By Dr. Alfio Leotta
For a long time, New Zealand cinema was understood, both at home and overseas, through some of the discourses articulated in the Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey (1995).
In this documentary, produced by the British Film Institute as part of an international film series to commemorate the centenary of cinema, co-directors Sam Neill and Judy Rymer, argued that New Zealand cinema is characterised by ‘uniquely strange and dark’ obsessions often generated by the alienating presence of a ‘menacing land’. The documentary suggested that the ‘darkness’ of New Zealand film reflects both the white settlers’ geographical and cultural isolation and their ambivalent relationship with the natural landscape. A number of New Zealand film critics, such as Roger Horrocks and Bruce Babington, have since questioned the validity of the theses presented in the Cinema of Unease, by pointing out that the film neglected documentaries as well as films directed by women, Māori and queer film-makers.
Recently, in his video-essay on New Zealand cinema, Out of the Mist (2015), Tim Wong proposed a much more nuanced and comprehensive analysis of the history of film in Aotearoa, which questions the idea of a thematically homogenous New Zealand cinema as implied by Cinema of Unease. And yet the idea of a dark, gloomy cinema seems to be still a popular label, particularly among international film critics, to describe the stylistic and thematic characteristics of New Zealand film.
So to which extent is the ‘cinema of unease’ still a valid construct to make sense of cinema in Aotearoa New Zealand?
As already mentioned, a number of New Zealand film historians have already criticized the film’s narrow focus, which privileged the work of heterosexual, male and white filmmakers. Apart from the analytical limitations of the original theories expounded in the documentary, however, New Zealand cinema itself has since changed, reflecting the significant transformations of the country’s society.
While New Zealand film production during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s was characterised by the proliferation of films such as Vigil, Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace and The Piano, which placed a man (or sometimes a woman) at odds with a beautiful, yet threatening natural environment, in the 2000s urban space and cultures have become increasingly central elements of New Zealand movies. The centrality of urban settings mirrors the increasing importance in New Zealand society of the creative industries (IT, design, film production, etc.) which are economic activities strictly associated with the urban context. Films such as Sione’s Wedding or What We Do in the Shadows, two commercially successful comedies set in Auckland and Wellington respectively, challenge the stereotype of a New Zealand cinema dominated by landscape-centric harrowing dramas about white characters struggling in rural environments. Furthermore, the large migratory flows which have reshaped contemporary New Zealand society have also influenced the kind of stories told by New Zealand cinema. Changes in the country’s demographics, but also easier access to film technology and new funding policies mean that today more women, Māori or migrant filmmakers, direct and produce New Zealand movies.
Films such as No. 2, Apron Strings or My Wedding and Other Secrets both reflect the multiculturalism of contemporary New Zealand society and subvert the stylistic and thematic characteristics of the ‘cinema of unease’ as described by Neill and Rymer. However, despite the increasing popularity of comedy as a genre, the centrality of urban culture and the interest in the stories of migrant communities, contemporary New Zealand films are still marked by dark undertones. Rural landscape is still the central setting of successful New Zealand films such as Whale Rider, In My Father’s Den and more recently Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. In all these films the protagonists have an uneasy relationship with the natural environment, which is the site of a tragic, yet liberating transformation.
Despite the increasing variety and multiculturalism of New Zealand cinema, the ‘cinema of unease’ or at least certain elements of it, continues to survive as just one of the many strands that constitute contemporary film-making in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Dr. Alfio Leotta is a Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington (NZ). He is the author of Touring the Screen: Tourism and New Zealand Film Geographies (Intellect Books, 2011) and The Bloomsbury Companion to Peter Jackson (Bloomsbury, 2016).