by Tony Williams
I began working for John O’Shea in the late 1950’s. Television
had hardly raised its head. The staple contract for Pacific Films at the
time was to represent Australia’s Movietone News in New Zealand
plus the occasional sponsored documentary and Road Safety film.
It was a time when New Zealanders who worked in films were considered
mad, batty or just weird backyard celluloid tinkers with screwdrivers.
John O’Shea was ahead of his time and remained so. He taught us
batty film buffs about cinema we went to his home to study Eisenstein,
Cocteau, and Renoir projected onto a sheet from an ancient 16mm Bell
and Howell projector. We battled Wellington gales in our duffel coats
to see the latest New Wave film at the Paramount Bergman, Resnais, Antonioni
just so we could keep up with John’s tearoom seminars each morning
at Pacific Films.
John fired my passion for film and he became my mentor. I had no idea
what we were doing, but I loved it. We had no one to train us, just John’s
vision to keep us fumbling forward.
He imparted to everyone who came under his influence a love for personal
and individual expression through film.
For decades, he was the only visible intellectual working in New Zealand
film. He wasn’t ‘Arty’ or ‘Underground’.
Neither was he particularly ‘Commercial’. He simply longed
for an industry that would have its own New Zealand voice not a Hollywood
voice. Films that would represent the way New Zealanders lived their lives,
their thoughts and dreams. And in those days, he was often heavily sat
on by bureaucrats wanting to squash his vision. At that time New Zealand
had its quota of respectable writers, poets, singers, dancers and painters.
But no one took film makers seriously. John’s was a lone and silenced
Later, a Film and Television industry arrived. And in this new environment
of egos, commercialism, petty jealousies and bureaucratic squabbling
John remained as our conscience. He urged us to create a film industry
free from elitist racism, sexism or just straight out American commercialism.
He urged us to simply make well-told New Zealand films.
And now he’s gone.
His legacy is the inspiration he gave New Zealand film makers when there
was little to aspire to, the constant pursuing of creativity in film when
New Zealand film wasn’t particularly creative, the sense of purpose
he gave our industry when it wasn’t an industry.
Dr. J. D. O’Shea was undoubtedly the father of New Zealand film;
his dreams for a truly New Zealand film industry remains to this day.
They are still a yardstick to be measured by.