This month marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Jonathan Dennis, at 49. He was someone with a keen passion for preserving our country's cinematic history, and was instrumental in the setting up of the NZ Film Archive, becoming its founding director in 1981. He salvaged and helped restore countless hours of our moving images for future generations. We owe him a huge debt of thanks.
Contrast the Film Archive and Dennis's efforts with the archival gap that is currently lacking in our music scene - more and more recordings disappear every year, and valuable materials get lost or destroyed. Recording studios shut down, record labels go out of business, and they throw their archives in the rubbish.
NZ On Air refuses to take any kind of cultural stance with their music video funding and have never done so since the scheme began in 1991 - getting music video makers and bands to submit their videos to the Film Archive is voluntary, and NZOA says it's not in their mandate. This needs fixing asap. Promoting culture (our music) to commercial TV while ignoring the need to save our culture doesn't cut it.
You only have to look at Robyn Gallagher's ongoing reviews of all the NZ On Air funded videos on her site 5000ways to see her recurring lists of missing videos. There are a lot of them that have vanished. The current piecemeal approach to archiving our music history simply isn't enough. Too much is slipping thru the cracks.
I did the following interview with Dennis for the August 1991 issue of Stamp magazine. Radio NZ is playing a radio documentary tribute to Dennis on January 19th at 7pm.
|Jonathan Dennis with Witarina Harris at the opening ceremony, |
Te Maori Wellington, October 1986. Stills Collection, NZFA
Jonathan Dennis is the very fine individual who was responsible for the arrival on our shores of the showcase of the films of Asta Nielsen, one of the first and greatest stars of early silent European cinema, seen at this year’s Film Festival But his involvement with the preservation and presentation of movies from both the silent and sound era goes back further He was the driving force behind the establishment of The New Zealand Film Archive in 1981, and saw it through its difficult adolescence, departed last year for greener pastures.
After reveling in the delights of the Asta Nielsen films (you all did, right?), lt seemed like a good time to look at this ‘scratchy old movies’ business in greater detail, throw it under the magnifying glass and ask why people have such trouble watched old movies.
“My interest in film preservation started in the mid seventies when the realisation came to me and a small number of others that films that had been made in New Zealand were being lost with an alacrity that was becoming depressing The process of turning that around took several years, a long tame, actually, and involved personally for me a lot of politics, a lot of trying to work out just what we wanted and what was possible. We started the Archive with an insane sense of enthusiasm, we had a dogmatic belief that It was possible.
“We were cunning enough and persistent enough that we could wind our way through the various beaurocracies that were either trying to prevent it happening, or couldn’t care less. My aim initially was to make people care, make them see that there was a sense of time and place contained within these images that touched people in a particular way. I spent two years training at film archlves in Europe and North America.
“The Archive developed differently from our overseas counterparts The basic idea was the same as with the people who started the major archives overseas, such as Henry Langois in Paris and others – they loved film; that was the starting point. But most of the great film archives were started in the thirties, we were really late in starting, and what that gave me at the time was an opportunity to look very carefully at the structures and operations of my international colleagues, and I found that very few of them were what I would want to have, or be part of, in this country So I came back not so much with a sense of what I wanted but what I didn’t want.
“There were several people who were inspirational to me – one of them was Len Lye. Len posed a question to me which was ‘nice idea to have this archive and all, but would it aid creativity?’ I was annoyed about it at the time, I thought ‘what does he mean?’, but over the years it took on an importance that was central to how I wanted to operate.
“The other person was an extraordinary woman called Mary Meerson, who’d helped establish the Cinemetheque Francaise in Paris. She kept reminding me that for fllms to live they have to be in front of people. Armed at a subconscious level with Len’s question and Mary’s ideas, it was a matter of trying to see just what need there was There was the initial slog getting the expertise and standards in place, film preservation is incredibly specialised, detailed and time consuming, the Archive operates according to the internationally prescribed standards for film presentation; initially the laboratory had the utmost difficuylt in meeting those requirements, so that took a while.”
The Archive went through several stages; at first Jonathan used shock tactics to elicit a response from the public; he got his hands onto some repulsive decomposing rolls of film from our past and paraded them around, giving the pitch of ‘look what we are losing’, working on the great loss principle. (”lf there is any reasons why the loss of a particular ltem would be regretted in the future, there is a case for preservation”) with a showman’s technique “I always thought film archives were part of showbusiness and I could be entrepreneurial about it – one didn’t have to kowtow to other people’s ideas of what a film archive should be, all dullness and formica.”
“This initial approach gave way after a little while to a need to show people not only the destructlon, but also what was being saved, and why these images were so precious, saying loók at what we’ve just found and preserved, isn’t it fantastic’ (and often it was). With the destruction element there, if we didn’t get some more money everything else would be lost too. It worked very well.
"But none of it would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the general public response to what we were trying to do. People would hear me on the radio, and they would send five dollars or something, people actually took it very personally that these films were being lost, as indeed they were -of the early films made here before the thirties we’ve lost 80% of them.’’
“You have to remember that the Archive was started with a permanent staff of me in one room premises we were sharing with Bill Gosden at the Federation of Fllm Societies in Wellington (the Archive’s association with the Film Festival really dates back from there), and an initial grant from the New Zealand Film Commission of $5000.
“Whatever I wanted to do, including be able to pay myself, I had to raise the money. So we existed for the first five years on grants, mostly from the Lotterles Board and sympathetic ministers but they were always one-off, there was never guaranteed funding.
“When we finally had something to screen people responded extraordinarily, and what grew from that was the concept we called the Travelllng Film Shows, using the whole country as a national film theatre. We undertook to make the films accessible to people where it was most appropriate, their own images, history and memories as they existed on moving usages for both Maori and Pakeha. From the early series of screenings it became extremely clear that Maori people preferred to be able to watch their particular treasures in their own surroundings on the marae rather than in a theatre.
“From that grew an attempt to make the Archive fully bicultural, a process that hasn’t fully happened, but the princlples on which it could happen exist in a very clear way; it was a notion of sharing.”
"Not all masterpieces are
created in the present"
It was important to note here that the Archive sees itself as kaitiaki or guardian, not owner, of its moving image collection, an essential distiction in relation to films such as the early anthropological films of the Maori from earlier this century. The Archive’s direct action of taking its treasures to the people is vastly different from any other film archive in the rest of the world.
“It was regarded with amazement and awe by our international colleagues. It sprung from a response to the fact that we’re not Europe, America; it was a sense of trying to examine who we were, where we were, and what we could do about it in a way that had some meaning here. With the Maori films I have never taken them overseas as part of retrospectives unless they were accompanied in their own right by their own people (mostly by kaumatua Witarina Harris). It was essential that they were accompanied by someone who could speak on their behalf.’’
The Archives screenings in conjunction with the Film Festival date back to 1984 with the presentation of The Adventures of Algy, shot in New Zealand and Australia in 1925, it was accompanied by musicians performing live in the cinema, a truly splendid event.
“The Festival also offered us the possibility of bringing to the country films that seemed to me had some importance; they had last been seen here 50 or 60 years ago and hadn’t been in general circulation since, and films that should be seen as part of our literacy of cinema. We were linked to the international film archive movement and had the treasure houses of all of the world’s archives to choose from.
"It worked for several reasons; one, it gave us a chance to bring in work that had been restored by our colleagues, people could see this material looking gorgeous, so the concepts people had about old films would start to be smashed. Secondly, if they were successful, like Henry V (tremendously successful because Laurence Olivier chose to die just before it, extremely endearing of him, we thought), it funded our travelling shows and our marae screenings.
“I should make it clear that I resigned from the Archive in March last year, and have had little or no involvement with it now except for the Asta Nielsen screenings in conjunction with them. So it’s a little different now in that I’m not at the Archive, I have even more freedom to scan around.
“Also I wanted a slightly stronger sense of context. Our Festival screenings often seemed to me isolated one off things. This time I wanted people to have the opportunity to explore slightly wider, so you could actually see two or three and draw your own conclusions and sense of time. With the Asta Nielsens, it meant we could take a look at German cinema over quite an extended period and see films that had never been shown here. Who would now fund a major feature film of Hamlet with a woman in the lead role? We have Mel Gibson, but would we see the reverse – Glenn Close playing Hamlet? We never would.
“When she achieved success, for a period anyway, she was able to control what she was doing. By then she was the greatest European film star, she’d made a lot of people a lot of money, UFA Studios were built on the success of her films. So putting these works in a context was important. But it’s fraught with problems.
“One is confronting what I think of as illiteracy – presenting these films is a risk, always, it’s like mounting a small opera – some people’s cynical and patronising reactions to the films, it seems so limited in perception; I can’t be bothered with 1991 telling 1920 what it thinks of it, or just how superior we are because I don’t believe it. Not all masterpieces are created in the present.”
Getting people to take that risk is difficult; a dash of showmanship comes into play; there’s the Archive’s musical collaborations with composer Dorothy Buchanan, providing scores for live accompaniment, “trying to get people to recognise what is being presented is special.”
Asta Nielsen’s career spanned 22 years, she made 66 movies, all but one of them silent. Nielsen’s career came to a close around the same time as the arrival of sound in movies – was this one of the factors that bought about her decline? “Well, things changed, the times changed. When she began in 1910 it was not to make her a film star, it was to attract the attention of Danish theatrical producers to the range of work she was capable of; she was a very successful stage actor but was feeling very limited by the roles she was being offered.
“The Abyss was an attempt to change that, and it did change things, but not in the way she’d intended. The theatrical establishment paid no more attention to her than before but the success of the film internationally led her to Berlin. She got a contract which gave her exceptional freedom to make eight ‘Asta Nielsen films’ a year for five years. So she could explore the widest range of roles and characters, dramas, comedies she was a great comic actor and an even finer tragic dramatic actor. Before World War I she was probably the best known film star, certainly within Europe.
“By the mid twenties things were already changing in Germany, her last major films of the twenties were Joyless Street and Tragedy of the Street, both of which she plays a similar kind of role , an older woman trapped into prostitution. She then returned to the stage in Berlin and played a wide range of classical roles. With sound there was a problem, she felt, because of her strong Danish accent. She chose to leave Germany in the mid thirties because of the rise of Nazis; she was offered her own studio but chose not to be a part of that.”
“I don’t know whether she felt there would be possibilities back in Denmark – but there certainly weren’t, and if there were they weren’t going to be offered to her. Denmark simply didn’t respond to having her home. Parochialism, perhaps? So she wrote her autobiography then and it was a great success, but it didn’t lead to anything. She made her last film in 1952 and apart from the documentary she made in 1968, she never really worked again, and that is quite astonishing, because as the documentary makes fairly clear, she was a very powerful woman, still. It was a waste of her final forty years. She tried to open a cinema in Copenhagen eleven times and was turned down every time.”
On the Joyless Street, Nielsen worked with the director G.W. Pabst, who would later give the world Louise Brooks as Lulu in the classic Pandora’s Box (1928), a film the Archive bought here several years ago in an absolutely exquisite print.
“Asta had already played this role in an earlier version, and there is a section of it included in the documentary. It’s interesting to see how like Asta Neilsen Brooks looked; Louise Brooks knew about Asta Nielsen, she had the same hairstyle, same look as Asta used for Lulu, there are strong similarities.’’
What bought about your departure from the Film Archive? “I felt the time was right, a number of cycles had been completed; some of it was seeing Mana Waka to completion, my involvement with that had been about seven years. It was time for me to let go, and reclaim some of my own life.’’
Since Jonathan’s departure last March he has treated us to the delights of the Asta Nielsen screenings; his current project is editing a book examining the New Zealand film and television industries and their cultural contexts, due for publication next year.
It is a book that is long overdue in this country, an idea whose time has come, finally. Featured will be essays from Merata Mita on the place of the image in Maoritanga and the impact of filmed images on Maori culture), Roger Horrocks (on experimental film and video making and its part in creating a distinctive local film culture), and producer John O’Shea (his observations of film and television culture from 1940 to 1979).
Film and television producer Alison Webber will provide a feminist perspective of both industries, and Peter Wells will write on the politics of inclusion and exclusion during the 70s and 80s, in relation to his own work (Jewel's Darl, A death in the family.) Geoff Murphy writes on the problems of making films in a country this side, and Russell Campbell examines documentary film-making here.
Also featured will be interviews with many of the leading directors, such as Jane Campion and Vincent Ward, and producers who have made (and continue to make) the moving images that represent ourselves on screen. Coming to a bookshop near you next year.