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Thursday 10 November 2016

Book preview: The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis

Posted in: Books
By Jacqui Stanford - 23rd September 2015

A new book is being launched in Wellington tonight telling the story of the founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision), out and proud gay man Jonathan Dennis. And there are some tales from his life to tell!


Author Emma Kelly tells us more about The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis.

You can buy a copy online here

What made you want to tell Jonathan Dennis’ story?

My first job after my Masters was as an Image Archivist at the New Zealand Herald and there were all these beautiful old photos from the earliest days of photography. Many of them showed Māori people and most were unnamed. As a Pakeha I had no knowledge of how to look after these images.

I started reading to find out who might give me some guidance and also started learning Te Reo Māori. At the same time in 2004 Peter Wells' film 'Friendship Is the Harbour of Joy' played at the NZ International Film Festival. It was a documentary about Jonathan's house, his dying time, and his friendship with Witarina Harris, a kuia from Ohinemutu at Rotorua who had starred in a 1929 film called 'The Devil's Pit' for Universal Studios. She played 'Princess Miro', the exotic love interest.

Peter Wells' film was the first indication I had that Jonathan was gay - I was interested in someone being the Director of a national institution such as the Film Archive and also very clearly signalling his sexuality.

My Dad didn't come out until he was 61, and I really wanted to find out some stories about gay people who had been out prior to Homosexual Law Reform. And anyway, how could I resist wanting to find out more about this man, whose best friend was forty years older than him and how he came to have such an amazing colourful house full of camp iconography, beautiful modernist NZ art (including a Colin McCahon painting or two), and how he had come to do the work he had done?

I started by interviewing people who had known him, many of whom were gay men. Their stories sparked Dad and I to start a separate collection of Auckland based older gay men's oral histories called 'Queer Stories Our Fathers Never Told Us' which is available from the Auckland Libraries network at Waitakere Library - Billy Farnell and Russell Green of Shanghai Lil's are interviewed, as well as people from rural areas who didn't come out until they moved to the city, Bill Pearson's partner Don Stenhouse, and lots of other lovely men who were very generous with their stories (and man did some of them get up to interesting stuff!)

He was out and proud before Homosexual Law Reform ... how do you think this impacted his life?

Jonathan reckoned it didn't impact his life. I just did a talk at 'Queer History in the Making' at the National Library and talked about how when he was 16, Jonathan wrote to the Secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society asking to join. This was 1969 and the Secretary was a bit freaked out as he didn't want people thinking the Society were perverting young minds. So the compromise was Jonathan had to bring a chaperone to meetings - his Dad was happy to oblige.

Jonathan was lucky to have parents who loved him unconditionally. Later he, Sef Townsend and Ferry Hendricks were having a 'menage a trois' as Ferry put it, and the three of them needed a place to live while saving money to go to Europe in the late seventies. So they shared Jonathan's room at his parents' house in a large waterbed for a number of months.

I am sure it impacted the lives of others?

So Jonathan didn't think it impacted on his life. But I was told by an interviewee for my project that when he started at Concert FM doing 'The Film Show' radio reviews in the early nineties, upper management wanted him to have voice training to make him sound less camp. His producer said absolutely not, Jonathan did not need or want voice training. He was never told this occurred by his producer who very carefully protected him from the bureaucracy of the institution.

Also one of Jonathan's old school friends described the extraordinary bullying at the private boys' school they attended in Canterbury where rugby, cricket and blokey behavior was the norm. The friend thought Jonathan protected himself with clever words from the bullying, but in later life Jonathan said he had to be 'transparent' to cope with his school life which was 'terrible' and 'torture'. He'd run off to the movies whenever he could to escape, and he and Peter Wells talked in later life about how movies were their opportunity to imagine life as they wanted to live it - in the pre clinch close up they could imagine themselves being kissed by the hero of the film. So although he said it didn't have impact on him, others were aware that it did.

Was he able to foster gay stories through film? And how?

Jonathan Dennis, founding director, and Witarina Harris, first kaumātua of Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.
Peter Wells wrote to Jonathan in the 2000s to thank him for showing Peter's early films with gay themes at the National Library. Jonathan also always played the NZ gay, queer, trans* themed films that were being made whenever he curated film exhibitions.

It's worth mentioned that he also fostered and supported female film makers, gay or straight.

In his own creative work Jonathan developed gay stories through soundscapes. He only ever managed to make one film 'Mouth Wide Open' (1998) about an early film maker Ted Coubray. Ted's sexuality is not mentioned in that film. However in 1995 he and producer Elizabeth Alley made an extraordinary soundscape for radio called 'A Day Without Art'. This engaged with a US based movement to celebrate and commemorate the stories of artists with HIV AIDS. Jonathan and Elizabeth's work echoed elements of Derek Jarman's extraordinary last film 'Blue' (1993) which was a blue screen throughout with a soundtrack of Jarman and his friends and colleagues reciting poetry, reading from diaries, and playing music in relation to gay people's experience with HIV AIDS.

Jonathan and Elizabeth's radio soundscape won awards here and was a finalist in the New York Radio Awards too. It's an amazingly emotional and moving work and I hope to get permission to get it up online soon.

What do you hope people take from the book?

A sense of the fun and creative passion Jonathan brought to what can be a really dry task. Archiving isn't exactly sexy, but he did it because he wanted people to experience extraordinary works from the past which he felt needed to be shared into the future. He was quite willing to take historical materials and reinvent them creatively into new works as appropriate. He also had a really strong sense of place here in the Pacific and a keen sense of social justice and he allied with people where he felt he could help create the space for them to do their work and get attention for it - so for example he worked with film makers like Merata Mita when he asked her to direct an edit of early footage of Māori war canoes being made. Jonathan produced this film which became 'Mana Waka' (1990). Jonathan didn't mind taking on a fight if he felt it was important.

How do you think he’d like to be remembered?

Jonathan knew he could be a bit of a bitch at times. He sometimes snubbed people who he didn't want to talk to. But he also knew that he was well loved by people who recognised his sense of joy and fun and passionate engagement with the world. He had huge loyalty to his friends, and they all remember that. They all remember the postcards he used to send them - funny, silly, kitschy images with messages he'd write such as 'We Need You Back in NZ' or 'We Love You'.

I think he would want to be remembered as someone who was willing to take risks to tell counter narratives about New Zealand, someone who knew how to have fun and love people for who they were. And, as one of his friends said at his funeral (a massive affair at the packed out Paramount Cinema in Courtenay Place Wellington in 2002) he loved sex!

Emma Kelly’s book will be launched tonight at 5.30pm at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, 84 Taranaki Street, Te Aro Wellington. RSVP to

It will be followed by a screening at 7pm of 'Mouth Wide Open', the only film Dennis ever directed.

Jacqui Stanford - 23rd September 2015

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