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Kiwi Doc: Despite Challenges, Nonfiction is Thriving in New Zealand

By Ewa Bigio

A selection of films from DOCNZ festival 2006 printed onto canvas

Okay, enough already with the sheep jokes. Yes, it is true--in New Zealand there really are more sheep than people. Recently, a couple of enterprising local filmmakers decided to take the joke one step further and made Black Sheep, a horror movie about killer sheep that go on a murderous rampage. The film became an instant hit and has scored legions of fans around the world.

While New Zealand fiction filmmakers look inward for inspiration, buoyed by the international success of such films as Whale Rider and The Piano, globalization is inspiring a new wave of documentary filmmakers to look for ideas beyond the local landscape. This signifies a major departure for the industry that has historically been comprised of an inward-looking community of filmmakers dependent on local funding to produce local stories for television audiences.

Interest in documentary in New Zealand is at an all-time high. The launch of the 24-hour Documentary Channel on SKY TV late last year came as no surprise, while the debut of the documentary film festival DOCNZ in 2005 heralded a burgeoning interest in the genre. The festival's industry arm, The DOCNZ Summit, which was launched in 2006, included a Pitching Forum, as well as a number of educational opportunities. The general increase in nonfiction fare in terrestrial and non-standard broadcasters' programming signifies a healthy demand for even more documentary content. The same could be said for theatrical and DVD distribution, as those outlets have increased their documentary intake of both international and local titles. A superficial glance would suggest that the industry is in great shape.

Yet, at a recent industry event organized by the local chapter of Women in Film and Television, analyzing the health of the nonfiction filmmaking industry, the committee delivered the prognosis that "Documentary [was a]...thriving but troubled genre."


A thriving media arts community requires a few basic ingredients--a sound funding and educational infrastructure and an active distribution network coupled with good exhibition opportunities to showcase the work. The ongoing demand for documentaries in New Zealand has resulted in a spike in exhibition and distribution. But without a concurrent increase in funding and educational opportunities, the future of the industry hangs in the balance.

For several years, New Zealand has had two major broadcasters: TVNZ and TV3. State-owned TVNZ grew out of the Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand and comprises two channels: TV One and TV Two. TV3 is the privately-owned CanWest channel, launched in 1989. The two newest players in the TV arena are Prime Television and the indigenous Maori Television channel, MTS, established in 2004.

Filmmakers looking to finance their projects have traditionally been reliant on the two main public broadcasters for support. With the public broadcasters being the first point of contact for documentary funding, the structure has been more conducive towards projects with strong local relevance and interest. The lack of factual slots focusing on international stories has resulted in a market for alternative channels, such as the Documentary Channel, on non-standard providers such as SKY TV. Foreign documentaries are more likely to find their way into such cable channels as well. Prime TV and MTS have also picked up the slack.

MTS is the only public broadcaster actively programming a varied selection of international documentaries week after week. Although established to service New Zealand's indigenous Maori community, "Sixty-five percent of MTS audiences are, in fact, non-Maori," according to Larry Parr, head of programming at MTS. The underlying philosophy of the channel is to provide "core audiences with indigenous as well as fresh perspectives," an approach that has seen the channel attract wider non-Maori audiences over time.

Other funding options include the government agency NZ On Air, whose job is to foster the development of New Zealand culture by funding locally made television programs. The catch is that a project needs to have local broadcast support before NZ On Air funding can kick in. This apparent bottleneck in the funding process has been a sore spot for independent filmmakers, who argue that many potentially worthy projects risk becoming overlooked through the narrow, commercial lens of the TV broadcaster. This could include projects deemed not commercial enough as well as overly "international" stories, particularly in the politics and society genres perceived to be of little interest to middle New Zealand.

Other remaining funding sources include the Screen Innovation Production Fund, which approves grants for innovative and edgier works, and the New Zealand Film Commission, the country's primary financing, sales and distribution engine for theatrical dramatic features and short films. The major gripe for documentary filmmakers, however, is that the commission has historically not dedicated enough resources towards developing documentary.

An unsatisfactory funding structure has thus produced an environment that favors limited and homogenous filmmaking destined for local TV consumption. This has slowed down the growth of diverse, creative, independent, long-format festival documentaries, vital to the future of the independant documentary filmmaking community. What's more, the lack of accessible marketplaces--other than the Australian International Documentary Conference--and New Zealand's geographic isolation from European and North American markets have dulled the maverick spirit of the local independent filmmaking movement.

A New Wave

Local documentary is now riding a wave that began with major nonfiction box office hits such as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Theatrical and DVD distribution have surged, thanks in large part to festivals such as the long-running New Zealand International Film Festival that have played a crucial role in familiarizing the public--and exhibitors--with potential theatrical releases.

At the other end of the spectrum is DOCNZ, administered by DOCNZ Trust. With roots closer to independent documentary festivals such as Hot Docs and IDFA, DOCNZ Trust produces both the festival and an industry summit, designed to teach local documentary filmmakers about doing business with international markets. The DOCNZ Trust's Pitching Forum also puts international buyers in touch with local projects, many of which have successfully obtained financing as a result.

One such project is The Relocated Mountains, pitched by New Zealand production company Butobase. The film was snubbed by both TVNZ and TV3, but Japan-based NHK came in as a co-producer at the Pitching Forum, and the project subsequently received funding from US-based ITVS.

The Relocated Mountains follows Kurdish refugee Sirwan Namo as he travels to Iraq, from which he and his family had fled during the Saddam Hussein regime, to fulfill a promise to visit his grandmother before her death. The film also tells the story of the 40 million Kurds, who, without a recognized state, reside in Northern Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Producer Julia Parnell found the Pitching Forum a great way to gain access to global media outlets. "Often as New Zealanders we find it hard to imagine our projects of interest to the wider world," she admits. "But the positive feedback I received from a panel of international broadcasters and funders made me realize that tapping into the global market is very much a reality." While celebrating the project's successful pitch, Parnell reminds us that local filmmakers still have to make the mental leap to consider international sources as a viable alternative if the independent documentary community is to continue to grow and succeed. Industry opportunities and initiatives will become an important catalyst in generating creative documentary projects and genuine production activity for documentary filmmakers in the future.

While documentary is a hot commodity in New Zealand, and independent filmmakers are more willing than ever to experiment with content and form, the state of the funding and education infrastructure needs to be addressed and resolved. Only then will nonfiction work enjoy the international success that dramatic features have found.


Ewa Bigio is a board member of DOCNZ Festival Trust. She is also the founder and managing director of Smiley Documentary Film Distribution & International Sales.