The First Film Festival

The Beginnings of the Auckland Film Festival

The Beginnings of the Auckland Film Festival

By Roger Horrocks (one of the organisers for the first ten years)


The Auckland Film Festival was created in the right place at the right time, in a rather insular country (as New Zealand then was), and at a time of ferment (the era of the sixties, a time when we yearned for a local film industry, and for our country to become less parochial and more sophisticated, to open up more fully to the world).

I think I’m the only surviving member of the founding committee. I continued as part of that committee for the first ten Festivals. When we began, we were nervous about the Festival breaking even, but thank god it did. In fact, it really took off. Granted, it still relied largely on voluntary labour and the support of the Film Society movement. But it appeared at just the right moment.

Film choice in Auckland was much more limited in the 1960s. Film exhibition was almost entirely controlled by two cinema chains, Kerridge and Amalgamated, who concentrated on commercial, mainstream films. Wynne Colgan, the Chairman of the Festival Committee, remembers the first time he told Sir Robert Kerridge about the Festival idea: “I went to see Kerridge who received me warmly, as per usual. He smiled benignly when I said that I felt we were ready for an international film festival, and he said, ‘Oh, you can try it once but you won't be back for a second.’” [My thanks to film historian Simon Sigley for this anecdote.]

The Festival idea grew out of a smaller season of films that we organised each year as part of a larger event – the Auckland Festival of the Arts. (Yes, Auckland had such a festival in the 1960s.) Our film committee would round up a few interesting films related to the arts, plus films which had reached New Zealand but were not ‘commercial’ enough for the cinema chains to know what to do with them. By 1969 Wynne felt the time had come to have a full-scale, independent festival, and the rest of us on the committee strongly agreed.

The way to do it turned out to be a partnership with the Adelaide Film Festival, enabling us to share the costs of finding and importing the films. The competition with Sydney and Melbourne encouraged Adelaide to seek out new directors, and Adelaide also offered a prize. Besides discovering new directors, they were strongly interested in politics. A lot of interesting directors were just then emerging in East Europe (such as Wajda and Janscó), and we also collaborated with Adelaide to get the first films of Herzog, Fassbinder and Cronenberg, among others. Wynne used to go to Adelaide to make a selection from their films, and one year I went. Adelaide was happy with the partnership because filmmakers liked the idea of getting their film screened in two countries rather than one.

We still picked up a few off-beat films from local commercial distributors. And we attempted to find New Zealand films, though they were scarce at that time. The link with Adelaide meant that we had to hold our Festival at a different time of year from the Auckland Festival of the Arts, although they still provided some of the infrastructure (via The Auckland Festival Society). They were happy that we made some money for them. Personally, I always felt that the Society tended to look down their noses at us – they were obsessed with the traditional arts, and I know that at least some of their organisers viewed film as an upstart art form.

Inevitably we came to a parting of the ways. At the end of ten years the Auckland Festival of the Arts was struggling to stay afloat, and they apparently decided that the remedy was to squeeze more money out of the Film Festival in order to subsidise their other activities. So they simply fired our committee and seized control. Then they tried to cut corners in various ways, but their new approach didn’t work, and after a couple of unsuccessful years the Festival of the Arts expired, and – fortunately – our Film Festival then got re-structured in a way that restored its original spirit. The solution was to link it with Wellington so that a single organisation ran both festivals. But those later years are a different story and I’ll leave others to tell it. The period of history I know best is the first ten years during which I was a member of the organising committee.

The First Years

We were afraid that our first Festival would be a disaster, as various people in the commercial industry predicted. Fourteen features were shown in Auckland. In addition to new filmmakers, we had films by great directors such as Bresson, Olmi and Satyjit Ray. To our huge relief, we sold over ten thousand tickets. In the second year we sold 19,000, then 30,000 in 1971 and 38,000 in 1972 – a growth curve that amazed everyone. The key person during these years was our Chairperson, Wynne Colgan, who displayed much genius and determination in getting the Festival established.

We discovered we had two particularly loyal audiences. First, there were film enthusiasts – and not only old members of the Film Society movement, but also a new generation out of the 1960s (young adults, long haired hippies, some in bare feet, etc.) – a new generation who had grown up on the great French new wave, Italian and Swedish films. This was a golden age for films. (Those films didn’t all get to New Zealand, but there was basically just one ‘art house cinema’ – the Lido – which managed to screen some of the most important films.) The new generation of young filmgoers was contemptuous of mainstream Hollywood and hungry for more ‘unusual’ films than local cinemas were willing to supply. They loved the seriousness – and also the sexiness – of European films. (Hollywood in those days was still very uptight and square. Easy Rider and The Graduate were the first signs of change, around 1968–69.) This was a generation, born mostly in the mid-1940s, that profoundly changed New Zealand culture. Film was one of their major art forms, and the Festival became a key annual event for this group.

The second main audience were the foreign language communities, immigrants hungry to hear their native language (not heard on TV and seldom heard in the cinema). Remember that there were not yet any videos or DVDs! Some embassies, such as the French, helped the Festival (and the Film Society movement) to obtain films.

These two groups were our base. As the Festival continued, in the following years more of the general public came along to sample it. Sometimes these people made a bad choice and were shocked or confused by the first film they saw, but gradually more and more groups came, as well as more casual viewers – what is sometimes called ‘the crossover audience’. I was always fascinated by the letters we received as feedback. For every film in the Festival, it seemed as if there was always one person who raved, “I can’t thank you enough for bringing this film to NZ, it is the best film I’ve ever seen, it has changed my life!”, alongside another who claimed, “I’m so angry, that’s the worst film I’ve ever seen. I organised a group from my office to go to the Festival, and we saw this appalling film that was so kinky and depressing that my former workmates will never let me live it down!”

I realised that people had a lot of difficulty selecting which films to see, so for many years I used to write an alternative Festival programme which was published by Craccum, the Auckland University student paper, and available free. It provided additional information by including a range of overseas reviews, ranging from ecstatic to vitriolic.

The Festival established itself as an event. The manager of the cinema told me, during the first year, that he was having trouble clearing people away after each session. Unlike the usual cinema audience, they stayed to talk and argue excitedly. The Festival was clearly making a difference to film culture. We had visiting filmmakers, and critics such as Roger Manvell and Albert Johnson. Albert came from the San Francisco Film Festival, and while in New Zealand he saw State of Siege by Vincent Ward, then a student at Ilam. Johnson was so impressed by it that this was the start of Ward’s international reputation.

The Festival moved from one cinema to another as we used a commercial cinema each year. We used to play Amalgamated off against Kerridge. There was a lot of deal making and trading. The Festival was a nightmare for the projectionists at both chains because they were used to films that ran for three or four weeks – they would figure out how to set the lens and where to set the curtain stops, and then they could just forget about those details. But for every session of our Festival there was a different kind of film. Every film from Eastern Europe (an area in which Adelaide took a particular interest) seemed to have a different aspect ratio and they were labelled in foreign languages. During our first Festival, two reels of Jancsó’s The Red and the White were shown in reverse order (though few people in the audience appeared to notice).

Half way through each of our early Festivals, a projectionist would have a nervous breakdown or call the union to say he was on strike. I remember a wonderful film by Carlos Saura (Cria cuervos) that was being screened in the Civic one afternoon, and the projectionist didn’t show the last reel. The lights came on. Most of the audience sat there in shock, and then apparently thought: “Oh well, I guess it’s one of these weird foreign films that ends like that”, so they left. But about a dozen of us headed to the projection box. The projectionist literally locked his door and wasn’t coming out. He insisted (through the door) that there were no more reels. We refused to go away, and after about 20 minutes he discovered that, yes, there was another reel, which had arrived in a separate box from Adelaide.

On another occasion, an over-enthusiastic member of our committee who thought that projectionists were inclined to crop too much of the image, gave orders that projectionists had to show ‘the full frame’. As a result, in all the films for that day, the audience were able to see the camera tracks at the bottom of the frame and the microphone boom moving from one person to another. It was hilariously funny in a supposedly intimate love scene – the male actor would make a comment, then the audience would cheer as the mike boom moved slowly along the top of the frame towards the female actor, waiting for her to deliver her line in reply. Needless to say, ‘full frame’ (or ‘1.33’) was not an experiment that the Festival repeated!

New Zealand film censorship was a huge problem for the Festival, as it was for everyday film-going. Censor Doug McIntosh (responsible for the famous decision to require the film version of Ulysses to be screened to audiences of men and women separately) grew increasingly out of touch with changes in youth culture. Until his death in 1976, our country was regarded as having the most conservative film censorship in the world, with the possible exception of South Africa. The other day I saw a DVD of the Japanese film Eros+Massacre on sale and was reminded of how we had imported it for the Festival but then had it banned by the Censor. On behalf of the Festival, I used to send lengthy, earnest justifications of films to the censor’s office. For example, my defence of Eros+Massacre began: “This film attempts to grapple with serious problems and does so with remarkable imaginative energy. Most impressive is its study of the disturbed feelings of an adolescent boy, his loneliness, curiosity, and disturbing encounters with sex. This is a subject that has often been dealt with frankly in the novel, but seldom convincingly in a film... The masturbation scene arises naturally and realistically out of the story. It is less explicit than the masturbation scene in Bergman’s The Silence...” And so on. The Censor did not relent!

He also banned Godard’s A Married Woman and Hani’s Inferno of First Love. He cut films even for restricted Film Society screenings, such as Buñuel’s Archibald de la Cruz. He made extensive cuts to the celebrated Japanese film Double Suicide. Another problem was the finicky manner in which he would cut a film, even when it had an R16 certificate. This was distressing because once a film has been carefully edited, then even brief cuts can distort its shape and rhythm. The Censor automatically cut any glimpses of nakedness. For example, the BFI experimental film San Francisco got chopped every time there was a flash of pubic hair. We found it difficult to imagine how a one second shot of a naked woman, artistically photographed, was going to corrupt a grownup audience. The censor also tended to cut rather than bleep naughty words (like the ones that got Germaine Greer and Tim Shadbolt arrested around this time). In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, first screened by the Festival, there were approximately 50 cuts to remove the word ‘fuck’ from the soundtrack, thus giving parts of the film an avant-garde style of staccato editing!

The Festival was, I think, one of the catalysts for the emergence of a local film industry. All the future film directors were regular Festival-goers, and in later years some said that the annual exposure to so many different kinds of film, some from countries as small as ours, had helped to inspire their own early efforts. New Zealand had virtually no film industry in 1968, but the first stirrings were there. A number of short films were made in the 1970s, and a couple of 16mm features. 35mm feature films were made from 1977 on. We screened as many local films as we could, and I arranged for visits and talks during the Festival by Rudall and Ramai Hayward, and John O’Shea, among others. At the time I was shocked how few people seemed to know about these pioneers and their important work.

The cinemas didn’t want to bother with 16mm films, but there were some very interesting ones from Adelaide, including Herzog’s first feature film. Each year I presented a week of 16mm films free at the university, in the week before the main Festival started. Lunchtime and evening screenings in B28 usually had full houses. I showed overseas experimental films and first features, and any New Zealand films I could dig up. I used to do most of the projecting myself, which made it an exhausting week as some of the prints were ‘green’ (having just come from the lab) and some of their emulsion would flake off, causing the print to slip in the projector gate. I can still remember waking up in the middle of the night from a terrifying dream in which I imagined some precious print flying off the machine and becoming hopelessly tangled!

The success of the Festival was (if I may say so) a product of enthusiasts, people who loved film, who were not engaged merely in a commercial venture. There was a real element of crusade. And we (the organisers) ourselves wanted to see the films, so we used the Festival as a way to get them (and even a few of the filmmakers) over to New Zealand. Enthusiasm and personal commitment were the key, as they obviously still are for Bill Gosden and his team – and that aspect hasn’t changed over the years.

July 2008; June 2018

(With thanks to Simon Sigley whose excellent research on this period helped to remind me of some of the details).

Image: Roger Horrocks (right) with Lindsay Shelton, founding director of the Wellington Film Festival, photographed by Bill Gosden, 2015