Thirty years of Vanguard Films—from the politically radical (A Century of Struggle) to excursions into dramatic fiction (Taking the Waewae Express)—screen in retrospect at the Film Archive this September. Founding member Russell Campbell recalls three decades of headstrong filmmaking.
One of New Zealand’s most important and understated documentary production companies, Vanguard Films, is having a major retrospective at the Film Archive. The documentary makers were behind some of the most politically radical cinema to come out of this country, from films such as A Century’s Struggle (a film about the Seamen’s Union) to Wild Cat (striking forestry workers in the Bay of Plenty) to Rebels in Retrospect (the Progressive Youth Movement’s reunion in Christchurch). Their films gave voice to people who were usually denied theirs in mainstream media. While the works have traditionally been marginalised (and even lambasted in Parliament), some of Vanguard’s latest efforts have gathered more coverage—such as Alister Barry’s The Hollow Men, or Russell Campbell’s film on World War II dissenters, Sedition.
Two of the founding members, Rod Prosser and Alister Barry, were working on Our Nuclear Defence, a film about protests against visits by American nuclear warships, when fellow original member, Russell Campbell met them. “I’d come back from the States in ’78, and they were working on a project on a strike in the timber industry in ’77,” he recalled. “I started working with them on that. And then, Rod organised with the Seamen’s Union to do a film for their 100th anniversary. The Seamen’s Union were going to commission us, but they wanted a body with whom they could contract and produce this film as they were going to put some money up, so we formed a partnership and had a partnership agreement and called ourselves Vanguard Films.”
Campbell is not entirely sure why the partnership has persisted. “One thing is we’re not reliant on the income from our films to make a living. (Campbell lectures at Victoria University, for instance.) It means we make films only intermittently; we all have other sources of income. Whereas other film companies dependent on getting commissions and funding, that’s very tough in this sort of climate. Unless you’re fully commercial, which is not the stuff we’re interested in doing—mainstream television, we’re not interested in that—it’s very hard for people to survive. They tend to make alliances for particular projects and move on and do other things. Whereas we stuck together, found it convenient.”
The trio made three films in collective collaboration as co-directors—The Century of Struggle (1981), Wild Cat (1981) and Islands of the Empire (1985)—however, they’ve also made solo films. “I think that’s probably one reason why we survived,” said Campbell. “We each developed our own interests, and our particular stylistic preferences, without that constant fighting to keep working collectively. There isn’t any reason for conflict. We don’t have high overheads, or something that we have to generate income to keep going.”
The collective collaboration early on, however, was crucial in assisting the filmmakers. “Personally I didn’t have the confidence to suddenly become a film director. I’d been to Film School and studied film. I really enjoyed being part of a collective collaboration. But through that process you develop your own preferences—artistic and aesthetic preferences, and your own political preferences. So eventually when I did make a film, it was something I felt strongly from a personal perspective. I don’t really like conflict, I don’t like fighting people to get my own way. Those three films we worked collectively on, I found that extremely helpful. None of us were very experienced filmmakers at that time. None of us individually could have made those films which were as strong as those turned out to be.”
Given their uncompromising political beliefs (from the left side of the political spectrum), the films were marginalised. “We got funding from the Arts Council for Wild Cat and there was no pressure there. We did get subsequently hassled in Parliament from one MP who said the Arts Council was funding Communist propaganda which I suppose is true in a way.” They also struggled to get on television—one of the rare ways in which documentaries could be seen in a wider context in the 1980s. “Islands of the Empire was accepted on TV One and it was going to be played, and then the lawyers stepped in and said ‘no no’ and they pulled it. Television was up against the Broadcasting Act’s “need for balance”. We liked to do partisan films that have their politics open. I’m not looking for balance because there’s far too much propaganda for the status quo. Giving balance is giving the status quo more time when they’ve got plenty of that already.”
“I’m not looking for balance because there’s far too much propaganda for the status quo. Giving balance is giving the status quo more time when they’ve got plenty of that already.”
The films struggled to get cinema releases too—this was after all in the days when very few documentaries made it into cinemas. “We’d have never dreamed of cinema releases for documentaries which Alister is getting these days. Patu! (Merata Mita’s account of the 1981 Springbok tour) did get a theatrical release. We were involved in making that, but it was hard distributing in 16mm in those days. Very few cinemas had 16mm, and without an advertising budget, it was tough, very tough. These days it’s a lot cheaper and [there are] other means of getting people to know about it.”
Given their political content, there’s the argument that the films could have been made fictional, and therefore gained a wider audience. To that, Campbell says: “When I was in the States, I did my PhD on workers films in the 1930s. They were heavily predominantly documentary. The question I asked was ‘why was this chosen by political filmmakers above others?’ It could have been satires or dramas. I came up with two answers. One was that it was cheaper and one was that documentaries seemed to be the logical extension of social realism in the arts which was the left-wing artist common expression in literature and visual arts and photography. It seemed to be a suitable medium for expressing socialist, political views.”
That said, while the filmmakers are politically conscious, the films aren’t necessarily unified in their politics. “I think we share the view that we’re providing a platform for activists of politics to get their point of view across. Our own individual politics are not so important as the politics of the people who are in our films. Whether we’re Communist or Socialist or liberal, it’s in the text of the film somewhere, it’s not something we’re not claiming the particular struggle in the film’s getting across.” This has led to films covering areas such as anti-apartheid struggles, timber union strikes, the Philippine’s Kasama, Rogernomics, and nuclear issues.
Political films tend to date easier, particularly when the subject matter loses its particular relevance. Campbell was quick to stress that the Vanguard Films were intended to speak to wider issues than just the subject matter. “I did this dissertation about the radical documentaries of the ’30s. I realised how important the actual documentary films are. Some had dramatised stuff, and the dramatised stuff was very, very dated. The pure documentary was incredibly important as a visual documentary record. When we made The Century of Struggle, there just weren’t those visual records of working class lives, the seamen’s work, the working conditions, the living conditions of working people. Making our films, we were really aware we weren’t doing it for the moment, we were doing it as historical records, they might be more valuable thirty, forty, fifty years from the time they were made.”
This also meant the message was more important than the way the film was told. “We did discuss this a bit. We were always very utilitarian, what a shot had to say was much more important than how beautiful it looked. But the politics of getting the message across took pre-eminence over nice looking shots. We tried to do nice looking shots when we could.”
The filmmakers also worked on fictional films—whether as script writers or assistant directors—however this didn’t take their fancy. According to Campbell, Alister Barry said after working on Goodbye Pork Pie that, “‘It was fun, but why would you want to devote your energies to that? There are more important things in life than giving people a good time in the movies’.” He added: “There was a sort of moral seriousness, this sense that the documentary aesthetic was the medium.” Since then, new additions to the partnership, Shane Loader and Andrea Bosshard, have expanded the collective’s focus to include fictional narratives, with their features Taking the Waewae Express and The Intruder.
Despite the marginalization of Vanguard’s films due to the political content, Campbell doesn’t regret the approach taken. The eclectic subject matter and important ignored stories brought to the screen have meant that Vanguard Films cannot be ignored in New Zealand and documentary filmmaking circles. On the legacy, Campbell said: “I was heavily shaped by my childhood, and the Vietnam War was part of my political formation, and that was the time when mainstream media only gave the official point of view. You had to create alternative media forms in order to express otherwise. During that time, it was form as well as content—it’s not only getting your stories into mainstream media but what happens to them, they’re shaped in a particular way when they go into the mainstream media. For me, you’re doing something in conjunction with political activists. You’re valorising their work by recording it, making something which is of use to them and strengthens their sense of purpose and their commitment to a cause. Whether that can change people’s broader perspective, that’s secondary.”