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Doc Edge 2010: Shirley Horrocks saves the past

With not one but two films screening in the Doc Edge Film Festival, Shirley Horrocks is one of the country’s foremost documentary filmmakers. Ahead of the festival opening tomorrow, she took some time to talk about making Dance of the Instant and He Wawata Whaea: The Dream of an Elder.

He Wawata Whaea, commissioned by Maori Television, celebrates the life of pioneer Merimeri Penfold, a champion of the Maori language, a leader in Maoridom, a composer of haka and waiata and a generous, creative influence in many areas of the arts. “There should be a documentary about her,” Ms Horrocks said. Given Merimeri’s advanced years, it was important to get started.

Merimeri remains a lively and inspiring figure who has seen, and often been involved in bringing about, big changes. Her story offers a rich perspective not only on the far North but on many important events and people in the recent history of our country. In the course of the documentary she presents her “dreams” for the future of Maori language and culture.

For Ms Horrocks, the film took around 12 months to put together, from researching to delivery, and largely follows the classic chronological framework.

Funded by Te Mangai Paho, the film was less a financial struggle than others Ms Horrocks has made. She is, perhaps, better known for arts documentaries, an area that (with others) has seen funding opportunities diminish over recent years – a fact addressed in a recent report by her husband and partner in Point of View Productions, Roger Horrocks.

Roger will participate in sessions at the Doc Edge Forum next week, as a panel member in The Future of Documentary session and facilitating the panel for Made for TV.

In contrast to the forward-looking nature of Dream of an Elder, Shirley Horrocks’ Dance of the Instant looks firmly backwards, at a brief period in post-war New Zealand where freedom and international influences were embraced before a repressive insularity that would characterise NZ in the 1950s settled over the country.

The New Dance Group, of the mid to late 1940s, rode the wave of possibility and celebration that followed the end of World War II, bringing new forms of modern dance to New Zealand. One of the group’s members, Rona Bailey, studied in new York with Martha Graham.

The source material, original footage and some photographs of the group and its performances, was rediscovered by Marianne Schultz as part of research for her Masters degree. She brought the material to Shirley, and it provided a valuable  starting-point.

Tracking down and conducting interviews with the group’s surviving members around the country, finding more photos, and filming  dance reconstructions  allowed Ms Horrocks to create the documentary.

The commentary for the film places in historical context the artistic (and arguably political) boldness of the choices being made by the group. These were not only in its form of dance, at that time seen hardly anywhere except studios in New York let alone little old NZ, but also in its choice of musical accompaniment. Contemporary scores came from such as the Russian composer Shostakovich – who so pissed off his Soviet paymasters with his modern writing, he had to write an entire symphony A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism as an apology.

By contrast to the state subsidised environment in which Shostakovich worked, the New Dance Group and Ms Horrocks’ work was done in more difficult financial circumstances, although without the censorship enforced on Shostakovich.

The film  itself cost considerably more than the shilling a week the New Dance Group members paid for their classes. Some financial support came from Creative New Zealand and two other grants: one from a trust, one from a private individual.

Generally, however, the not-so-slow death of funding for this sort of arts documentary impacts on both the amount and quality of projects that are likely to get off the ground. The NZFC/CNZ partnership has gone, possibly to be replaced by something else; the TVNZ charter has gone.

These little slices of our history, artistic or otherwise, were captured on film at the time – a rare enough event in itself. Having rediscovered such examples, it’s encouraging to know that people like Ms Horrocks share the passion and commitment to preserve (and reinvigorate interest in) little cultural gems that would otherwise remain beyond our consciousness.

Dance of the Instant screens with Marching On in Auckland Sun 27 February (with Q&A), Wed 3 and Wed 10 March; in Wellington Sat 13, Wed 17, Wed 24 and Sun 27 March.

He Wawata Whaea: The Dream of an Elder screens in Auckland Sat 27 (with Q&A), Thu 4 and Sun 14 March, in Wellington Sat 13, Thu 18, Sun 21 and Sun 28 March.

See the Doc Edge site for full details of these screenings and a downloadable programme.

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