New Zealand


Director: Barry Barclay
Production Co.: Pacific Films, for NZBC
Producer: John O'Shea
Screenplay: James McNeish, adapted by Barry Barclay
Cinematography: Graeme Wisken
Editor: Ian John
Sound Recordist: Craig McLeod
James McNeish
Piwai Toi
Olive Bracey
Maurice Shadbolt
Jill Baker
John Morton
30 minutes
16 mm
The Town That Lost A Miracle was my first crack at the big time. I'd shot and directed Trade Under My Belt. But the Opo story was a number one chance to paint on a blank canvas and have the results hung spotlit in a public gallery...
The Town That Lost A Miracle was made for the Survey series, a collection of thirty minute one-off documentaries for television. Some were made in-house, others commissioned from independent producers like Pacific Films, who I was then working for. Writer James McNeish came to Pacific Films with the idea. He'd done all the major research. He knew who would speak about what and who wouldn't. Pacific Films producer John O'Shea took the idea to television, delegated the project to me, and bang, we were away - or were we?
The crew drove up from Wellington and - vehicles and roads being what they were then - it was a two day step. We arrived on the edges of the great, breathing harbour they call locally "the river" at eleven in the evening. For a leg stretch, we walked to the end of the Opononi jetty. The kahawai were running. I'd not seen anything like it. For two hours the fish raced through the water beneath the jetty, eating, flashing silver. We made hooks from spare grip wire and lures from tufts of the spun glass we used those days as a diffuser on our lamps. We danced the hooks and tufts across the surface of the water and the fish struck and struck and struck. We laid out dying plunder our on the planks of the jetty, side by side. We'd reached - as so many invaders before us - the Hokianga.
James McNeish has a lovely ability to tease out a mystery from the fabric of the ordinary. Perhaps there had been a mystery, perhaps not. But something did happen towards the end of that magical Opo summer in the Hokianga. It was Jim's thought to search into that uncomfortable area of mystery, and I did my best to maintain in the film an air of search for the might-have-happened.
And then there were the animals. [Did we really kill - for no good purpose whatsoever - all those kahawai on the Opononi jetty?] As if there was never going to be another film, I set out to give as many quickflick images of our treatment of animals as I could come up with. I set interviews in certain places, I organised exaggerated asides. I wince at some of it now, but then Opo was an animal, and we lost that miracle in just one summer.
The Town That Lost A Miracle was my first attempt at introducing a Maori element into the mainstream. I was searching for a resolution by way of values I hardly knew at the time. The basic idea was James'. He had found elder Piwai Toi and gained his trust and that of his wife. But I did do the staging and I did direct the edit. In hindsight, something must have been knocking within me.
- Barry Barclay
In the Survey programme The Town That Lost A Miracle, writer James McNeish went one step forward from the role of dissector of myth to that of generator. He looked closely at the effects that the life of a dolphin had on the town of Opononi in the summer of 1955-56 and, with Pacific Films director Barry Barclay, compiled a hauntingly disturbing documentary. The Town that Lost A Miracle, is without a doubt the most interesting and evocative programme I have yet seen in the series.
At one level, the programme showed how the lines between reality and unreality blur rapidly with the passing of time and a fact becomes a myth (Jill Baker, who rode the dolphin, remarked almost bitterly that "other people seem to remember far more about it than I do.")
People showed their ability to reconstruct the past according to their own needs and preconceptions. To some, Opo the dolphin served to remind New Zealanders they could have a relationship with the world of nature and so-called lower animals. In the opinion of Piwai Toi, a Hokianga elder, the dolphin was sent to demonstrate that people coming together need not do so in conflict.
The story and the interpretation of it are endlessly suggestive, as all good myths should be. Local Maoris believed Opo was a taniwha (as their Marlborough counterparts had believed of Pelorous Jack half-a-century before), the spirit of Kupe returned to his point of departure for Hawaiki. Dolphins also figure in Western mythology as creatures friendly to humans from the time of the Greek gods through to the poetry of William Butler Yeats (who saw them as vehicles for the migration of human souls). In Opononi, threads of Polynesian and European mythology came together to form a fabric that was a uniquely New Zealand one, with implications for both cultures.
And yet, of course, the event itself failed to do what a new mythology may yet do. It didn't bring together Maori and Pakeha. It didn't even bring Europeans together without conflict, as Piwai Toi had hoped. As the documentary showed graphically, the coming of Opo released contradictory forces that are perhaps latent in all New Zealand communities but rarely seen so nakedly: loyalty and envy; gentleness and viciousness; trust and scepticism; generosity and avarice. At its most fundamental level, The Town That Lost A Miracle was about the citizens of Opononi, not their dolphin.
The most pleasing feature of the documentary was its subtlety. To most New Zealanders the most sensational information in the film would have been the evidence that the dolphin's death was not accidental. Both the motive for killing her and the means were established, but in a low-key fashion that heightened the impact. Nobody was accused. The facts and theories were presented and the viewer was left to supply his own reaction.
The capacity for cruelty which runs through human nature and which provided part of an explanation for the fate of the dolphin was well evoked in the scenes with children - reminiscent of William Golding's prisoners of original sin - mutilating a fish and stoning a butterfly trapped on the surface of the water.
The other welcome symptom of maturity was the identification of people interviewed by what they said and their surroundings rather than by the imposition of weighty designations in subtitles that television producers so often think are necessary to establish authority, but which usually only detract from the impact of the spoken word. The emphasis was on the importance of what was said rather than who said it. Hence Professor John Morton was quite recognisable as a biologist from his choice of words, his appearance and his specimens. And the former headmaster remained the former headmaster instead of being distractingly exposed as Member of Parliament and shadow Minister of the Crown...
I have nothing but admiration for the script and the interviews, and the manner in which they were presented by writer and director. In particular, the interviews elicited highly relevant and colourful information in a gentle way ("Did they use gelly?" McNeish asked the fisherman in a deceptively surprised tone, triggering off more startling admissions). The characters of the documentary spoke naturally and at times poetically (like the woman who described the dolphin "oomping away"). It is far easier to assemble this kind of material on paper than it is to persuade people to get in front of a camera and talk. And yet the latter approach, of course, has by far the greater impact.
One thing I know did upset some viewers. The fact that film of the dolphin was never shown, although the expectation that it would be was always there. Personally, I didn't mind. It was another case of the viewer being left to supply his own picture and reaction. And the documentary was, after all, about the town.
- Michael King, Listener, 3/7/72