Book Review: Filming the Colonial Past – The New Zealand Wars on Screen, by Annabel Cooper

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_filming_the_colonial_pastThe New Zealand Wars have given filmmakers from early days a rich source of material.  One of the earliest filmmakers was Rudall Hayward, who initially made silent movies.  He made 3 films featuring the New Zealand Wars. They were The Lady of the Cave 1922, Rewi’s Last Stand 1925 and The Te Kooti Trail in 1927. A remake of Rewi’s Last Stand in 1940 brought this film into the era of sound.

Rudall Hayward’s family emigrated to New Zealand when he was 4 years old from England. His family came from a line of entertainers, touring with variety shows that included short films, sometimes locally made ones. Early films often depicting Māori were Europeans with their bodies dyed brown – shocking, and not at all convincing. Hayward’s instinctive showmanship combined with genuine interest in making films about Aotearoa generated community involvement in his projects.  They also drew in local townspeople and iwi.

This involvement with communities and local iwi has continued throughout the decades in New Zealand. It has become a very important part of telling of the history of how the relationship between Pākehā and Māori has developed through the centuries. The history of our own country is important and needs to be told – filmmaking is an excellent way of doing this.

Politics has also played an important part in how the stories are told, including the amount of money available to be able to portray and ensure these stories can be told.  Television played an important part in this. Television drama series The Governor and independent film Utu, enlisted Māori advisors Don Selwyn, Merata Mita and Joe Malcolm.

Full length feature films River Queen and Rain of the Children were made with mixed reception by critics and the public alike. Many saw River Queen as a bit of a disaster, with delays in production because of lack of money and one of the main actors becoming ill.

Over the years Māori have become part of the mainstream acting community but in early years of colonial film-making, they were not encouraged to apply for parts. They were not seen as having the ability to portray what the writers and directors saw as qualities which would be accepted by the general viewing public.

As well as a change in the number of Māori actors, there has been an uptick in the number of Māori directors, with a number of well known and respected Māori film directors being part of film making history worldwide. Taika Waita and Lee Tamahori are two that a number of us have heard about – especially if you are a movie goer. Taika’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016 gives a sideways glance to The Te Kooti Trail as the young hero Ricky (Julian Dennison) tells Bella (Rima Te Waita), ‘I’m a Maori warrior and that bottle over there is a British Soldier, I’m defending my wives’.

Lee Tamahori has directed a number of very successful films here and overseas but the one most of us remember was Once were Warriors, which shocked a lot of New Zealand audiences who found the subject matter rather confronting.  When he moved to Hollywood, he worked on films Die Another Day (the James Bond film from 2002) and The Edge. 

The cost of producing historical drama have continued to rise but new technologies have reduced the cost of screen stories in other genres. Most films are now shot digitally, drones have replaced helicopters, and editing has become digitised.

One area of change that most of us of the older generation have noticed is that technology has replaced travel guide books. Travellers who want to engage with the past may choose a digital guide, the Waikato War Driving Tour app, a history of the wars created by the Māori Heritage team of Heritage New Zealand in 2013. More recently, The Ministry for Culture and Heritage have developed an app – The 1846 War in Wellington. They have connected sites, allowing a traveller to follow the paths of the wars while listening to the words of people who fought at each place.

This book is certainly a comprehensive and detailed look at film-making in New Zealand. While I found it a bit heavy going at times, it was overall a fascinating and enjoyable read.  Who would it appeal to?  Anybody really with a fascination with film and TV documentary and drama productions.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Filming the Colonial Past – The New Zealand Wars on Screen
by Annabel Cooper
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN: 9781988531083