Chapter Seven – Boom Times: The Early 1980s

By Bruce Babington. Summary by Jakki Galloway

Patu! (Merata Mita, 1983)

During the early 1980s a tax shelter led to an unprecedented number of films being made in New Zealand. Because profits were made on the deal and not on the strength of the film, investors were keen.

“The cost of the film, the Privy Council explained, might be $x, but a pretense took place that the cost was $x = y (y being the non-recourse loan) leading to ’circular movement of funds’ and substantial tax write-offs on the doubled sum for investors, for who the ‘= y’ money was in no sense a risk.” p 182, New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History

There were now worries that a flood of offshore productions would hurt the New Zealand film infrastructure. This was because local technicians' wages were rising beyond the local industry’s capabilities. People also feared that the New Zealand flavour of the films would be lost. By 1982, Robert Muldoon abolished the tax shelters and any projects that had started had to be finished by September 1984. This created a frantic rush to complete films.

While many low-quality films were produced during this time, some good ones were too: Smash Palace (1981) by Roger Donaldson; Vigil (1984) by Vincent Ward; Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) by Nagisa Ōshima; Trial Run (1984) and Came a Hot Friday (1985) by Ian Mune; The Quiet Earth (1985) by Geoff Murphy and Mr Wrong (1985) by Gaylene Preston.

When an article in the journal Alternative Cinema criticised the masculine domination of recent New Zealand feature films, New Zealand was actually on the eve of a number of films about women – It’s Lizzie to Those Close (1983); Iris (1984); Leave All Fair (1985); Constance (1984) and Heart of the Stag (1984).

Māori were also being widely represented: Utu, Kingpin, Mark II, Came a Hot Friday, Other Halves, Among the Cinders and The Lost Tribe. Though their stories were still being told from a Pākehā perspective.

New Zealand films were also becoming more widely known overseas: New Zealand was represented at Cannes for the first time with The Scarecrow being selected for the Director's Fortnight (out of competition) in 1982. New Zealand film seasons took place at National Film Centre in London in 1981, the Cinémathèque Française in 1983 and in Washington DC in 1985. The BBC screened two television seasons of New Zealand films on BBC Two and ZDF Germany in 1984.

Documentary held its ground in the early 1980s. Growing Māori protest and feminism came together in the films of Merata Mita with Bastion Point: Day 507 and Patu!. Also films of exposition and celebration – Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story and Score – for example.

Short film was also developing during this period. “... there are ... committed audiences for whom the short film is an end in itself because of the greater aesthetic density, experimentation and radicalism possible in a form less commodified than the narrative feature”. p 203, New Zealand Film: An Illustrated History

In 1981, the New Zealand Film Archive Ngā Kaitiaki o Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua was established. It built on the earlier archival work of the National Film Library and was bought into being by the efforts of Jonathan Dennis – its first Director. Because New Zealand’s film history was “local, personal and irregular” much of the collection was documentary, actualities, newsreels and home videos rather than features. This distinguished it from overseas archives.


Activity 19: Non-recourse loans – Write a definition.

Activity 20: Patu! and the Springbok Tour – Develop arguments for and against.


FORWARD to Chapter Eight – After the Boom: The Second Half of the 1980s

BACK to Chapter Six – Waking from a Fretful Sleep: Film in the 1970s

BACK to Our Film History

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