New Zealand Shorts with Donogh Rees (1982-2000)

FILM, Film Society

This week at the Wellington Film Society: five Kiwi short films.

There’s something very powerful about seeing a generation grow up in front of you. Parents know this. At the Film Society on Monday evening members were treated to a programme that seemed to do this right in front of them.

The evening belonged to Donogh Rees as each short film featured her performances. Our first meeting occurs through Pheno Was Here (Richard Riddiford, 1982), which also stars Kelly Johnson fresh from filming Goodbye Pork Pie the year before. Significantly this is a film made post-Springbok and there is, along with their familiar joyous play, a darker pitch, and a world less worthy. Rees and Johnson are the young people trying to evolve, on the run, armed with spray cans yet seem somewhat lost. In this world justice seems divorced from right and wrong, no better underpinned than when Duncan Smith’s cop catches up with Pheno (Rees) at the airport and instead of arresting her buys another ticket and leaves New Zealand with her. The film serves as a pocket reminder to those of us that lived through it of how ambiguous we felt about our country back then.

Flash forward nine years and in One Man’s Meat (Christine Parker, 1991) Rees is cast as a wife who’s had enough. Gone is the girl of the previous film but the gestures are so much more fulfilling. Told in a broken sequence of narrative the film at once explores the why as it inevitably proceeds to the how. Alistair Browning seems in very short time to reveal this man’s provocation to his wife and seems, as usual, to get his gears off (must be something contractual). In a moment of magic Rees’s character shows how much she is yearning for something better and conspires, with some angst, to murder her husband by Sauna—Browning throwing up all over himself is a pretty disturbing sight. Yet how simple it seems to sympathize with a murderer.

The third film carries us back once more to Donogh the hero. In The Beach (Dorthe Scheffmann, 1995) we are treated to a New Zealand summer—in this case a print that also seems to have faded—but clearly that moment of summer when everything is simply too bright. That is until the sojourn is broken through Margie (Rees) finding a bruise on her friend Anne’s back. Elizabeth Hawthorne and Rees are such subtle users of the loaded gesture and glance in this short film that at the end of eight minutes the characters have more than earned the kick that Margie delivers to David’s (Anne’s husband) scrotum—a wonderful Bruce Hopkins. Again New Zealand reveals its darker flow/under the surface reality.

About two years pass and something else has changed in New Zealand it seems. Dorthe Scheffmann takes us again to a familiar place in The Bar (1997). But it isn’t the simple city of Wellington in 1982 but a faster, slicker place—Auckland. It seems the focus of the country well and truly hit home in Auckland around this time as this film aptly exemplifies. This space is filled with both the stars of Rees generation but also invaded by the young bloods. Rees, Hawthorne and Johnson are there but so are these others as well: Joel Tobeck, Wila O’Neil, and most tellingly Sophia Hawthorne. This brash new place is filled with talk each conversation captured as the camera whizzes by caught in and out of context within the frame of exposing both the truth and the lie that exists in the posturing of the social scene. In one conversation the politics of New Zealand is revealed as ACT is predicted to ‘not last’, the plight of the single woman (Rees), her sexuality never defined, feeling as though her life is unfulfilled as she approaches forty and has not yet given birth. A touching story hinted at in fleeting glimpses as the younger models seem much more involved with simply scoring. It reminds us that the pace of life in New Zealand is different now, and the demands placed upon us cost us that much more than they once did.

In the final film we seem to come full circle as Rees, this time supports a young girl (Elizabeth Morris) through an important development in her life. In The Painted Lady (Belinda Schmid, 2000) young Charlie is caught between a Mother, suffering from a mental disorder, and a caring, though to begin with, disconnected teacher. Jennifer Ward-Leland’s demented Faye plays her growing distraction from the world well, isolating her daughter. Rees caring Teacher offers a moment of hope in the offer to care for the cocoon of a Painted Lady butterfly. Again this film plays with the concept of Loss and Lost/ Redemption and Damnation that feature in all these films but in the end it is the intervention of Miss Robins that saves the day.

All in all the short film session, curated by Steve Dean, offered a wonderful window to the last generation in New Zealand. As The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls provided a wonderful map of the social action of the people of our country since 1980, these five films offered something more introspective—through the eyes of one of our most precious of actors, Donogh Rees. It was a real joy to see these oft-neglected pieces of art, a visual, gestural narrative history of who we are and where we come from.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.