Director: Barry Barclay
Production Co.: Pacific Films, for Television One
Producer: John O'Shea
Screenplay: Barry Barclay & Martyn Sanderson. Helena's Story by Olive Bracey
Cinematography: Rory O'Shea
Editor: Dell King
Helena's Story read by: Dell King
Songs: 'Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life' & 'Beautiful Isle of Somewhere'
Pacific Films used the title In Search of Pakehatanga as an introduction to... [a] documentary in which Martyn Sanderson celebrated his family's life in New Zealand. Barry Barclay directed this quite singular, picturesque and fancy-filled portrait of Martyn, his relatives, and his elderly and romantic aunt. Its nostalgic potpourri was laced with vignettes of pioneering life in the Hokianga... It demonstrated the way its producer and Maori director wanted to look at Pakeha culture and people.
- John O'Shea
Autumn Fires grew by accident out of The Town That Lost A Miracle (q.v.), and after it, I chose to leave New Zealand, an imagery refugee. So the two films span an era, both for me personally, and I believe, for New Zealand documentary film making itself...
During the Tangata Whenua edit in Wellington, I had started getting very odd letters from a certain woman in Opononi - Olive Bracey. They were a tangled mixture of memoirs of the Hokianga, ... and love notes. We had interviewed Olive in Opononi for The Town That Lost A Miracle and she is in that film. She liked my way of working and believed I could be trusted to write to because I was "very sensitive". The notes were on tinted paper with flower motifs pasted in the margins, and the language was ardent. I thought, "Hello, we've got a crazy on our hands here. Worse still, this woman of eighty is writing me love letters."
It was with some anxiety then that - after a year of getting more and more voluminous and intimate letters from Olive - I went to meet her at the New St Paul's Loaves and Fishes mission cafeteria here in Wellington. We had tea and cakes and she told me with a certain reverence that she wished to impart the story she had written to me, and me only. I had another sip of tea.
Well, it turned out that Olive had written a story and of course, it was not about me at all. I found her story poignant on many levels and undertook to look for a way to make it.
Olive's story is centred on a woman called Helena and all the thoughts that Helena expresses via the voice-over were written by Olive. I tightened the prose, but only as any sub-editor would. How much is Olive's personal story and how much is the fictional Helena's though I leave to the viewer to decide.
Then lo and behold, just as I was beginning to plot the film, I discovered quite by accident that Martyn Sanderson was Olive's nephew. Thanks to his long film and television career, Martyn is a familiar face today but then he was little known beyond theatre circles. He and I had rubbed shoulders for a good while though and I liked especially his ability to write prose. And like Olive in her own way, Martyn was also a thoughtful reflector about the values that had built up and sustained pakeha culture in such a foreign place. What a bonus I thought. We could have Martyn visiting his aunt in the distant Hokianga and create a reflection that spanned nearly a century of settler life.
I think Autumn Fires is perhaps one of the most layered films I've made. It is a metaphor created at a time when it was still possible to make metaphors in documentary in this country. But even before we were into day one of the shoot in the Hokianga, a new broom came romping through television and the medium was suddenly into "telling it as it is" and doing it in sound bites which could be comfortably coped with by kids in Standard Four. I left the country for nearly five years.
On transmission, Autumn Fires was prefaced by a caption - "In Search of Pakehatanga". It was a dream of ours then to make a series under that title, one that would parallel the Tangata Whenua collection of documentaries. It would have looked at pakeha life in this country... but through Maori eyes. Autumn Fires was to serve as a pilot of sorts.
The new broom put paid to any hopes of getting In Search of Pakehatanga off the ground but it's fascinating to reflect now on just how such a series might have evolved. In a recent publication, John O'Shea expressed disappointment that our Autumn Fires pilot did not really explore the pakeha world from a Maori perspective. But perhaps it does. The verdict must come from the viewer, of course - Maori and pakeha. Whatever the verdict, my memory is of a long and rich journey from the night we wantonly caught kahawai off the Opononi jetty to the completion of Autumn Fires and my going abroad.
- Barry Barclay
The year's best New Zealand documentary was shown on Television One on Monday night. I doubt if documentary was the right word for it however. Pacific Films, makers of Autumn Fires, called it that. I wouldn't have. It was a melding of many things. If I had to put a single word to it I would say it was an evocation of times past, a calling up of feelings, places, memories, energies. Briefly, Wellington actor Martyn Sanderson went north to where he'd spent his youth, the Hokianga; ostensibly to visit his elderly aunt, Olive Bracey and, I suspect to find something more. Perhaps to find if he could still go back and remain there. The film called it a search for pakehatanga which is an appalling word but one which is most likely appropriate.
Threaded through the considerable visual lyricism of the film (the sere and now largely empty landscape af small farms, like the one where Sanderson spent his early years, have been amalgamated, the coming and going of the tides, the topdressing plane dancing in the still morning air) were Olive's reminiscences and Sanderson's often quite poetic thoughts on going back. There was too an unpublished story of Olive's woven in... Overlaying the images were the songs Olive loved - 'Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life' and 'Beautiful Isle of Somewhere' - songs my parents also loved and tuned each week to the Sunday request session to hear. I suppose I liked Autumn Fires so very much because I can just remember the northern countryside in the 1950s. I can still remember those songs. Maybe it's because I'm getting to an age when going back might be becoming important for me.
But really, wasn't this a uniquely New Zealand film? Didn't it capture all the bittersweetness that this country is about, especially when it's viewed, as it was by Sanderson, from a perspective of some time, no matter how brief, spent overseas? I don't know if New Zealand is still about the people who came to farm the Hokianga, about the people who live there now or even what it's about any more.
Films like Autumn Fires should make us think and care as well as just taking us on a nostalgia trip. We need to think and care about New Zealand at the moment.
- The Dominion, 5/11/77