Design Review: Volume 3, Issue 4 (January-February 1951)
In 1941 the picture-going public had their first look at a Weekly Review from the National Film Unit. In 1950 they had their last. By order of the Government, the Review appeared for the last time. Its going caused some comment, but that was some months ago, and now it has passed into oblivion. The gap it has left in our cinema programmes is a real one. Audiences, after their initial suspicion of something home-grown — and with a possible taint of Labour propaganda — had actually begun to enjoy it. They even discussed it afterwards—a considerable testimonial for any newsreel.
But from the point of view of people interested in the future of New Zealand films it is questionable whether the Weekly Review really was such a good thing. Certainly it was a good newsreel, competently photographed, and, apart from too-frequent items showing dull politicians speaking at dull ceremonies, entertaining. That is as far as it went. After nine years the National Film Unit, with its large staff and its expensive equipment, was still using the greater part of its resources in the production of a nine-minute newsreel. Where were the documentary films showing our social experiments — the films that, according to the arch-priest Grierson, would command international attention? They just did not show up.
It is true that on a number of occasions the Weekly Review was given over to one subject, a short documentary. Several striking ones come to mind immediately — Holmes' Coaster, Thompson's Railway Worker and Faulkner's Backblocks Medical Service, to name three of the best. Forlong's experimental Rhythm and Movement, too, with background music by Douglas Lilbum, showed great promise of weightier work — a promise hardly fulfilled by the inept casting and amateurish directing of Journey for Three.
But with a few notable exceptions, the Weekly Reviews, whether dealing with one subject or with several, rarely showed any imaginative treatment worth the name. The use of the camera was prosaic; the scripts mediocre and poorly integrated with the film; the background music remarkably ill-chosen; and in spite of elaborate sound recording equipment natural sound was hardly ever used except in set pieces—speeches, orchestras and the like. (An outstanding exception was one of the last made —a pleasantly conceived, well-recorded item about the Wellington Carillon.) In short — little imagination anywhere. Oddly enough, the directors and cameramen who seemed likely to pull the National Film Unit out of the rut have all gone elsewhere. It would be interesting to know why.
No doubt the foregoing remarks are harsh. They are meant to be. The Film Unit, which had a unique chance to record ‘democracy in action’, gave the public a lollipop.
To an outside observer, political pressure seemed in large measure to blame. It was notorious that films reflecting in even the most remote way on the page 87 Government were taboo. New Zealand and New Zealanders appears always, to use Grierson's phrase, ‘in the spit and polish of perfection’. ‘If you appear always’, he said, ‘in the spit and polish of perfection we shall know very quickly that you are either inhuman or you are liars’.
The scenes left out, not the propaganda put in — there was little of that — were the tell-tale of political interference. No honest film maker can make honest documentaries unless he is left alone. No honest newsreel reporter can give honest reports unless he is free from outside influence. The politically innocuous; the glib skirting around accurate comment, the ‘human interest’ triviality— by all means! But the waterfront strike, the plight of the homeless and destitute, the problems of the Maoris — never, never, never.
To sum up — the Weekly Review neglected important aspects of New Zealand life and, instead, clung to the politically safe. It became merely an entertaining hotchpotch with no clear purpose other than the assembling of heterogeneous bits and pieces into a nine-minute programme. Considering the heavy expense involved, and the lack of any sign that the National Film Unit would adopt a new direction and a more vigorous policy, perhaps we can say without many qualms ‘Better dead!’