24 frames: the greatest love story ever told
By Emma Kelly
In the early 1960s a small boy living at The Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook was sent to boarding school in Christchurch. Being a boy who liked to be with his family where he could play with dolls or sit in the dark watching 16mm films with the hotel guests, he did not get along with the others at school. He felt threatened and bullied and so he escaped as often as he could to the elegant surroundings of the Regent Theatre to watch films, often attending “the 11 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 5 o’clock… to… envelop myself in other worlds”.
Later his uncle Ron O’Reilly, head of Christchurch Library and himself an avid film society member and modern art collector, would drive him around the Canterbury plains describing films he’d seen such as Antonioni’s Blow Up. Through these experiences the boy developed an “addiction” to film which was to shape his life and his career. His name was Jonathan Dennis.
Gareth Watkins has created a new radio programme about Jonathan to mark the 10th anniversary of his death from cancer on January 24 2002. Starting with a recording Watkins made with interviewer Elizabeth Alley in Jonathan’s home a month before he died, he has re-edited this piece into a multi-layered soundscape reminiscent of The Film Show Radio NZ film reviews Jonathan became well known for in the 1990s. It is rich with sounds from films such as the chopping of wood from Mana Waka (1990, directed by Merata Mita, edited by Annie Collins and produced by Jonathan Dennis and the NZFA), sound effects of a rotary dial telephone as Jonathan describes being banned from access to the telephone at boarding school, and the music Jonathan loved.
Jonathan Dennis was the founding director of The New Zealand Film Archive/Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua. The programme reflects both Jonathan’s diverse contribution to NZ film heritage and also the close friendship shared by Elizabeth, Gareth himself and Jonathan. The self reflexivity of the piece is touching as it reveals Gareth’s desire to capture the sounds of Jonathan at the typewriter, or in the kitchen, “so I can remember”. We hear Elizabeth Alley, the consummate professional interviewer crying as she tries to ask Jonathan, her friend and interview subject, about his cancer, which he knows will soon kill him.
In the 1970s Jonathan was involved with experimental theatre company Amamus with Sam Neill, Anna Campion, Paul and Denise Maunder and others and also worked for the Film Society (mostly, he said, “so I could programme films I wanted to see”). Concurrently an older generation of filmmakers and producers, as well as archivists and arts administrators, was undertaking a campaign to pressure the government into supporting the creation of a Film Commission to help the development of the nascent film industry. It was decided in 1978 that the then interim Film Commission would be responsible along with National Library, Archives and others, to protect the nation’s film heritage.
As the momentum developed, Jonathan and Clive Sowry (the only professional film archivist in the country, employed by the National Film Unit) began to investigate the state of the nation’s film heritage, parts of which were stored in bunkers at Shelley Bay in the form of nitrate film, which is flammable. They were concerned by the deteriorating images they found and responded by creating a publicity campaign to support the development of a Film Archive. Jonathan’s experience in theatre was a great skill, and aided him in the ongoing media campaign on radio, television and newspapers, which was necessary to ensure the Archive as a charitable trust received enough funding.
Film producer Bridget Ikin notes, “Jonathan was a marvellous showman. His gifts were his passionate enthusiasm for – coupled with his phenomenal knowledge of – films. And then there was his determination to share his passion, by creating special film events around the country. I’ll never forget some of the screenings of restored early Māori films that I was lucky enough to attend, in remote marae and halls. The excitement in the audience was palpable. He always made these events specific and imbued with memorable meaning.”
After receiving a QEII Arts Council grant to study film archiving, Jonathan and his partner Fredrik Hendricks spent a couple of years visiting the greatest film archives in North America and Europe as well as Egypt. Upon their return in 1981 to NZ, Dennis became the first employee (and founding director) of the New Zealand Film Archive, supported by a board of film champions and volunteers.
As Professor Emeritus Roger Horrocks says, Jonathan was an “unsung hero of the film culture”. He goes on to explain, “People know Jonathan but his contribution was much greater than people acknowledged. He made a great contribution through his love of film as art. That’s what the term ‘film culture’ implies. It’s not a term that’s widespread because the film world is now very commercial. Jonathan really understood the art of film, and loved the tradition of film culture, which the Europeans, especially the French, had developed. Jonathan was a real cineaste. For example he was passionate about Bresson, who was truly a ‘film-maker’s film-maker’. We urgently need more Jonathans!”
In addition to his love of film, Jonathan developed a sense of the importance of the bicultural institution during the 1980s. With the help of early film star and kaumatua of the NZFA Witarina Harris (Ngati Whakāue), Jonathan and the Archive began tentatively to reach out to Māori communities to receive guidance in the appropriate process for archiving of Māori images and associated materials. Witarina’s voice can be heard talking during the programme. She and Jonathan took New Zealand films to the US, Hawaii, Poland, Germany, France, England and Italy to promote the little known film history of our country, “warming” them before each screening with Witarina’s knowledge of Māori culture.
Other important guiding figures for Jonathan were filmmakers Merata Mita (Te Arawa te iwi, Ngati Pikiao te hapù) and Barry Barclay (Ngati Apa te iwi) who as part of the Te Manu Aute collective of Māori communicators challenged the Archive to become a truly bicultural entity. Part of the process included the addition of the Māori name for the Archive, and the introduction of “Kaitiaki” (Guardian) agreements to ensure both physical and spiritual safety of Māori images. By the end of Jonathan’s nine years at the Archive a bicultural framework was in place which stands strong today.
Filmmaker and academic Ella Henry remembers Jonathan from this time as someone who she enjoyed working alongside, and as a Pākehā who supported Māori regaining control of Māori images.
24 Frames: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told captures the enthusiasm and passion Jonathan felt for film and his strong sense of place in Aotearoa. Through this new radio programme made 10 years after Jonathan’s death, an opportunity arises to enjoy and reflect upon both Jonathan Dennis’ contribution to the creativity of the archive through his many works using archival records, and to ask a wider question of the place of the New Zealand Film Archive in the national consciousness. For if an archive is a biography of the nation, what does our national film collection say about us today?
24 Frames: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told will be broadcast on Radio NZ Concert, 7pm Thurs 19th Jan and 2pm Sun 22 Jan; and on Radio New Zealand National, 4.06pm Sun 22 Jan and 9.06pm Tues 24 Jan.
Ko Ingarihi, Ko Airihi, Ko Kotimana ōku iwi. Ko Emma taku ingoa. Emma Kelly was born in Aotearoa of English, Irish and Scottish descent. She is a PhD student in the School of Communication Studies at AUT writing a thesis entitled The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis; a critical biography of the founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua.