by Jonathan Dennis
Now we’ve lost John O’Shea - the last great hero of New Zealand
film making who for 50 years has been nourishing, supporting and sustaining
our local film industry. John’s first close encounter with the cinema
came in the mid-1930’s when, stretching convalescence from a minor
sporting injury from two weeks to a year, he was able to skip Friday afternoon
drill with school cadets and sneak off to the local ‘pitcher’
theatre, the Majestic or the Regent in Wanganui. This he was led to believe
was a stepping-stone to doom and damnation.
But he continued the habit during his student days in Wellington at
the Roxy or the Princess and at Film society screenings. John was so mesmerised
by movies that later on he would go on to try and make them himself. A
fire had been lit that has only now gone out.
If a film is good enough, he once told me these shadows on the wall
will transport you. John could’ve become a writer or continued as
an historian, become an academic or entered the Public Service going
into films was regarded as a pretty porangi profession. Well, it’s
true, John was a little crazy.
Only three feature films were made here in the years between 1940 and
1970 all of them by John O’Shea for Pacific Films. First the wonderful
and poignant Broken Barrier in 1952 produced together with Roger
Mirams, an audacious beginning to his film making career. Then the more
brooding Runaway in 1964. This was the most European of John’s
films, imbued with the style of Antonioni and Godard, though I never could
understand his insistence that the film was really an allegory for the
plight of Pakeha New Zealanders as the ties with Britain were being severed.
Geoff Murphy later remade the film as a comedy, Goodbye Pork Pie.
And then the wildly hip pop-comedy musical Don’t Let It Get You
in 1966 starring just about everyone from Howard Morrison to Kiri Te Kanawa.
In the 80s came other feature films like Pictures, Leave All Fair and
Ngati, plus there were always documentaries, TV commercials, newsreels,
sponsored and industrial films, sport and road safety pictures, you name
And from the tea room at Pacific a film industry began to emerge. It
certainly seemed in the seventies that at sometime-or-other just about
every film maker had worked in some capacity at Pacific Films. “It
was a creative area, it was a film school of the best sort of proportions,”
he said, “It combined the practical and academic. The tea room at
Pacific was always constantly argumentative, doctrinaire and lively.”
When George Bernard Shaw visited New Zealand in 1934 he recommended the
creation of a local film industry or, he said, “you will lose your
souls without even getting American ones.” (John told me he once
tried to make a film about Shaw being in New Zealand and falling in love
with a woman driver, but Mrs Shaw was very stern and wouldn’t have
a bar of it.) It was of absolute importance to John that we have our own
film industry. Without drama and feature films he believed a country imperils
its very identity and existence. He absolutely deplored and regretted
the Americanisation of the world; believing too that “if you don’t
have a film from Iceland maybe people will forget Iceland exists, and
New Zealand is in about the same category.” So with a lot of help
from John we got our Film Commission, even though there were times later
on he despaired that it had lost its way, its nerve or its courage drifting
at times, he said, without passion or purpose.
John was a trustee of the Film Archive right from the start and he was
always a mine of information delighting in offering wild and splendidly
stammered suggestions on how to subvert bureaucracy he loathed and despised
all bureaucrats, and was equally merciless about most politicians (savouring
a special disgust for Roger Douglas).
With his production of that magisterial six-part television series on
Maori life and culture, Tangata Whenua, written by Michael King
and directed by Barry Barclay in 1974, John O’Shea opened a door
for Maori to start telling their own stories on screen. He regretted never
being able to make the companion series In Search of Pakehatanga,
for Maori/Pakeha relations was, he believed, the essential drama of this
John often noted the strong streak of surrealism in New Zealand film
but actually it was probably born at Pacific Films. Think of the imperiously
snotty sister wandering around with a big budgie on her shoulder in Broken
Barrier; or the completely nutty Baking Powder comedy Cookery Nook;
Barry Crump sniffing around for any ‘stray snickey’ in Runaway.
And I remember the Pacific newsreel on the opening of Rimutaka Tunnel
breathtaking in its simplicity, showing a train entering the tunnel.
Then going to a long period of completely black film before the train
finally emerges at the other end. Then there’s the unforgettable
scene in Don’t Let It Get You with Lew Pryme singing and
swinging away at a garage in a thinly disguised commercial for Boron,
with a fly clearly visible in close-up, caught in his stiffly greased
hair. And I’ve always loved the report he wrote when he was editor
of the Wellington Film Society magazine in the late 40s an authoritative
and completely fictitious piece on Film Making in Albania, which
was widely believed and often reprinted.
Certainly John could be exasperating the process of getting him to
write his memoirs was often enough to make a monkey bite its mother. Whatever
he’d agree to change or tighten or edit would, by the next day,
be back in, only longer and always accompanied by various lists and notes
written on backs of old envelopes.
The last few years were not kind to John but he took all these terrible
blows with amazing courage I didn’t know how John was able to
endure life without Cormie, the loving companion he’d had at his
side for so long. But he determinedly began picking up some of the pieces
there was always another script to write, the Film Commission to persuade,
a project to pursue, films to see. He hated being called a godfather or
the grandfather of New Zealand film making. He saw this as an attempt
to relegate him to the past.
I loved John for his films, for his passion and for his deep friendship.
John O’Shea and Pacific Films helped keep an independent film industry
alive in Aotearoa through pretty tough times his tenacity, idealism,
literacy and creativity, his formidable and subversive wit, his generosity
and kindness have encouraged and guided the film making here for 50 years.
He was our history. And it already feels a poorer place without him.
||New Zealand’s dramatic
coastline stars in this Pacific Films title
||Barry Crump features in
this trailer for the 1964 film, Runaway
||Calling all kids! Dad’s
in the kitchen (and in the dog-box!) in the Pacific Films comedy,
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