A critical examination of film archiving and curatorial practices in Aotearoa New Zealand through the life and work of Jonathan Dennis
The purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate how the founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive, Jonathan Dennis (1953-2002), became a conduit for tension and debate during the 1981-2002 period in relation to both the indigenous and non-indigenous presentation of film archival materials. His work resulted in a film archive and curatorship practice which differed significantly from that of the North American and European archives he originally sought to emulate. As a Pākehā (non-Māori/indigenous New Zealander) with a strong sense of social justice, he argued for an awareness of geographical location and cultural context in his work. He supported a philosophical shift in archival practice by engaging indigenous peoples in developing creative and innovative exhibitions and programmes from the 1980s until his death. Dennis was part of a conversation about the contested ground of the archive, the biography and the nation during his lifetime of work, presenting constructions of national identity in artistic productions as well as archival presentations.
This thesis is a cultural history which uses qualitative methods and an underlying critical methodology to analyse the existing oral histories of Jonathan Dennis. New interviews were gathered by the author, as well as other primary and secondary texts, to consider the narrative of a life and work in relation to film archiving. Concepts relating to this topic include the “archive” itself via Michel Foucault and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, creativity in relation to the archive, and biculturalism as it was understood in a particular period in the work of Merata Mita, Barry Barclay, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Paul Tapsell. Also finally, the institutional dynamic inherent in cultural spaces as theorised by Pierre Bourdieu is explored.
Broadly, the thesis asks the question: “How might film archivists respond to social and political movements?” By maintaining a metacritical awareness of an array of methodologies in relation to the concepts specified above, the thesis seeks to draw strength from the intersection of these philosophers and practitioners to consider the tensions and debates predominant during the 1981-2002 period in Aotearoa New Zealand. This analysis is achieved via the life and work of Jonathan Dennis. Ultimately this thesis considers how an archive can respond to the materials within and the movements outside its walls with a commitment to the peoples who in turn respond to and engage with its contents.
It is important to note that this is not an examination of The New Zealand Film Archive itself over the 1981-2002 period as Dennis was only Director of that institution for the first decade. Once he left the Film Archive in 1990 he continued to work with archival material beyond the walls of that institution. The thesis follows his journey, leaving the post 1990 history of the NZFA to another study by a different scholar.