Image to Imagination

Dame Gaylene Preston tells of a lifetime of integrating archival footage into her feature films in the 2021 Friends of the Turnbull Library Founder Lecture on 28 July 2021.

She comes to sit before the camera onto the stage at the Century Theatre.  The afternoon is balmy outside, but the theatre is cool and dim with just her seat carefully lit.  We are here gathering interviews of survivors of the lethal earthquake that devastated Hawkes Bay, and Napier in particular on the 3rd February 1931.

As Hana Cotter takes her seat and we prepare the lighting she is quiet and possibly tired. The event is now over 60 years ago.

Having grown up in Napier, I was told earthquake stories from the time I was ten. The place was awash with them.  They centred around well-trod terrible tales that, as many do after a tragic event such as that, cloud the real terrible, terrible thing.

For example: One story told often, was of a woman trapped in the Cathedral with the fire coming closer and no-one could get her out.  Dr Butterworth was fetched and he administered a lethal dose of morphine as the smoke engulfed her and he had to flee the fire. This is indeed a true story. However, it masks another more dreadful fact that is less understood. The fire that began within twenty minutes after the main quake could not be put out, making it impossible to free many people who were still trapped in the city in rubble.  Many of the victims of the Napier earthquake were buried alive and died in the fire.

In the 1950s, when I was growing up in the bright light of the recovery, that story was not really possible to tell.

When I was commissioned by the Hawkes Bay Museum to film some survivor stories, it was pretty late.  Everyone was in their eighties by then, and their experiences were those of the young people they were at the time.  I was wanting to fill holes in the official version.  I had little hope of finding anyone who was personally involved in the immediate clean up.

There was another outstanding blank covered in a couple of sentences in the written histories: “Our Māori people were very good.  They looked after themselves.” Clearly there is more to it. When I find a hole, I go digging.

The person everyone told us to talk to was Hana Cotter, a matriarch of Ngāti Kahungunu. She had survived the earthquake in Hastings. I had no idea as she began telling her personal recollection how important it would be.

I did not doubt what she told us of course and with a Sherlockian interest went looking to see if I could find any visual recording of that experience. I certainly had never seen any young Māori women helping pull out bodies from the still-hot rubble. This was not referred to in any written accounts.  I couldn’t even find a single image of any Māori work gangs in the immediate aftermath in either Hastings or Napier, let alone two sixteen-year-old young Māori women in their pinnies helping their cousins.

The official story is of the ‘Heroes,’ the sailors from the NZ Navy ship, Veronica, who were there within hours to rescue the stricken town. It was they the news crews were recording.  So I did what I could to make you think, dear audience, that you might have seen them there, by implying that they are just outside the frame.


I’ve been interested in exploring the gap between the official version and the personal one for most of my filmmaking life. Probably because I grew up with two parents who did not share the prevailing view of the New Zealand common folk through their experience of World War II. My father loudly proclaimed the American War Films we saw in the fifties as ‘Yankee Blah,’ and the British ones as ‘Tommy Rot,’ while my mother held her pain close and quiet.  So I guess I was born to get to the bottom of that particular faultline.

I was fortunate to make two features – WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us and twenty years later, Home By Christmas which aided that personal odyssey

But I didn’t start there. Back in 1986, with Judith Fyfe, I began gathering oral histories of women’s experience during World War II – these are lodged in the Oral History Centre here at the Turnbull.  At the same time, I was working with Graeme Tetley and Robin Laing dramatising Sonja Davies’ herstory – Bread & Roses.

In the course of this research I discovered the pristine 35mm black and white film stored at Archives New Zealand shot during the war by the precursor of the NZ National Film Unit: the Weekly Revues.  What a treasure trove.

When I discovered Country Lads, I devoured it.  In Bread & Roses, the TV series, Sonja goes down to the docks to farewell a friend – Charlie Davies.  I wanted our restaging to be as accurate as possible.

Here’s a piece of Country Lads – for its time, a very understated, cleverly nuanced piece of national pride aimed at strengthening community cohesion screening before the main feature film at the movies.  A clever piece of propaganda.

When it came to staging our dramatised version for Bread & Roses, it was an exercise in distillation, and filming it took every inch of ingenuity from the art department. We found a three-storey warehouse down at the wharves with a big crane set inside and hung a slice of ship off that. If anyone tells you a picture never lies – that’s the biggest fib of all! This is an emotional moment before things get much tougher. It underlines that not all men on those ships were going there to fight.

I handed Country Lads to the Conchies!

So, as we were making that, while Judith managed the Women in World War II Oral History Collection, I was hearing the women’s version in spoken word.  This included my mother’s tale of being unable to cope when left in small town Greymouth with a new baby born almost out of wedlock and a departed husband who was ‘missing believed killed.’ So many of their experiences are surprising and heartrending.

I managed to follow up with a film that would tell seven personal stories, from women who lived through that dislocated time, interspersed with those precious Weekly Reviews.  I found myself an honourable way to plunder the treasure.  What joy. War Stories was made for the cinema and as such could have a Dolby Stereo soundtrack.  The surround sound enhances and deepens the little squeaky tumpty-tumpty music and makes the Weekly Revue footage so much more present and dramatic. After a screening to Hollywood hoi polloi at the American Film Archive, I was asked where the power lay in this very simple ‘talking-heads film.’  It is in the sound, I told them.

But problems arose.  Here’s an example.

Flo Small.  In her story, Flo goes down to the docks with her mother to wave goodbye to her brothers.  In her version, everyone down there is crying and very sad.  In Country Lads, they are mainly cheering and smiling.  So, in order to support Flo’s version, I headed back to look at the offcuts.  They are beautifully preserved in Archives NZ. Indeed, the camera does at times capture people crying, wiping a tear, and looking dejected, but when it does, the camera immediately turns off or looks away. That was not what they were there for. Film stock is precious.

So, with Paul Sutorius editing – he has been involved in all of the films I am discussing today – we set out to offer a different version of Country Lads that supported Flo’s experience.

[Flo Small ]

In Flo’s story, she tells of falling for an American soldier and ultimately having his baby.  This sent me off to look for the American archival films shot here during the War – and what a difference.  Those Hollywood cameramen were not from a British documentary tradition. They like to set up the shot.  I’ll just show you our cut-down of a small slice just because it’s fun.

Right – so those departures – I continued my investigation of what was essentially my parent’s sometimes mutually-exclusive telling of their war experiences.  My mother’s is to be found in the centre of War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us ­ – probably in this case a war story my mother did tell me. She did that when she was approaching eighty. My father’s is recounted in Home By Christmas, with actor Tony Barry recreating his interview. That was recorded on a little cassette recorder when my father was eighty – twenty years earlier.  My father’s account of his ‘country lad’ experience is characteristically without honour of glory.

Working with a talented, committed film archivist – Alex Boyd – buried deep in the independent archive at what is now Ngā Taonga, a couple of 8mm rolls were found deposited in a family collection, shot by a soldier on one of those departing ships.  Now I had a fuller story in images shot from the same point-of-view as my father’s ripping yarn.  I swear that man must have been standing right next to him as they embarked on their great adventure.

[ Home By Christmas Departure]

We were always looking for the things that weren’t in the official version – like Alex found this stunning piece of the boys ‘playing up’ in Freemantle. Once we edited it and added voices and music – it came alive. We are right there with the boys as they get completely plastered.  Adding sound to the silent movie was enormous fun.

[Home By Christmas Freemantle Japes]

And for every piece of film you have viewed here today, I have to tell you that I have signed a contract that agrees I will not change the artifact.  But the artifact gets changed the minute it is put in a different context, the minute that sound is added or changed, the minute there are edits. But most of all, as you can see, everything is context. The pictorial treasures held here in this building, in stills and in moving image, are priceless, and while none of us want to see them exploited, it is only by using them that they can really live on.

Now in a new century, the gap between the official version and the unofficial version is almost non-existent.  People shoot stunning footage on their phones. The iconic memorial image of this year is the tragic nine minutes recorded on a cell phone by a young woman that saw the death of George Floyd.  It is going to be the same for future generations, using mediums yet to be invented, who will boot the old stuff into new life.

Hopefully it will be provocative and compelling, creative and even slightly disturbing.  Like the old stuff itself, it will reflect the age it is made in, rather than the empirical way it was. You will always be searching for the truth on the edge of the frame, just as I was in the story of the Napier Earthquake that Hana Cotter told us.

So when does footage shot today become history?  Is it tomorrow?  Do we wait thirty years?

In making a dramatised series of the Christchurch earthquakes, I wanted to amalgamate hundreds of accounts across age, social status and experience, incorporating the central city experience and the liquefaction nightmare of the Eastern suburbs, the hill scramble to Lyttleton and the plight of the homeless and dispossessed.  The people who argued about their paintings, and those out East who lost their ‘dream homes’ to sewage-filled liquefaction. This time the oral histories are not personal to one only.  They are a collective experience welded into character families. The characters are invented, but their shared experience is not. Every line of dialogue, every emotional beat was something I was told of, or read about, or saw for myself.

‘It’s too soon!’ was the cry from the loud voices in Christchurch, who were understandably already traumatised. But more than half the population of Aotearoa live north of Hamilton. Two years later when Hope and Wire screened on our televisions, up north, where the Christchurch earthquakes had begun to sink into the past, it wasn’t too soon.  It was nearly too late!  To stage the drama, we had the last access to the red zone before the city was torn down, we were constantly shooting just one block from the demolition bulldozers. Hope and Wire is its’ own artefact of the city standing ravaged before it was flattened entirely and rebuilt.

I used news footage from everywhere to provide the wide shots – the context of larger events that add weight to the personal dramas that unfolded. To do this, working with Paul Sutorius and Alex Boyd and Jonno Woodford-Robinson, we searched through hours of footage. We favoured shots where people in the foreground had their backs to us, and made our shots as short as possible.

It is quite a different task when the history is recent. We are used to seeing our recent history in documentary form, but to screen culturally specific social realism using drama – there is much to be mindful of.

[Hope & Wire ]

I want to end with a clip from a piece I made recently to celebrate Women’s Suffrage. The brief was to bring a modern and youthful lens to make the musty black and white images of those early feisty women come alive.  On a very limited budget too, I might add.  I was wracking my brains in the bath – the best place to come up with something – when I heard on the radio, a presentation from the sound archives of three elderly women talking about the actual moment in 1993 when the Vote became reality.  Extraordinary.  They were in their very late years.  One was 103 when she was interviewed in the 1970s. They were old women when they told their tales, but they were young women when they faced the task.

Using extremely talented actors, one of whom is my daughter, I saw a way to fulfil the brief for the Are We There Yet? exhibiton for the Auckland Memorial Museum.  To conclude my address here today, here is a clip from Hot Words and Bold Retorts.

[Hot Words]

We go forward facing the past.

Kia whakatōmuri,

te haere whakamua.