Tim Wong's Out of the Mist documentary uncovers forgotten Kiwi films

Forget yellow minis, orcs and warriors, Kiwi cinema has much more to offer says director Tim Wong.

Vincent Ward's River Queen is one of dozens of New Zealand films reappraised in Tim Wong's documentary Out of the Mist.
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Vincent Ward's River Queen is one of dozens of New Zealand films reappraised in Tim Wong's documentary Out of the Mist.

Tim Wong has created an alternative history of New Zealand cinema.

There are no yellow minis tearing through the countryside, there are no wizards and nobody tells anyone to get in the kitchen and cook some eggs.

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Instead, Wong has built a cinematic walled garden, arguing the case for an intellectual tradition in New Zealand filmmaking. His documentary Out of the Mist premieres at the New Zealand International Film Festival this month and highlights neglected art films that Wong believes should be part of the national cinematic canon.

The founding editor of culture website The Lumiere Reader has created an intricate and carefully worded video essay using clips from dozens of Kiwi movies. It is inspired by the growing video essay genre pioneered by Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, Adam Curtis's mesmeric films, and online video essays by people like Kevin Lee and Tony Zhou.

Wong believes the absence of films like Goodbye Pork Pie, Once Were Warriors and anything by Peter Jackson in his documentary allows the light to shine on neglected classics.

"There was a conscious decision to leave those out, not because I don't like them or because I don't think they are good, that is far from the truth, but it is time for other films to share the limelight," he says.

"Films like The Quiet Earth and Heavenly Creatures are innovative and challenging films in their own right, but there is a narrative I want to tell and it is not for those films."

"I'm just trying to ... look at some of the back alleys and side roads and take some detours and look at areas that haven't been explored. That is the main drive behind this film."

"There is a dominant discourse and a dominant way the majority of people go into movies. They want escapism and excitement and joy. That is a completely valid cinema experience. I have just decided to focus on the more serious part of cinema because that doesn't get as much attention. It is as simple as that. I am trying to even out the imbalance."

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"This is a form of advocacy for films and filmmakers."

This intellectual mission was aided by Booker prize winning author Eleanor Catton, who provides the narration.

"She brings a certain intellectual authority to it that was important. It's about elevating the discourse around NZ film."

So what films did he discover on his exploration of the "back alleys" of our national cinema?

One find was George Rose's art film Time is a Spider, which Wong compares to David Lynch's Eraserhead.

"I am a huge fan of Time is a Spider. That is almost impossible to see. I was able to view a copy a few years ago. I couldn't believe this thing existed."

"It is an extraordinarily singular gathering of images and sounds that you just don't see in our national cinema."

"It was exciting to be able to rescue that film in a way. It would be great to see that film restored and re-released in some form."

He also makes a case for the much maligned and troubled River Queen by director Vincent Ward.

"It got a bad rap at the time and I think the way it was dismissed was very unfair. It is a really ambitious film."

"It is compromised film, but the interesting films to me are the ones that are ambitious and flawed. Flawed ambition is far more meaningful than something that strives for mundane perfection - something that wants to follow the rules and perfect them."

"People can make those films but it doesn't advance the art form."

Wong believes our greatest films are obscured by New Zealand's reputation as the production powerhouse behind blockbusters like The Hobbit and Avatar. He refers to a scene in US cartoon The Simpsons where Milhouse suddenly starts shilling for the New Zealand film industry. "New Zealand's beautiful landscapes and attractive tax credits add up to a filmmaker's paradise," says Milhouse in the scene, before referring people to a fake website.

"When something like that is Simpsonised, it means you have hit the ceiling of pop culture and everybody knows this is the perception of New Zealand as a film industry."

"For an outsider looking in, it is obscuring everything else that is going on in the industry."

"The reputation is that New Zealand is place where people go to make films. They can't really name any films that we would consider New Zealand films apart from the most obvious ones, which are Heavenly CreaturesOnce Were Warriors and The Piano, which were made over 20 years ago."

He thinks there should be more support for visionary filmmakers that experiment with the form.

"There is not enough support in this country for the really visionary filmmakers and artists."

"I would like to see a level playing field for films that have a commercial imperative and films that don't - experimental or political films. "

"Funding those kinds of films is becoming much harder. Those kinds of filmmakers are now expected to make them on their own dime because the cost of the means of production has reduced. That is true, but all filmmaking requires money. All art requires support. It is a constant struggle for any artist, whether they are in New Zealand or anywhere else in the world."

But, his documentary is not an investigation of film funding, but rather a way to champion overlooked New Zealand movies.

"The film is not going to address the way we finance films in New Zealand, or make and distribute them. It is not designed for that. It is a study and appreciation and interrogation of images in national cinema and what those images mean. If people go away and think about that and then watch more New Zealand films, I think it has achieved its goal."

Out of the Mist premieres at 6.15pm on Monday, May 20 at Auckland's Academy Cinema. Further screenings will take place as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival at venues around the country. See nziff.co.nz for more details.

 - Stuff

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