Film Scouts Reviews

"Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill"

by Henri Béhar

Where--WHAT--is New Zealand? That is a question New-Zealanders themselves might have asked a couple of decades ago, when New Zealand going from colony to part of the Commonwealth without seeing much difference, architecture (houses, schools, universities) had to duplicate England's or not be recognized as such. When television did not exist. When New Zealanders produced virtually no films of their own but avidly consumed movies from Great-Britain and America. "A tranquil time", they called it. To get a hint of the cultural dislocation that implies, imagine Soviet cinema had conquered the world instead of Hollywood and you were more familiar with the streets of Tashkent than you are with "Bullitt"'s or "Vertigo"'s San Francisco. No sense of self.

In the early 1990s, to celebrate the Century of cinema, the British Film Institute launched an ambitious series of documentaries by eighteen of the world's leading film makers providing a personal interpretation of the history and development of cinema in their country. Scorsese covered the US, and Stephen Frears England. The BFI had the unexpected but brilliant idea to give "New Zealand" to actor Sam Neill. Better known as the star of "My Brilliant Career", "Plenty", "The Piano" and "Jurassic Park" (not to mention "Omen 3"), Sam Neill has a closeted past as a film-maker at the New Zealand Film Unit (That was before he starred in Roger Donaldson's "Sleeping dogs", the prescient film that kick-started the modern New Zealand film industry in 1977).

A self-termed "exile" (born in Northern Ireland, grown up Down Under, now an international star in California, Sam Neill weaves personal memories with the evolution of New Zealand cinema, from the sunny and optimistic portraits of the land and the people ("God's Own country") to the dark undercurrents that brewed beneath the "tranquil" surface: the revolt against authority that marked "Sleeping Dogs" and "Bad Blood" (echoes of which survive in Lee Tamahori's "Once Were Warriors") to the troubling works of Vincent Ward ("Vigil", "The Navigator"), Peter Jackson ("Braindead", "Heavenly Creatures") to the entire oeuvre of Jane Campion ("Sweetie", "Angel at My Table", "The Piano").

A "uniquely strange and dark film industry", as Sam Neill puts it. A "Cinema of Unease" indeed.

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