Scoop Review of Books

Local Hero

Book Review
Whatever It Takes: Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948 – 2000
 by John Reid (Victoria University Press, $60)
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton

Whatever_coverJohn Reid’s new book about John O’Shea and Pacific Films is astounding but it’s also sad. Astounding, because of its extraordinary story of the fifty-year achievements of a unique New Zealand film company run by a man who was ahead of his time. Sad, because it details the enormous amount of opposition that confronted Pacific Films throughout its life.

Even before the start of his filmmaking career, at a time when we were dominated by movies from Hollywood, John O’Shea was one of the few voices stating the need for local films which would reflect New Zealand’s way of life.  Reid observes that he wanted to be a New Zealand filmmaker as much as he wanted to be a filmmaker at all.

Anyone who thinks they know about Pacific Films will be amazed to discover the enormity of the company’s output, described so well by John Reid after an immense amount of research. And anyone who thought that Pacific Films faced only occasional opposition will be shocked to discover for how long it faced so many stubborn rejections – not only from both of New Zealand’s two theatrical exhibition companies at various times, but also from the monopolistic government-owned National Film Unit and later from the equally monopolistic and inward-looking state television system (which  refused to show anything made by Pacific Films or to commission any productions, except during a brief period when Tahu Shankland was head of production.)

Some of Pacific’s greatest achievements are well known –  it made the only three feature films that were produced in New Zealand in three decades (Broken Barrier 1952, Runaway 1964, Don’t Let It Get You 1966), the ground-breaking Tangata Whenua series written and presented by Michael King, the marvellous group of documentaries created by Tony Williams and Michael Heath, most notably  the prescient Lost in the Garden of the World (1975) in which they go to the Cannes Film Festival to ponder on why New Zealand wasn’t making films like the rest of the world. John Reid’s detailed narrative is fascinating as it describes the struggle – seemingly at times almost impossible — to make each production happen.

Roger Mirams had “jumped ship” from the Film Unit to establish the Pacific Film Unit in 1947.  O’Shea joined him after meeting him in Wellington in 1950.  John Reid records how as they pushed ahead with what was to become Broken Barrier (the first feature made in New Zealand since 1940), they “shared the elegant if simple view that it wasn’t going to happen unless they made it happen.”

But even as they were completing a three-week shoot on the Mahia Peninsula, they faced the need to keep the company afloat by making sponsored documentaries – eight were contracted during the two-year production period. As they shot the feature, O’Shea was still employed as a film censor, but after the film earned a modest local box office success (though not enough to make a profit) he left the censor’s office – “it’s a big break for me leaving the threadbare shelter of the Queen’s service for the more colourful but equally threadbare cloak of private enterprise.”

The partnership ended in 1957, when Mirams moved to Australia, leaving O’Shea in command of a company which, he hoped, would enable him to show how a local film industry could demonstrate its relevance to New Zealanders. Reid notes, however, that he recognised that without a significant level of subsidy there wasn’t a large enough local audience to provide a return from the feature films that he wanted to make. O’Shea’s priorities were clear: money and the commercial side of production were a means to an end, never the end itself.

It wasn’t till 1964 that a second feature became possible. (O’Shea directed the second and third features.) In the meantime he continued to make sponsored documentaries that were “satisfying and absorbing.”

Hundreds of documentaries and newsreels are listed in the book. Pacific became known for its road safety films (more than 25 of them.) There were scores of newsreels, including rugby tests and royal tours as well as tourism documentaries and surveys of manufacturing and secondary industries. Cookery Nook, a short film for Edmonds featuring Aunt Daisy, became a cult classic, screening in cinemas for many years. Twenty-seven monthly editions of Pacific Magazine were produced and released in cinemas where they were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Reid notes: “With television still seven years away and local production even further distant, Pacific Magazine filled a role as a visual news source and encouraged a sense of belonging.”

The book records the years of stubborn efforts that John O’Shea (with Eric Anderson) continued day after day, to pay the bills and keep the company afloat by making these documentaries. He tells how O’Shea succeeded in producing five more features. And he describes how O’Shea ran Pacific Films “as an extended family. As head patriarch, he was tolerant, liberal and encouraging, but protective as well.” An impressive number of filmmakers (almost a hundred of them are listed) got their start in film-making through employment at Pacific Films.

Among them was Maori director Barry Barclay, who had a 20-year working relationship with John O’Shea – their Tangata Whenua documentary series (Reid writes) transported the vast majority of its Pakeha audience to a country they never knew existed. Another highlight was the feature film Ngati (with Wi Kuki Kaa in a powerful central role) which won New Zealand’s best film award when it was released in 1987.

Te Rua in 1990 was the last (and eighth) feature made by Pacific Films. It also marked the end of the working relationship between O’Shea and Barclay.  John Reid tells how John O’Shea felt deflated but nevertheless held doggedly to his conviction that “as much now as ever before there is a need for the strong independent voices and visions of artists and the films in which they collaborate to affirm our own identity, our way of life, our beliefs and hopes …our nightmares as well as our dreams.”

At the end of his book, John Reid writes:

“John O’Shea stood in no one’s shadow yet provided shelter for many. In a career spanning fifty years, his contribution survives in the dozens of filmmakers he mentored and encouraged.”

And he quotes his friend Tom Larkin at his funeral:

“John O’Shea had lived heroically in a country that doesn’t always know how to treat its heroes.”

This impressive book tells the memorable story of O’Shea’s heroic life, and in doing so it surveys half a century of enormous changes in New Zealand,  changes which Pacific Films not only reflected by also influenced.