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New Zealand's Oldest Surviving Film

Towards the end of 1993, a small, tightly wound piece of nitrate film was deposited at the archive. After painstaking research and repair, we discovered that this was New Zealand's earliest surviving piece of film. It shows New Zealand soldiers preparing to leave for the Boer War in 1900. The film is a precious part of the collection held by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision – the audiovisual archive for all New Zealanders.

Watch the film here

Read on to find out how we solved the mystery and saved the film.

The film was so brittle that even examining it caused damage, but the archive’s conservation team identified that the images were from New Zealand.

Historians were called in to help solve the mystery of what was on the film. Using frame enlargements, historians and archivists examined the images closely, noting the uniforms, the environment and people in the background. Knowing who shot the film and what else was happening at the time, the experts agreed that the film was the Second Contingent at Newtown Park. It was shot during an open day and parade held on the weekend of January 13 and 14, 1900. It was likely to have been their farewell event, before they sailed for the Boer War on 20 January. 

Read the historians' observations

The film was extremely delicate. Even taking great care, new breaks appeared each time it was handled. To ease this handling difficulty the pieces were taped together, and wound around a specially constructed core.

The film and its core were then suspended over a fuming agent of glycerol and hot water, which was replaced daily. This relaxed the film enough to enable work to proceed.

The springy brittleness of the film meant standard repair techniques were not appropriate.

The emulsion separated from the base as the film was uncurled. This was re-attached and secured with clear tape. The pieces of tape had to fit within the frame line.

Small chips had broken off and had to be matched like a jigsaw. Hundreds of new perforation holes had to be cut, by hand, one at a time. The film was shrunk by 2.2% and precut tape did not fit.

The film was stored on the specially constructed core during the entire repair period, and eventually looked more relaxed and printable.

During the repair work, consultation with the National Film Unit concluded their printer would be unable to handle such a delicate film. After consultation with Ritrovata Laboratory in Bologna, Italy it was agreed that their special nitrate printer could possibly process the film. The original nitrate was sent to Bologna, where it was successfully printed and new print material was returned to the archive.

The repair of this precious 30-second film took a total of 160 hours of painstaking work.

Want to learn more about how we preserve film? Watch the video