Director Tony Hiles on Michael Smither: Portraits (NZIFF)

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In 2009, Wellington filmmaker Tony Hiles set out to film a decade in the working life of his friend, the painter Michael Smither. Now on to the seventh episode in NZIFF’s long-running serial, which screens at City Gallery on Monday 1 and 2 August, Michael Smither: Portraits sees the 77-year-old artist setting aside increasing health issues to take on a series of larger-than-life oil portraits. Filming began in 2014 and took place over five trips to Smither’s home in the Coromandel. Hiles was allowed full access to the studio to where Smither had asked people from his daily life to sit for him.

Hiles says the theme of this episode was as easily determined as the others—with the pretty straight forward question, “What are you working on Michael?”.

Still, this improvisational approach is not without its challenges, Hiles says.

“Being there at the time sitters were visiting and trying to be invisible when filming so I didn't 'intrude' in the artist/subject dynamic. Impossible to hide though. Being jockey-sized helps!”. 

Hiles explains the original concept for the series was to explore the craft, the art, the skill, and profession of being an artist, being a painter. However, talking to Hiles, it's clear that the project is as much about diarising an artist’s life as it is about two long-time friends working together, doing what they love. The pair first worked together on the documentary One Man and the Sea (1984) and later, Flight of Fancy (1987)—and have since remained close friends. Hiles says their mutual respect for each other's practice is what made the decision to start filming the series so easy. Hiles says it is as essentially Cinema Verite in its conception as it is in its manifestation:

“Walking along the beach in the Coromandel in 2009, Michael told me he was going to retire as he had ten years of paintings to finish”.

"I said 'Why don’t I film it', the response 'good idea', and with that we went back to Smither’s studio, I got out my camera out of the back of the car and we started and haven't stopped since.”

Hiles aims to get to 2019 with episode number ten, yet admits you don’t need to have seen the other episodes to enjoy them individually. Portraits will be Hiles's eighth entry in the New Zealand International Film Festival. His debut in 2007 was the documentary Antonello and the Architect, about Wellington architect Bill Toomath's life and his passion for a Renaissance painting. He says he enjoys working with the NZIFF and hasn't looked back. "As a filmmaker I am treated with respect and my material is treated with respect”, he says, “and I’ll know quickly if this episode is a success or not as there’s a group who always turn up to the screenings and tell me straight if they like it or not”. 

After years of experience in broadcasting and on film sets (including Peter Jackson's debut film Bad Taste), Hiles enjoys running his own ship. His advice to those wanting to do the same is, “be free to fail and then you can take a risk” and “don’t give up, and don’t take no for answer, unless it’s the answer you want”.

You can hear more from Director Tony Hiles at the world premiere of Michael Smither: Portraits on Monday 1 August, 1.30pm at City Gallery Wellington | Tickets avaialble from NZIFF website > 

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NZIFF screen Michael Smither: Portraits screens at City Gallery Wellington Auditorium 

Monday 1 August, 1.30pm. World Premiere with Q&A with Director Tony Hiles and painter Michael Smither. 

Tuesday 2 August, 12.15pm

43min | E