By Denis Welch
Film-maker Peter Jackson still can't quite believe it. It's nearly two years now since he finally yielded to his mother's urgings and promised to look at some old films a neighbor had stashed in a garden shed. "I was expecting possibly some old home movies, that I would politely say, 'These are fascinating', and go and drop them off at the Film Archive and that would be the end of it," Jackson recalls. Instead, he found a treasure trove that has changed his life, and - he believes - the history of cinema, not just in New Zealand but worldwide.
His first inkling of the significance of the films came when he saw they were 35mm, not 8mm. "My pulse quickened. That told me that, whatever these were; they were not home movies."
The tins of film had sat for more than 50 years in an old chest belonging to Hannah McKenzie, a longtime neighbor of Jackson's parents in Pukerua Bay, north of Wellington. What had not been widely known was that she was the widow of pioneer film-maker Colin McKenzie, whose work was thought lost after his tragically early death in the 1930s.
Knowing nothing of McKenzie, Jackson called in friend and colleague Costa Botes, who identified one of the films from a description he had come across years before in an old newspaper article; and then archivist Jonathan Morris, who immediately set about transferring the crumbling nitrate films onto modem safety stock.
It was only after months of laborious preservation work - for which Jackson gives Morris full credit - that the three men realised the full extent of what they were sitting on.
"Shorts, features, newsreels, experimental films - you name it, McKenzie did it," says Botes, who together with Jackson presents the three men's findings in the final of Montana Sunday Theatre. "That alone would have been an amazing find, just in terms of our history - but what really amazed us was the technical innovation."
Neither Jackson nor Botes will be drawn on the exact nature of the innovations - all will be revealed in the programme, they say - but Jackson has no doubt about their importance.
"He really deserves a place among the luminaries of early cinema, like Edison, Meliés and the Lumière brothers. Because none of his films were thought to have survived, it was impossible to actually ascertain where he belonged in terms of cinema history. But this discovery puts him up there among the pantheon."
Morris backs up this view. "Most of the early films from the turn of the century were of parades, babies on lawns, family picnics, that sort of thing," he says. "Cinema was strictly a novelty. Yet here was someone in New Zealand who was not just using film as a novelty, but in an artistic way, and that is very rare."
Given the recent resurgence of interest in New Zealand's film history, it still seems extraordinary that no one approached Hannah McKenzie about her husband's work. Botes says she did seek advice about the contents of the chest from time to time, "but no one took her seriously, perhaps because her experience of Colin was such a brief one".
Hannah McKenzie, now 77 - she married McKenzie shortly before his death, when she was 19, and has never remarried - prefers not to dwell on the past.
"The suitcase of films was just part of his estate that I inherited," she says. It was just prior to the war and then the war happened and the films were just put away. It wasn't till I knew that young Peter was somehow involved in films that I thought of getting in touch with him."
By piecing together not only the films but the facts of McKenzie's life, Jackson and Botes have also been involved in a kind of detective hunt. Their discoveries form the basis of much of the programme, beginning with McKenzie's early days in Geraldine, where his first experience of a traveling cinematograph show inspired him to start making films while still in his teens.
"All the other kids were glued to the screen," says Botes, "but he would be looking the other way at the magic box making the picture - the projector. He was always mechanically adept."
There are parallels here with Jackson's own precocious development as a director - parallels that have caused him to identify closely with his pioneering predecessor.
"I've got to say that researching Colin's life is the most exciting thing I've ever done," says Jackson. In a feature film you can tell a story, you have a lot of artistic licence to invent things, but when you're telling the true story of a man's life you have to honour the facts.
"It all adds up to an experience totally different to fiction - you end up bonding with the guy. There are a lot of things in Colin's life I recognise in my own, even seven decades later. In a lot of things Colin did or tried to do - he wasn't always successful - I recognise my own passions."
What now, then, for the McKenzie heritage? Sunday's programme could be just the start of an explosion of interest in the man from Geraldine. Jackson confirms that Harvey Weinstein of Miramax films - the American company that backed The Piano and Jackson's own Heavenly Creatures - has secured the international distribution rights to McKenzie's films and plans to launch them at next year's Cannes festival. After that ... Jackson wants nothing less than full recognition for McKenzie.
"After this documentary, this guy should be appearing on our banknotes. They should create a $3 banknote just to put his face on it. He is postage-stamp material."
Hannah McKenzie, while sorry that her husband's work was never recognised in his lifetime, is just grateful that his genius has finally been acknowledged.
"He would just be so pleased," she says, looking out the window of her Pukerua Bay home, where her favourite photograph of Colin (previous page) sits on the sideboard, along with other mementos of his career. "He was such a modest man, who never sought the limelight. I know that, wherever he is, he would be so proud."
And to viewers wondering what a documentary - however sensational - is doing in the Sunday Theatre slot, Jackson explains: "It was actually the Film Commission which suggested it. They had already got involved in funding it and they felt that the Montana Theatre would be just right for it.
"There was some pressure on us at first to possibly dramatise some aspects of Colin's life, but frankly, even though it's a documentary, the events of his life were so dramatic that the word drama is not inappropriate."
Adds Botes: "It's as gripping as any fictional story."
(New Zealand Listener, October 28 1995)