National Cinema Of New Zealand Essay Example
The history of New Zealand Cinema is a fascinating and complex one, from its status as a major shooting location for big international films (e.g. The Lord of the Rings) to its vibrant indie film scene. In this respect, New Zealanders have a difficult time determining exactly what kind of cinema to appropriate as their own and consider truly ‘New Zealand’ films. According to Higson, "very often the concept of national cinema is used prescriptively rather than descriptively, citing what ought to be the national cinema" While no single discourse of national cinema has been accepted by the film community, Higson notes that most ‘national cinema’ within New Zealand is correlated to what films are economically tied to the country, particularly ones created by the “domestic film industry” of New Zealand. To that end, positioning the 1954 film The Seeker within the history of cinema in New Zealand is a difficult prospect, bringing up these varying claims about what constitutes ‘national cinema.’ Despite its status as an international film that has outside funding and was only shot on New Zealand locations, it is clear that its importance and historical significance to the nation’s film industry and level of exposure earns it a spot in the nation’s national cinema history.
The idea of national cinema itself carries with it quite a bit of controversy; there are many definitions of what constitutes ‘national cinema,’ particularly in a New Zealand context. A national cinema, in essence, involves identifying what films are inherently classifiable as being ‘for’ a certain country, and thus the metrics for that inclusion have to be determined. Higson, for example, argues that “the parameters of a national cinema should be drawn at the site of consumption as much as at the site of production of films,” firmly placing a film’s cinema tradition as much on the consumers as the filmmakers. There are also other considerations to be made; national cinema could be considered on an economic basis, chiefly indicating films that support local film industry; text-based approaches that comprise films about that country, or consumption-based approaches based on what that country consumes.
These approaches, particularly the latter, have become more and more difficult to quantify given the international film industry and the ability of foreign studios to film abroad; for example, a New Zealand-shot film like The Lord of the Rings might not be considered ‘national cinema’ under some metrics, given both a) its lack of actual setting in New Zealand and b) the fact that it was filmed by a different production company (New Line Cinema) from the United States. International co-productions muddy the waters a bit further, as the divide between what is intrinsically New Zealand and what ‘belongs’ to another nation is somewhat controversial. Luckily, Higson provides a possible solution for this dilemma – creating an “inward-looking means” of defining national cinema, linking a film to “an already existing national political, economic and cultural identityand set of traditions.” In short, New Zealand films should simply have an intangible ‘New Zealand-ness’ that can be connected to any of these identities and traditions, reconciling the involvement of international productions in this respect.
With this definition of national cinema in mind, 1954’s The Seeker (directed by Ken Annikin) is a fairly complex case. Ostensibly, it is a British film, produced by Universal International, directed by a British director and starring many English actors (including Jack Hawkins and Glynis Johns). However, the main story was adapted from a New Zealand novel of the same name, written by Kiwi John Guthrie, and the film itself is set in New Zealand. Following the story of a pair of British sailors (Hawkins and Noel Purcell) who end up establishing a British colony in New Zealand near some neighboring Maori, The Seeker most definitely has some colonialist and imperialist undertones to its depiction of the first interactions between the British and the Maori. The Maori themselves are treated as a mysterious x factor within the film – a noble people with nonetheless unpredictable impulses who are prone to violence. At the same time, these narrative issues are tempered by the equally-villainous behavior of the white characters (including Wishart, the new colonist whose murder of a Maori sparks the film’s final confrontation), and the Maori themselves are shown to have compassion and heart in many of their interactions with the settlers. These themes and more permeate the film, with the white-native divide uniquely present in most of the film’s scenes.
Some of the overarching themes of The Seeker play into its controversial claim to its status as nationalist cinema, much of it having to do with the distance (or lack thereof) it has from Europe and its international partners as a film with its own New Zealand-centric story. In several respects, The Seeker is both colonialist cinema and uniquely New Zealand in identity. While the film relies heavily on cultural stereotypes of the Maori, and even hires non-Maori actors to play them in a sort of whitewashing tactic, The Seeker also depicts the New Zealand natives and those who wish to colonize there as the good guys, honest people trying to make the best out of a complicated situation. First of all, the film seemingly ignores the many different types of Maori culture that exist in New Zealand; rather than specifying whether they are iwi or hapu, the “Maori” of the film exist in a uniform identity that seems to adhere to British colonialist stereotypes of the noble savage. Even so, reducing the film to a colonialist hit piece on New Zealand native peoples would do a disservice to those Maori or Pakeha audiences who take to the film and identify them. The complicated nature of identifying this film as national is endemic of the film itself: “the particular circumstances of The Seekers created complex entanglements between differently situated peoples, resulting in uneven reciprocities and multiple, simultaneous interpretations of the film and the encounters surrounding it.”
This kind of colonial confusion with The Seeker’s identity extends further to the conventions found in the film. For example, the colonial encounters between the British settlers and the Maori natives are somewhat “pedestrian” and “stilted” in the context of modern eyes, in which the naïve, savage and primitive natives are both exoticized for their strangeness (and, in the case of the women, their unusual beauty) and vilified for their predilection for violence and savagery. However, the heart of the film is in the surprising complexity of these unique interactions between colonizer and native, indicating a greater sense of understanding and empathy with which both groups treat each other. In the scene in which Moana (Laya Riki, a non-Maori playing a Maori) performs an erotic dance for the other characters, this can easily be read as a historically inaccurate, racist and sexist work that exploits New Zealand cultural stereotypes and is therefore worthy of scorn. However, scholars like Limbrick read it as the opportunity for greater discourse and more unconventional reading of the work, as “the scene is so egregiously wrong within tikanga Maori that it allows the opportunityfor a Maori audience to disinvest themselves from the representational cohesion of the film and.read it in other ways.” Outwardly condescending scenes like the taking of a British-born boy into the bush to integrate him with the Maori people can instead bring about honest emotional responses to this work. In essence, the raw emotionality of the scene, and its basic context in New Zealand film history, helps to wallpaper over the problematic cracks in the narrative to create a more heartfelt, emotional story that resonates with NZ citizens.
When looking at nationalist cinema as something selected by the people due to their consumption, or following Higson’s model of having it hew to cultural identity and traditions, it is apparent that at least some New Zealanders consider The Seekers to be a highly national film. Many NZ audiences have “such an eager and active engagement with the film,” alluding to “the density of this film’s localness, against the assumption that it was simply British, foreign, or not worthy of inclusion within discussions of cinema in New Zealand.” Despite the colonialist auspices of the film’s production, and even some of its plot, the fact that New Zealanders take to it as the first major studio film shot in New Zealand to deal (however broadly or inaccurately) with Maori culture is worthy of consideration. The fact that it is one of the first major studio films to be shot in New Zealand is something else that justifies its inclusion in the nation’s national cinema canon. With these factors and more, The Seekers does not quite overcome its basic problematic nature in terms of representation, with its colonialist narrative and overreliance on cultural stereotypes. However, much like many other older films of nations past, it is easy to look at these films from an honest, clear cultural perspective and acknowledge its faults, while still admitting its cultural importance as an early work of New Zealand cultural interaction.
Considering the immense cultural value of The Seekers as an historic moment for New Zealand in its film history (as well as one of the first major films to even tackle the issue of New Zealand on its own land), any reasonable measure of national cinema for the nation would do well to include it. Based on Higson’s definition of ‘national cinema’ as something that carries with it some sort of cultural, political, or social identity or set of traditions endemic to the nation, The Seeker’s plot, content and production history (as well as its reception) have allowed it to fulfill those criteria. In today’s globalized world, and considering the culturally complex factors of international cinema production and filmmaking, it can be hard to determine what films actually belong to a nation – however, it is hard to argue that New Zealand, of all places, cannot claim at least a little pride and significance for The Seeker within their film history.
Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” in Film and Nationalism. Ed. Alan
Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2002), pp. 52-67.
Peter Limbrick, “Unsettled Histories: The Seekers,” in Making Settler Cinemas (Palgrave
Macmillan, 2010), pp. 171-236.
Laurence Simmons, “Distance Looks Our Way.” In Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand
Feature Films. Ed. Deb Verhoeven (St. Kilda, Vic: Damned Publishing, 1999), pp. 39-49.