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This Auckland: Documents

Frank Stark Introduces This Auckland, Sunday 29 November 2016

You’re about to see an award-winning New Zealand film you have quite likely never heard of. This Auckland won the Lion of St Mark at the 1967 Venice Biennale Film Festival, with the international jury saying that it was awarded for ‘the brilliant counterpoint of images and sound that reveal the personality of the director’. The director, Hugh Macdonald, didn’t stop there. His 1987 film The Frog, the Dog and the Devil was nominated for a Best Animation Oscar and he is still an active producer today.

Macdonald started as a trainee at the National Film Unit in 1962 aged 18. The NFU was founded in 1941 on the model of British wartime film production and put its first title on screen that year. Stanhope Andrews’s Country Lads was a profile of New Zealand soldiers, inspired by Adolf Hitler’s scornful description of them as ‘poor deluded country lads’.

The Unit’s principal output over the coming years was newsreels: 459 Weekly Reviews were followed from 1950 by more than two decades of monthly Pictorial Parades. By the time the newsreels were retired, television was booming and cinema operators were starting to resist the long-standing formula of the national anthem, some shorts, and a rush to the nibble nook before the main feature. In this changing environment, the Unit’s output was starting to look and sound dated, and, within ten years, it had been largely reduced to the role of technical support and laboratory for the booming New Zealand film renaissance.

It is difficult now to convey the extent to which Wellington dominated the media culture before 1990. Head office really was in charge. The abandoned Avalon Centre, the sold-off NFU building nearby, and the sculptures on the Broadcasting House lawn are the archeological remains of how things used to be and reminders of how thoroughly the reforms of Roger Douglas and others tipped media supremacy towards Auckland.

While Aucklanders—and for that matter independent film and television makers all over the country—might have grumbled, life was pretty good at the NFU in the 1960s. In Macdonald’s words, ‘We could do what we wanted, as long as it wasn’t offensive to whichever administration was in power at the time. We were frequently allowed to play with ideas we had. That was an incredible creative freedom.’ And that liberality is quite evident in This Auckland.

The film lingers for thirty seconds or so on the geology of the isthmus and then skips over 800 years of Maori sole occupancy and 100 more of colonisation before beaming down to the corner of Queen and Wellesley in 1967. It uses quick cutting, freeze-frames, and a patchwork of music to build a montage of a city with plenty going on downtown and at the beach, some nice houses, and a lot of empty-looking motorways.

Although the film was a collaboration with the NFU’s Auckland-based cameraman Lynton Diggle, its commentary has a distinctly Wellington tone. Ostensibly it is scripted for an international audience, but there are plenty of winks for local viewers. Auckland tropes familiar today are already visible in the film—traffic, the weather, and real estate all feature strongly. And the locals are archly noted for their ‘continual struggle to be in vogue with overseas trends’. But there are also puzzles for twenty-first-century viewers: How long has it been since horse racing was ‘the national pastime’? In what ways did the Anniversary Day regatta ever resemble ‘the Orient with a facelift’?

Some of the humour also sounds a little thin now. ‘Young New Zealanders like to travel overseas for new experiences. This is the ambition of every 18-year-old office girl and the destiny of almost every 18-month-old lamb … Both groups travel extensively, but the office girls usually return.’ Casual sexism wears a bikini or a raceday silly hat.

At the time, the NZ Herald gave it pretty short shrift: ‘As a flippant and superficial essay, This Auckland passes the time.’

Today, the film still holds interest as a travelogue to the foreign country that is our past. It is probably only truly nostalgic to those who were actually there, for most it evokes a city which is perhaps surprisingly lively and multicultural. It is quite remarkable how a city can look so small-town from the air and yet so urban at street level.

Most significantly, though, it turned out to be a useful first draft for Macdonald’s magnum opus, This Is New Zealand, produced for the New Zealand pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka. The tone of This Auckland was already on the brink of anachronism in 1967. Three years later, Macdonald did away with commentary altogether and let the music do the talking—with conspicuous success.