Opinion & Analysis

What is an Asian-New Zealand film?

A decade ago, Dr Arezou Zalipour started investigating Asian New Zealanders’ representation on the screen and their film practices. She theorised the concept of ‘Asian-New Zealand film’ by probing the changes and effects the Asian diaspora has had on New Zealand screen culture.

With her research, she wanted to ground ‘Asian-New Zealand film’ in academic, public, and industry consciousness through both publications and community, industry, and production activities. In this piece, she explains what she found – and what could happen in the future.

Has there ever been such a thing as Asian-New Zealand film?

Since 2011, I’ve been asking whether New Zealand cinema reflects Asian-New Zealanders and investigating the ways Asian people in New Zealand are represented on our screens.

New Zealand cinema has served as the storyteller of this country. This idea of 'New Zealand cinema' has been characterised as including Pākehā and Māori films and, to a lesser degree, Pasifika films, which reflect parts of national and cultural identity.

In 2012, I offered a preliminary definition for ‘Asian New Zealand cinema’, which remains relevant: it is “an emerging body of films, including works by both New Zealanders of Asian descent and New Zealand films producing images of Asian diasporic people and lives”.

ArezouZalipour 3

Dr Arezou Zalipour. Photo: Supplied

A brief history

In the 1980s and 1990s, the creative emergence of Asian-New Zealand cinema started with a few films made by or about Asian people in New Zealand.

We had Leon Narbey’s beautifully shot Illustrious Energy (1988) about Chinese miners in the South Island, and Sima Urale and Shuchi Kothari’s Apron Strings (2008), a double story about an Indian and a Pākehā family in South Auckland.

There were also several short films with scarce publicity, and a few television programmes such as Asia Downunder (1994-2011) and An Immigrant Nation — Footprints of the Dragon (1994).

It wasn't until 2011 that New Zealand had its first feature with a full-screen story on Chinese-New Zealanders and their identities: My Wedding and Other Secrets, based on director Roseanne Liang's own life, told the cross-cultural love story of Emily Chu, as she grappled with her identity and family expectations.

Illustrious Energy 1988

A scene from the film Illustrious Energy (1988), which focused on Chinese miners in the South Island.

Themes of Asian-New Zealand films

There are certain themes and subject matters which have flowed through these films over the years: food, family, and women.

Food and cooking are central subjects within many Asian-New Zealand films, and this provides profound meanings within film narratives.

Themes of family and the position of women are interwoven into cooking in some films, such as My Wedding and Other Secrets, where family is given prominence while food serves as an identity marker in the construction of Asian (Chinese) New Zealand identities.

Other recurring themes such as marriage and generational conflicts also appear in these films where they invigorate sites for depictions of journeying identities.

The production processes of Asian-New Zealand films are largely based on a small budget, self-sponsored or crowd-funded production and in some cases, they have been state-funded, such as in Apron Strings and My Wedding and Other Secrets.

my wedding and other secrets

A scene from My Wedding and Other Secrets, directed by Roseanne Liang.

Starting research into Asian-New Zealand films

In 2012, I interviewed New Zealanders from Asian backgrounds who had worked on films, going back to the 1980s, when Helen Wong and Mandrika Rupa made the first Chinese- and Indian-New Zealand stories for the screen. 

Alongside that, I talked to key people from the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) and researched reports and documents released by the organisation.

At the time, I found there were no cultural policies, special provisions, or even considerations for Asian-New Zealand filmmaking and practitioners.

The only existing consideration was that if NZFC received an application with (Asian) ethnic content, they would invite relevant consultants on a temporary basis to be on the funding and application panels.

But in 2016 and 2017, I returned for more interviews, to see if there were any changes that would create a future for Asian-New Zealand filmmaking.

Changing times for Asian-New Zealand stories

We must not forget that the important role of a Film Commission or screen agencies (like NZFC or NZ on Air) in any country if they are lucky to have one.

The development of Māori filmmaking as self-representation in the 1980s can be traced back to Māori filmmakers’ lobbying and the NZFC’s support when finally, Māori people, their concerns, and histories came to the centre of film.

Ngati 1987

The 1980s saw an increase in the production of Māori films, such as Ngati (1987).

Returning in 2016 and 2017, my conversations with the NZFC’s Chief Executive Dave Gibson and Chris Payne, Head of International Relations, were interesting: I could see a growing awareness of diversity compared with NZFC’s views previously, but their concerns were mainly focused on film and filmmaking of Māori and Pasifika communities.

In 2017, the most recent addition to NZFC’s activities was the public statement “Diverse Voices,” supporting “film-makers from all backgrounds” and highlighting the currently available “development fund committed to presenting Māori and Pasifika stories on-screen”.

Until 2017, such recurring statements of active reinforcement and support documented as policy or guidelines for encouraging Māori and Pasifika filmmaking could not be found in relation to any other minority demographic groupings in New Zealand.

Films with Māori and Pacific Island content are being included in NZFC’s decision-making processes as a separate cinematic category, where special funding supports their productions through a variety of means.

gr stocks q8P8YoR6erg unsplash

the future of New Zealand's film industry needs to include the voices of all communities. Photo by GR Stocks on Unsplash.

But overall it was evident that New Zealand’s national cinema and television has so far included Pākehā and Māori films and, to a growing degree, Pasifika films.

During the Big Screen Symposium in 2018, the NZFC announced a support development fund for Pasifika communities and one for all other migrant and diasporic communities in New Zealand.

Since then we hear of more screen productions made by New Zealanders of Asian migrant ethnic descent that attempt to represent a wider range of social and cultural experiences. New Zealand filmmakers of pan-Asian backgrounds have now shaped a screen collective within the country’s filmmaking.

I believe that intellectual and practice-based engagement with the Asian immigrants and their succeeding generations in New Zealand film and filmmaking is crucial for imagining the future of New Zealand film and television.

The New Zealand culture and screen industry and media policy-makers need to be reminded of the opportunities that can be created in Asia, for film co-production development with China and other Asian countries, as well as global and transnational markets, through showcasing of pan-Asian New Zealanders’ talents and films.

 - Asia Media Centre