The NZIFF starting soon, it’s time to go back to its origins by presenting one of its founders: The Wellington Film Society. Key player in importing rare prints and cult classics that have never been distributed in New Zealand, the Film Society is one of the only places in Wellington where you can see a wide range of high-standard films from all around the world.
A Society of dedicated cinephiles
We often forget it once we get there, but New Zealand is very far away, especially from film distribution circuits. However, Aotearoa is a land of inquisitive minds, and cinema has always been a wonderful way to discover the rest of the world.
As early as the 1930s, some efforts were made to import films out-of-the mainstream through a film society movement. But there were two major obstacles: supply and censorship. At that time, censorship in New Zealand was even more complicated than today. (Until now, each film copy must be sent to the Censorship office to obtain a rating certificate. Then, it’s very likely you’ll be IDed when buying your tickets, even if you look more than 30, like it happens when you buy alcohol or cigarettes!)
Anyway, the first societies couldn’t survive. But the most admirable quality of passionate people is that they never give up. In 1945, the Wellington Film Institute was set up with the help of the New Listener most-acclaimed critic Gordon Mirams. Miram was followed by a lot of regular readers, and this encourages cinephiles to re-establish a Film Society. The Wellington Film Institute was born. Future famous director John O’Shea, was, among others active film lovers, part of the first Wellingtonian committee. Other societies would then flourish throughout the whole country.
Their purpose: showing high-standard films that would not have otherwise been presented in New Zealand, and giving more information related to the films. Because cinema is not only about entertainment but is also about general knowledge and enlightment.
At first, ten 16mm films were shown per year in the hall of the Central Library. The Wellington Film Society shows now more than 30 films per year in one of the most beautiful auditoriums in town: the Paramount. How did the societies survive this time? They pooled their efforts and establish a parent body called the New Zealand Federation of Film Institutes. The now-called New Zealand Federation of Film Societies is still in charge today of providing the films.
Creation of the Wellington Film Festival
The Auckland Film Society was the first society to launch its festival in 1969. A couple of years later, in 1972, the Wellington Film Festival grew out of the Wellington Film Society, thanks to its President Lindsay Shelton, whose entire life has been dedicated to film distribution. He wrote a very interesting article about the beginnings of the festival that you can find on the website of the NZIFF: http://www.nziff.co.nz/about/history/film-festival-in-the-capital/
Members only, but no secret society
The Film Society is not a secret selective club. Everybody is welcome to join as long as you pay the fees! Once in, the membership allows you to attend any of the 30 screenings that take place every Monday from March to November at 6:15 at the Paramount Theatre.
I’ve been lucky enough to be invited at this week’s screening, The Moo Man, a documentary by Andy Heathcote. There’s no better way to solve the mysteries of the society! I haven’t been disappointed. Even if the movie was pretty hard to understand –after 6 months trying my best to understand the Kiwi accent, my challenge this time was to understand the accent of British farmers. I’m not getting there yet!
Anyway, I enjoyed the movie as much as I could – it’s not everyday that you see a man pushing a cow’s bottom to try to make it moves! But what I enjoyed the most, was sharing this cinematic experience with more than 200 people. You could expect to arrive right in the middle of an old ladies reunion, but not at all. The Wellington Film Society is popular! Grandpa and Grandma bringing their granddaughter to see a movie were sitting right next to me; all three of them eating enormous ice-creams. The kind of scene that makes you feel good.
A wide range of high-standard movies
The main goal of the Film Society is double: they seek out films that have had no or limited release in New Zealand, or classics that need to be rediscovered. This year, melodramas are celebrated with cult classics of Douglas Sirk and pieces of art of Indian Master Satyajit Ray. But you can also find a lot of other kind of movies: contemporary Kiwi films, German chronicle Homeland by Edgar Reitz, collaborations between playwright Harold Pinter and British director Joseph Losey, and even French horror movie Eyes Without a Face by Georges Franju. The whole programme here: http://www.filmsocietywellington.net.nz/schedule.htm
To learn more about it: The Selling of New Zealand Movies, by Lindsay Shelton; Speaking Candidly, Films and People in New Zealand, by Gordon Miram