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National Film Unit Collection

Curated by NZ On Screen Team
5th August 2010

 National Film Unit Collection

National Film Unit Collection

 NZ On Screen Team

Curated by NZ On Screen Team


" ... a hidden gem"

This collection celebrates the diverse output of the National Film Unit. For nearly 50 years the government body filmed everything from wartime newsreels and tourism promos to historical TV epics; it bred Oscar nominations, pioneering female directors, and political controversy, and was a key industry training ground (alumni include Sam Neill, John Laing, Sam Pillsbury) ... 


A sampler pack of NFU films

 Rhythm and Movement (Weekly Review 346)

This experimental Weekly Review profiles the work of rhythmical gymnastics pioneer Gisa Taglicht. Then-risqué for its skimpy outfits and partial nudity, it shows YWCA dancers escape machine and washing line oppression to flounce against a stark sky. Douglas Lilburn composed the score.

 The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil

Bob Stenhouse offers an animated ode to the “nation of drunkards”. Set in 1902, a shepherd tricks a Mackenzie barman out of a bottle of ‘Hokonui Lightning', but too much pioneer spirit sees him haunted by the devil's daughter. It was nominated for an Oscar for Short Film (Animated) in 1986.

 The Story of Seven-Hundred Polish Children

From front-running female filmmaker Kathleen O'Brien, this film tells the story of 734 Polish child war refugees adopted by NZ in 1944. Moving interviews, filmed 20 years later, document a harrowing exodus from Poland: via Siberian labour camps, malnutrition and death, to new lives in NZ.

 Gone Up North for a While

After a young woman falls pregnant, she decides to go against the advice of her family and welfare authorities by keeping her baby. Paul Maunder’s improvised drama can claim to have effected social change, stirring up public debate about the DPB after it screened on TV. A young Paul Holmes is a wannabe lothario.

 Flare - A Ski Trip

A 'ski ballet' is performed at Mount Hutt, Queenstown and Ruapehu. This evocative tourism promo was directed by one Sam Neill (shortly to achieve fame as an actor), one of several docos he directed while at the NFU. Shooter Bayley Watson used a DIY rig to capture the freestyle 70s action (and beards).

 Snows of Aorangi

This was the first Kiwi film to compete for an Oscar, nominated in 1958. Shot by photographer Brian Brake as a tourism promo, it surveys some stunning mountain imagery: ethereal ice forests, lightning storms, and mesmerising downhill skiing. Poet James K Baxter scripted the narration.

 This Is New Zealand

This is New Zealand was made to promote the country at Expo '70 in Osaka, Japan; iconic imagery was projected on three adjacent screens. Two million people saw it in Osaka, and over 350,000 Kiwis saw on its homecoming theatrical release. This excerpt screens on a specially-commissioned online player.


This classic observational film looks at the working lives of a crew of Wellington rubbish collectors. With an insightful ‘dustie’ narrating, it follows a team as they face irate householders, sodden winter sacks, and notoriously steep hills; perks include discarded beer, money and toasters! 

 Peter Snell - Athlete

This insightful snapshot tells Peter Snell's story up to just prior to his Tokyo Olympics triumph. Candid commentary from Snell plays over priceless Lynton Diggle-shot footage of Snell racing and training, running in the Waiatarua hills, through native bush and leaping farm fences. 

 Holiday for Susan

This tourism promo enthusiastically follows 22-year-old Aussie Susan’s tour of Godzone with Kiwi girlfriend Lorraine. Abounding with shots of scenic wonder, industrial progress and Susan’s legs, it presents a jaunty portrait of 60s NZ as a romantic destination for young globetrotters. 

 Exhibition Loop

This exhibition doco provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the various stages of 40s film production at the NFU, from shoot to post production. Shot at the unit's Miramar studios, There’s genial interaction among the onscreen cast and crew, who include many key early NFU figures.

 Games 74

This chronicle of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marked one of the NFU’s most ambitious productions. Though a range of events (including famous runs by John Walker and Dick Tayler), are covered, the film often bypasses the pomp and glory approach; daring to talk to the injured and failed. 

 Maori Battalion Returns (Weekly Review 232)

This newsreel shows Māori Battalion solders returning from WWII. On Wellington's Aotea Wharf they’re greeted with a huge pōwhiri and at the ensuing hākari the kaimoana and pia flow freely. The reel then follows the regional celebrations of men returning home in Kuku and Ngaruawahia.

 The Governor - The Reverend Traitor (Episode One)

NZ TV's first historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry, awards and "test match sized" audiences. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. TVNZ co-produced the six-part series in association with the NFU.

 Ralph Hotere

This Sam Pillsbury doco explores the work of artist Ralph Hotere, now arguably NZ’s greatest living artist. Rare images of Hotere working capture him preparing a large mural, and his experiments with ‘Xerography’. Features Hone Tuwhare, Bill Manhire, and many 70s art world figures.

 A Friendly Career

Aka The Story of the Training and Life of the New Zealand School Dental Nurse, this was a promo made for the Department of Health. It waltzes through the idyll of one doe-eyed lass’s sugar-coated journey to a career in the ‘murder house’, caring for the teeth of the Dominion’s children. 

 Wildlife of the Mountains

Beautifully shot, directed, and packed full of information, this is the kind of film the NFU was famous for. It examines the alpine flora and birdlife in the Upper Waitaki area: natives featured include karearea (falcons), kererū and kea; introduced animals include deer, chamois, and thar. 

 The Elysian Bus

It’s a Wonderful Life meets wet weather driver education in this 1951 film. Far removed from the visceral shock of today’s road safety ads, the film sets up a mystery plot as five naive unfortunates find themselves at a bus stop in pea-soup fog, en route to ‘Elysian Fields’. 


Footage from the French 1979 rugby tour of NZ is rendered in slow-motion and cut to a Tchaikovsky score in this Arthur Everard film. Operatic lineouts, driving tackles, and the dark mysteries of the ruck, make for a ballsy Swan Lake in the mud. It includes the Bastille Day French triumph.

 The Coaster (Weekly Review 374)

The coaster Breeze was immortalised in this film, written by the poet Denis Glover and narrated by Selwyn Toogood. The director of The Coaster, Cecil Holmes, would become famous as the victim of the 'satchel snatch' incident which saw him accused of communist leanings and lose his job at the NFU.

 Journey for Three

This dramatised doco was boosterism for postwar immigration to NZ. The film records the hopes, jobs, challenges and adventures (tramping, skiing, milk bars, the races, romance) of three Brits migrating down under. Released theatrically in the UK, it was scored by Douglas Lilburn.

 Country Lads

This wartime information film was designated as the first National Film Unit production. Produced by Stanhope Andrews, it follows NZ soldiers — described by Hitler as “poor deluded country lads” — as they leave for the front, and co-opts the put-down as a complimentary spur.

 Shearing Technique

This short showcases the 'Bowen Technique', an innovative shearing method involving rhythmical sweeps of the handpiece, developed by bros Godfrey and Ivan. The legendary Godfrey was described in The Guardian as having arms that "flow with the grace of a Nureyev shaping up to an arabesque".

 To Live in the City

Director Arthur Everard’s documentary pursues four young Māori - Ripeka, Moana, Grace and Phillip - as they transition from school, whānau and rural life To Live In the City. It was followed up Seven Up!-style in 1991 with a doco revisiting the lives of the four, now middle aged.

 Barry Brickell: Potter

This upbeat doco about artist, conservationist, and rail enthusiast Barry Brickell is filmed at his home studio. With a jazzy score and Brickell working his clay alone in the sun, amidst the five-finger and harakeke of the Coro’ bush, the making of NZ art has never looked more picturesque.

 The Snowline is Their Boundary

Beautifully shot by Brian Brake, the challenges of farming the vast stations on the rugged aprons of the Southern Alps are captured in this documentary. The centrepiece is the great autumn muster. “It's mutton every meal out here - we chase sheep every day and eat them every meal.”

 Architect Athfield

Another Sam Neill-directed doco this film examines the philosophy and early achievements of innovative architect Ian Athfield. Athfield won an international competition in 1975 to design housing for 140,000 squatters in Manila. It culminates in a trip to the Philippines to pursue the project.

 Monkey Tale

In the anthropomorphic (and non-PC) tradition of the PG tips ads and chimpanzee zoo tea party comes this contribution to the genre by Kathleen O'Brien. Here chimps provide safe cycling lessons. The quaint film is from another world to the brutality of contemporary road safety promos.

 Such A Stupid Way To Die

This infamous bush safety film sees a fictional trip into the bush turn into a Stubbies-clad 70s Kiwi version of the Blair Witch Project as we're told that one of the group will not survive the night, picked off by a fearsome killer: exposure. Actor Ray Henwood in a lab coat preaches weather awareness.

 Railway Worker (Weekly Review 355)

This doco follows 24 hours of work on the railways. It shows commuter trains in Wellington; workers toil on the railway lines above the remote Waimakariri Gorge; and the town of Otira gets ready for a dance. It was directed by New Zealand’s first female film director, Margaret Thomson.

Public service filmmaking

Public service filmmaking

Screen historian Roger Horrocks offers a highlights history of the government outfit mooted to net "the Vitamin D of nationality". Read more >

"It was a sort of hideout for slackers and innovators ..."

"It was a sort of hideout for slackers and innovators ..."

NFU alumni Paul Maunder, Lynton Diggle, Sam Pillsbury and Arthur Everard provide written reflections on their time with the Unit. Read more >

Ski ballet, architects and Red Moles

Ski ballet, architects and Red Moles

Before he was famous as an actor Sam Neill was a director at the NFU in his 20s; he recalls the time in this ScreenTalk interview. Watch >

Archives New Zealand

Archives New Zealand

This extraordinary collection would not be possible without the support of Archives New Zealand, who are stewards of the NFU archive. More info >.

Watch More

Watch More

There are over 50 NFU titles on NZ On Screen (more added regularly) — from Hillary Returns, to A Dolphin's Story, to Bred to Win ... Browse >