40 years of the New Zealand Film Archive
Forty years ago, the New Zealand Film Archive was born. It had only one full time employee, a cinephile named Jonathan Dennis, who had just returned from touring film archives in Europe to learn as much as he could about the work ahead. His passion and dynamism to get the Archive established is reflected in this 1982 episode of Kaleidoscope (via NZ On Screen) and in this 1984 Eyewitness News segment.
The Archive’s mission was to ‘acquire, preserve and make available a national collection of moving images’. Film archives with this remit had been established internationally since 1933, and supporters considered a similar institution for Aotearoa New Zealand to be long overdue. The fragile nature of old films, especially those shot on nitrate film stock, was a major concern by this time. New Zealand’s oldest films were already at least 80 years old, and they were bound to deteriorate without professional conservation.
In October 1981, when the Archive issued its first newsletter, it already had nearly one million feet of nitrate film. This included American and European films that had made their way to New Zealand in a variety of ways.
Jonathan Dennis loved old Hollywood, but he also believed that New Zealand cinema was unique; to him, ours was a film history ‘uncluttered by classic feature films’, with a focus on the local, personal and non-fiction genres. Over time the focus of the Archive would become more and more specific to New Zealand. From 1985 its full name was The New Zealand Film Archive – Nga Kaitiaki o Nga Taonga Whitiahua.
Throughout the 1980s, his awareness of the need to protect taonga Maori grew, through the work of the Archive preserving and returning the taonga known as the ‘James McDonald films’ to iwi, as well as through the urging of many Māori supporters including Barry Barclay and Merata Mita. He would later describe this process as one of letting go, and recognising the need for shared power in the process of archiving taonga Māori.
Actress and community organiser Witarina Te Miriarangi Parewahaika Harris (Ngati Whakaue) became the Archive’s kaumatua early on. Harris helped guide its development as a bicultural institution, and accompanied taonga Maori to screenings around New Zealand and the world. She described her first international flight as follows: “It was with some trepidation but otherwise inner excitement that I entered the Air New Zealand plane which was to take me away from the country of my tupuna 79 years after my birth, only to deposit me in their very spiritual presence at the San Francisco Te Maori Exhibition. A highlight of my life.”
In 1988, the Archive adopted a constitution or kaupapa incorporating the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and committing to becoming a fully bicultural organisation that recognised Maori as tangata whenua, with Māori representation on its Board of Trustees.
Slowly, the number of staff grew, as did the reputation of the Archive. Funding was always an issue, as was finding a permanent home for the collection, but after just four years the Archive became a full member of FIAF (Federation International des Archives du Film), achieving ‘equal status with the other major film archives around the world’. Jonathan Dennis resigned from the Film Archive in 1990, and the directorship was briefly held by Cheryl Linge, and then Kate Fortune, before Frank Stark began his 22 year tenure in 1992. During this period the Archive achieved greater professional depth through more suitable premises, and became more financially resilient thanks to wider philanthropic and government support.
Starting that year a small team including archivist Jane Paul toured the country asking the public to deposit endangered films so they could be safely archived. The BNZ-sponsored Last Film Search ran until 2000, with films turning up in old houses, op shops, and woolsheds among other places. A treasure map from one member of the public even led the team to dig up a backyard in search of volatile nitrate reels. Where possible, the newly preserved films were later returned to their communities and played for local audiences at special screenings, under the Travelling Film Show project. In a similar way, the Te Hokinga Mai project, led by Huia Kopua from the late 1990s, returned taonga Maori images to iwi through a marae screening programme.
1996 marked 100 years since the invention of motion pictures, a milestone for film archives the world over. Here, you can listen to Jonathan Dennis’s Centenary of Cinema radio special.
The Film Show, Centenary of Cinema Special (1996)
In 1998, the Archive took its tentative first steps onto the internet by launching a website. It’s been an increasingly important tool for sharing the collections ever since. Thanks to another kind of archive, the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, you can take a look at its earliest form. The Archive’s website was updated in 2001 and then-Chief Executive Frank Stark said, ‘It was a remarkable moment to see our oldest piece of film, the Departure of the Second Contingent to the Boer War, coming back to life in cyberspace over 100 years after it was shot.’ An online catalogue was added in 2002.
In 2002 the Film Archive celebrated its 21st birthday and moved to new headquarters. Sadly, in the same year Jonathan Dennis passed away. The 2004 film Friendship is the Harbour of Joy, made by his close friend Peter Wells, shows how warm and sustaining his relationship with kaumatua Witarina Harris was, especially in the last months of his life. Elizabeth Alley from RNZ wrote that he would be remembered for being:
‘unafraid of saying exactly what he thought. His utter fearlessness, his acerbic wit, the spit and polish that he insisted on, his sensitivity for his craft, his prodigious knowledge and his controversial judgements set new broadcasting benchmarks and new production standards. He didn’t mess about.’
The Archive presented Witarina Harris with its Taiki Ngapara lifetime achievement award at its 25th anniversary party in December 2006. She passed away the following year, aged 101.
As the collection grew, the Archive’s headquarters moved and new vaults were established for safe storage. Physical storage of audiovisual material always presents challenges – not least of which is simply shelving to hold everything in archival environments. So the Archive celebrated its 30th birthday by opening a new vault north of Wellington. By this point, the collection included around 120,000 films, TV shows and videos, plus hundreds of thousands of photographs and documents. In 2014, a special vault for precious old nitrate film was opened at Titahi Bay (Whitireia). All these spaces have controls for temperature and humidity, as well as secure shelving and fire prevention.
In 2019 we moved most of our staff from our much-loved (but unfortunately earthquake prone) Taranaki Street premises to Wellington’s National Library, where we get to work more closely with other heritage agencies. Today we care for more than 850,000 items, a vast collection of film, TV, audio, and documentation. All of these items are taonga, of incredible importance to understanding our country’s history, culture, and sense of identity. While a lot has changed in 40 years, the heart of the Archive remains the same – we even have the same kaupapa. We’re honoured to be entrusted with sights and sounds that span three centuries in Aotearoa New Zealand.