A film crew at work in the forecourt of a marae, recording an interview

Showing Tangata Whenua to a new generation

13 Jul 2023
A look at the human element of a major preservation project.

Hero image: Piri Poutapu speaks with Dr Michael King on the porch of Mahinaarangi, Tūrangawaewae Marae, Ngāruawahia. Pacific Films Collection, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision. Courtesy of Aotearoa New Zealand Film Heritage Trust Te Puna Ataata.

Over the past two years, Ngā Taonga has taken on the privilege (and responsibility) of bringing the documentary series Tangata Whenua out of the archive and back into the public eye. As of July 11, 2023, anyone in Aotearoa New Zealand can watch Tangata Whenua on TVNZ+ in 4K resolution.

Tangata Whenua (The People of the Land) was directed by pioneer Māori film maker Barry Barclay and produced by John O'Shea of Pacific Films, while well-known historian Michael King was narrator and interviewer. King worked in collaboration with local people who helped facilitate and conduct interviews with kaumātua and others.

Half a century later, many of the people who appeared in the series have passed on, but the precious footage continues to preserve their voices and knowledge for their descendants.

Pou Ārahi Paul Meredith says: ‘There is deep mātauranga Māori in that series which is still relevant today. The old people are still imparting their knowledge through the recordings and what they say still resonates and can inform us now.’

The impact of this iconic series was long-lasting. It proved there was a cross-cultural audience for programmes by and about Māori and led to new funding and broadcasting opportunities for such content. As Michael King put it in his book Being Pakeha Now,

Tangata Whenua broke the monocultural mould of New Zealand television. It gave Māori an opportunity to speak for themselves about their lives. It went some way to informing Pākehā New Zealanders about Māori attitudes and values, it whetted a Māori audience's appetite for more documentaries reflecting Māori viewpoints, and it opened the way for later programmes, such as Koha and Te Karere, produced by Māori.’

When it was released in 1974, Tangata Whenua was an immediate success. It attracted approximately one million primetime viewers, out of a population of just three million, and captured rich details of Māori history, culture, and identity at a transformative moment in New Zealand history. The early to mid-1970s saw a major surge in interest in biculturalism and a successful movement to revitalise the Māori language. We can see a part of that process playing out on the screen, as people shared their experiences and wrestled with questions of identity.

In spite of its importance, the last time the whole series played on television was 49 years ago; since then, most people have only been able to view episodes at occasional cinema screenings or as low-resolution online videos. Guided by 15 boxes of original production documentation, and with funding from Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage’s Te Awe Kōtuku programme, the Archive set out in 2021 to improve access to this important taonga.

Two Maori women talking in a wooded area

Tangata Whenua: The Spirits and the Times Will Teach, TVNZ.

Eva Rickard and Herepo Rongo pictured.

Our work with Tangata Whenua can be broadly divided into two streams; one is the digital preservation of the series, and the other is connecting members of the community to the footage. The digitisation preservation of Tangata Whenua represents hundreds of hours of work by our Film Preservation team. The original footage was prepped, scanned, colour graded, quality checked, and damaged sections of the soundtrack were reconstructed, all using the original production documentation as a guide to the filmmakers’ techniques and intentions.

The philosophy behind Tangata Whenua was that participants should speak for themselves, rather than having outsiders narrate their stories, so building trust and comfort was of paramount importance. This led to some unusual technical choices, which the preservationists had to reconstruct through production records and close examination of the master negatives. For example, the camera was positioned far from where the interviewees were seated, with audio recorded on a separate device and potential distractions like clapper boards were avoided. People were encouraged to relax and talk for as long as they wanted, with little interruption from the crew. This generated hours of fascinating audiotape and film that were cut from the show but still exist in the Archive. In addition to producing six episodes of beautifully shot television, the creators of Tangata Whenua left us a trove of largely unseen raw footage that continues to preserve the wisdom and experience of kaumātua who are no longer with us.

The show is like a time capsule, and the preservation team were cautious not to change or ‘improve’ the original with modern technology. Archival ethics, and tikanga, were strictly observed throughout. The six episodes were digitised to 4K quality to faithfully reproduce the characteristics of the original analogue image in digital format, providing a clarity and sharpness not available to most viewers until now. Viewers can now see the wrinkles on the faces of kaumātua, and hear their voices in a way that sounds true to life.

A specialist team then began the work of returning the series back to the public. We connected with whānau and iwi of the original subjects wherever possible to negotiate digitally re-releasing the material and ensure any concerns about access were heard. TVNZ agreed to add the newly preserved episodes to their on-demand platform, TVNZ+, in time for Matariki 2023. In the lead-up, a handful of preview screenings gave audiences in Raglan, Waikato and Otaki the first look, with Ngā Taonga staff on hand to describe the technical work. Whānau from as far afield as Australia and Canada attended, eager to see their loved ones on screen again. There were laughter and tears as families heard parents, grandparents and great-grandparents speak for the first time in decades. One viewer even saw himself, as a young boy playing in the background of a scene. 'The best part of film preservation is showing it to people who have a personal connection to the images on screen,' says Dr Leslie Lewis, who oversaw the preservation work. The silence at the end of the first screening was broken by a spontaneous waiata from the audience.

So far, the response has been pleasing, but our work with Tangata Whenua is not over. The next step for the project team is to resync the unseen raw recordings so copies can be supplied to whānau of the original participants. In a future blog, we will look more closely at the skills and technology involved in this complex project.

Ngā Taonga is grateful to TVNZ, and all the kaitiaki who engaged with us on this long-awaited project. We also acknowledge Manatū Taonga and the Lottery Grants Board whose funding helps our mahi to preserve nation’s audiovisual heritage and make it widely accessible. Ka nui rā te mihi. Watch Tangata Whenua now at https://www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/tangata-whenua .