The Spike or Victoria College Review 1942
Made in New Zealand
Made in New Zealand
I Have Been requested to "do something on films" something about "the place of New Zealand films in New Zealand culture" Well I am going to by-pass that one—I have seen too much ink and time wasted on attempts to define our local culture, and personally I doubt the existence of an indigenous product.
However, I do think that the present work of the National Film Unit calls for some observations. Any attempts to assess the value of the Unit must be weighed up against its ostensible purpose. From the start of the war it was obvious to a great many people that any attempt at a propaganda programme without using the film was anachronistic. In the Tourist Department's studios at Miramar there was already the equipment and some staff at hand. This point was eventually appreciated and a little over a year ago the production staff of the Studios was supplemented and the National Film Unit created.
In establishing itself the N.F.U. had two main difficulties to overcome: (I) the fact that in the public mind the word propaganda stinks and anything established for that purpose stinks also, and (2) the impression created by the tourist and publicity films with which the Government had been concerned up to that time.
Whether we like it or not propaganda is a recognised part not only of modern warfare but also of State administration at all times. Or as Rotha puts it ". . . illumination and propaganda are closely related. Propaganda, also, in the long range sense is very near to education, and may be wisely interpreted as a task of development. In fact so closely are the two related that in most cases it would be difficult to define where instruction begins and propaganda ends." A rough yardstick page 6 would classify the good propaganda as informative and the bad as misleading. The argument starts when you pose the question as to whether informative and truthful are synonymous. Two truisms have to be remembered, first that at any time truth is only relative, and second that for reasons of security all information cannot be divulged.
In being informative, therefore, the N.F.U. has to contend with these factors. The question of not giving the whole truth is not, however, so much of a handicap as it might appear. It does prevent the handling of some items that would make first-class film material, but on the other hand there is a well recognised technique, perfected by the British documentalists, of giving "a creative treatment of reality." That is to say by emphasis and dramatisation of the essentials, information can be conveyed and an attitude indicated.
In regard to the difficulties created by previous Government essays in film making the problem here was of a lesser nature. Audiences were called upon to realise that there had been a change of emphasis from the scenic to the serious. Up to a point each release did this of its own accord, but for a full appreciation a new approach to Government films was necessary, and only after the Unit had been going for some months would this be secured. The process was probably hastened however, by the mood of the public who were keenly interested in any war activity.
How well the N.F.U. has succeeded in its first twelve months of existence is in some ways difficult to assess. A paper or journal has some indications of its popularity from its circulation figures, and a commercial film undertaking from its box office returns. Neither of these sources is available and to discover what is the public's real reaction is not possible without some form of audience quiz or mass observation. Personal impressions are that the films are achieving their object of bringing to the public a wider realisation of what fighting a war means, how it affects civilian life, how the forces live and train, and what we are doing to fend for ourselves both from the military point of view and that of production.
Here one realises a further handicap under which the Unit works, and that is owing to difficulties of distribution weekly releases longer than 350ft are not acceptable to the theatres. This means that these items are but a ripple in the pond of a 12,000ft. programme, and audience reaction is in consequence inclined to be slight. A compensatory factor is, however, that they have a coverage double that of other newsreels, so that they are seen by most audiences. As far as production goes this brevity makes for crispness, for it necessitates fast cutting and succinct commentary.
In view of the shortness of the films any detailed analysis of individual news-items would be tedious. Considering the releases as a whole I think that it can be said that the Unit has raised considerably the high standard with which it started. Some of the weekly items have been slight, and one or two of them of limited appeal, but considering the output that was no more than could be expected. The weekly items—they cannot properly be called news-reels—have all been informative, and in some cases have been gems of filmic presentation. In the longer documentary type (500-1000ft) a more consistent standard is noticeable—a natural result of the proportionately greater time spent upon them. In addition to their general excellence they evoke interest in the matter of their diverse treatment.
The first, "New Zealand Munitions," is an excellent example of the informative capabilities of the film. It brought home to audiences just to what extent we were arming ourselves and how it had been achieved. "Homes for Free People" makes a good approach to the housing problem and by the use of news-reel shots very successfully relates housing difficulties to present contingencies. The device used here is not new, in fact it is the basic March of Time technique, but it calls for skilful handling. With "Citizen Soldiers" (Home Guard) the emphasis was on the simple and the straightforward. The "Saturday night soldier" performing his duties (to a background of natural sound) had immense appeal. "Thanks," showing the Valentines, was outstanding for the manner in which its music and commentary were fused with the subject. Music with a slow rhythm and a touch of the macabre, and an impressive commentary spoken by a deep and deliberate voice, matched the ponderous movements of the tanks so that the whole film achieved a most satisfying page 7 unity. "The W.A.A.F.'s" was a good example of what effects can be produced on the technical side by way of wipes, dissolves, etc. Technical virtuosity does not of itself make a good film, but it was effectively used in this instance. In "The Hurry Up Squad" the treatment was an elaboration of that used in "Citizen Soldiers"—a simple commentary by the men explaining how they had been trained. This again illustrated how a sincere commentary in the first person can establish rapport with the audience and consequently carry conviction. Examples of how films can make direct attempts to propagandise were seen in "New Zealand is Ready," "This Land of Ours," and "Men, Money, and Munitions" which were made to deal with specific problems. Judging by audience reaction they appear to have been most successful.
II it is not possible to discover the exact reaction of audiences to the N.F.U. films and thus formulate an opinion on their achievement, it is possible to compare their standard to that of overseas productions. Their obvious counterpart are the films sponsored by the British Ministry of Information, and comparison of the two is most favourable to the local product. N.F.U. productions have not come up to "Squadron 992," "London Can Take It," or "Men of the Lightship," but then the Unit has not had such exciting material to deal with. On the other hand the least successful of the New Zealand productions have not been nearly as bad as some of the films bearing the M.O.I. title. In other words if the local releases have not reached such heights they certainly have not plumbed such depths.
If it is not possible to define a specific New Zealand culture it can be said that the N.F.U. films do reflect a New Zealand way of thought. In them can be seen a germ of national consciousness. They typify the New Zealander's dislike of cant and smugness, but on the other hand they make no apologies for things New Zealand—which is one of our national weaknesses. They are prepared to stand on their own feet and to point to our national achievements.
If the productions up to the present represent but one year's work by the National Film Unit it augurs well for the future of films made in New Zealand.