Kanawa singing Rossini to enchanted kids in a whare nui).

On Franz Josef Glacier, O’Shea assists Runaway actress Deirdre McCarron. Photo/Supplied

The landmark 1974 television series Tangata Whenua was O’Shea’s first collaboration with Barry Barclay, whose Ngāti in 1987 remains both the sweetest and sharpest feature-film depiction of the way we are.

Their bitter falling-out over Te Rua in 1991 looks, in hindsight, like a foreshadowing of the gnarly issues of cultural sovereignty that we still struggle with as a nation, but in a tribute after O’Shea’s death, Barclay saluted his mentor’s commitment: O’Shea may have struggled to understand the Māori world, Barclay wrote, “but when it counted, he made the space … at a time when nobody earned any brownie points whatsoever for entering that field”.

The Pacific Film Unit, as it was initially known, was founded in 1948 by writer-director Alun Falconer and cameraman Roger Mirams, who had quit the National Film Unit (NFU) out of a desire to break free of what they saw as its craven servility to its political patrons. The NFU’s bread and butter was the cinema newsreel Weekly Review and early on in the book, author John Reid recalls that Mirams’ and Falconer’s proposals for documentaries about the parlous health status of East Coast Māori communities and Rewi Alley’s work in China respectively were rejected as too controversial. “An item on a hospital opening, with the obligatory ministerial appearance, simply would not cut the mustard,” he writes.

O’Shea, who had been working in the censor’s office, joined Pacific in 1950, the company was renamed two years later and, when Mirams left in 1957, Pacific Films became synonymous with O’Shea.

Michael King follows the Rev Dave Te Uira Manihera and Herepo Rongo during the 1972 filming of Moko, later retitled The Spirit and the Times Will Teach, which spawned the landmark series Tangata Whenua. Photo/Supplied

Reid’s voluminous and meticulously annotated history follows the company from its earliest days, when it deployed a distinctive, European-influenced cinematic sensibility in commissioned documentaries. Its first client was Hay’s department store in Christchurch and early subjects included cakemaker Ernest Adams, traffic safety, meat exporters and BP. More adventurously, in a film about a day in a postman’s life, the man toting the mailbag was one James K Baxter, whose commentary lifted an everyday story into the realms of the poetic.

Pacific created the first TV advertisement made in New Zealand, for Jockey, though its initial conception, which had Peter Harcourt standing in a bank in his Y-fronts and singlet, was adjudged too risqué for broadcast and it was recut to protect 60s viewers’ delicate sensibilities.

But O’Shea’s attitude to his work was distinguished by an prescience about cultural matters that was strikingly modern. In an address to a Unesco conference on ethnographic film-making in 1966, he outlined the view that “integration [of Māori] has brought a kind of cultural genocide” and accused enthographic film-making here of portraying Māori as “tourist bait, while celebrating the success of rapid integration”.

In short, he realised early what many don’t realise yet: that our foundational egalitarian spirit, which is in any case something of a bitter joke in 2018, is inimical to the acknowledgement of cultural difference.

Reid’s billing in this book’s endpaper as “a leading New Zealand writer and director” is perhaps extravagant, but his credentials for taking on the task of writing a definitive history of Pacific are good: his report on the state of the independent film industry was, in large part, the basis for the establishment of the Film Commission in 1978.

Given the level of detail he has supplied – at times, the narrative proceeds almost hour by hour; we are informed of the alarm that greeted the discovery that production costs on Runaway had blown out to £16,753 6s 6d – he achieves for the most part an easy readability, though there are jarring proofreading errors, particularly but not only in captions.

Still, he depicts evocatively the social and cultural climates of the eras the story covers, and the challenges film-makers faced not least from the arrogant bullying duopoly of cinema exhibition chains that, far from paying Pacific for its output, insisted on a fee for screening it. The oppressive power imbalance between Pacific and state-owned television, when it had some weight to throw around, is also well documented.

It’s not exactly bedtime reading and will appeal more to the specialist than general reader, but it’s a handsome, comprehensively illustrated record of a man Victoria University honoured in 1977 for his “tireless determination to establish an authentic film idiom in this country”.

WHATEVER IT TAKES: Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948-2000, by John Reid (VUP, $60)

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.