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Portrait of Paula McTaggart with quote "Without the NFU a large part of New Zealand history would not have been captured on film and documented for future generations"

Tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

I was raised in the small coal town of Runanga on the West Coast. In 1978 I left New Zealand to go travelling intending being away six months, but somehow the six months turned into 25 years!

Those years were spent in London where in January 1985 I realised my dream of working in the music industry when I accepted a position at Phonogram during the exciting times of Band Aid and Live Aid. I worked in the industry for 19 years finishing at Universal in March 2005 when I relocated back to New Zealand with my family.

My first film was the 2012 docu-drama Strongman – The Tragedy. 2007 was the 40th anniversary of the Strongman disaster, a disaster which had a lasting and profound impact locally but was not widely known to the rest of the country. I was given a suitcase containing a set of the original transcripts from the Commission of Inquiry and was profoundly impacted by the voices in those documents. The transcripts were a script already written and my vision was to include these as dramatized elements in the documentary. The film went on to become an award winning platinum funded docu-drama attracting the attention of acclaimed New Zealand filmmaker Dame Gaylene Preston who came on board as Executive Producer and director of drama with myself producing and directing the documentary.

Over the past six years, I’ve been producing and directing a factual short film series called Runanga – Home of Champions. The series includes 18 short films of various lengths telling the history of Runanga through contemporary interviews and archives.

The town itself was born out of Premier Richard John Seddon’s desire to smash monopolies and establish state enterprise so because it was his initiative Runanga was well chronicled from its inception which from an archival perspective was invaluable.

The town has an exceptional history, it was at the forefront of the New Zealand’s early socialist struggles and played a central role in the establishment of the Labour party. Many notable people emanated from Runanga such as Bob Semple and Patrick Webb who went on to become Cabinet Ministers in the first Labour government. It also produced an amazing array of champions in the sporting arena including an All Blacks manager and a Boston Marathon winner. There are films on everything from Italian immigrants to bookies, and because of the disparate themes an extensive amount of archival material was needed for the project and consequently substantial research.

You’ve worked extensively with archival material in your films. What is your process for finding and selecting archival footage?

Time, thought and perseverance really.

Firstly, I set plenty of time aside for researching throughout the duration of the production. The project was continually evolving and required a significant amount of research both nationally and overseas.

With so many websites dedicated to old photographs and footage, new items are continually uploaded so it’s an ongoing and evolving process. As a filmmaker you should always endeavour to have more archives than required to enable as many options as possible. Persevere and keep researching throughout your production.

In terms of selecting footage budget is a major factor. With documentary it is impossible to ascertain exactly what is out there and how much it will cost upfront, consequently budgeting for archives is challenging. There are eighteen films containing an extensive amount of archives so I had to cut the cost to suit the cloth. In addition, because there wasn’t enough funding to employ creatives and crew I took on multiple roles across the production, researcher being one of those so that helped to retain adequate funds for archives and music licensing – hence the six years!

Lastly, I try to select footage and photographs that will stylistically fit the film.

How did you become aware of the NFU collection here at Archives New Zealand?

I’ve always been interested in history and ancestry. My great-great-grandfather Thomas Hazeldine and his son Jack were brought out from Lancashire in 1879 by A.J Burns of the Westport Coal Company to work at the Banbury mine on the Denniston plateau. Burns was alerted there was unionism on board so when the men arrived at Nelson they found themselves unemployed!

This led me to visit Denniston and afterwards I purchased a DVD which contained footage from ‘After 90 Years’ a NFU film featuring wonderful coal mining footage of the Denniston Incline.

Can you tell us a bit about how you incorporated NFU material in your films?

There wasn’t moving footage of the town during its construction so for the first film ‘Early Runanga’ I used footage from a later era to illustrate the importance of coal and the vital role it played in the functioning of the country.

The footage came from the NFU film ‘KB Country’ which has epic shots of a steam train at full speed crossing the South Island. NFU footage is included through many of the short films, Coast Patrol, Country Lads, NZ is Ready, Pictorial Parade 65, The Ride of 480, After 90 Years to name a few, the purpose of which serves to illustrate, anchor authenticity and enhance the narrative.

And lastly be creative – think outside the box, about how you can use it, for example I have used some footage metaphorically.

Do you have any particular favourite NFU films or moments?

Being a West Coaster I love ‘Coal from Westland’ and ‘Coal Valley’ but if I were to single one out it would be ‘Country Lads’ seeing all those soldiers departing New Zealand’s shores to fight, many to their deaths. It is a sobering feeling seeing the ship depart to great fanfare knowing for many of the families and friends it is the last time they will ever see their loved ones.

What kind of role do you think the NFU played in New Zealand’s audio visual heritage?

The NFU has played an essential role - without the NFU a large part of New Zealand history would not have been captured on film and documented for future generations. The films are still being used today by contemporary filmmakers and seen globally. In fact I had feedback from a festival regarding ‘Depression & Hard Times’ saying ‘the use of archival footage was stunning’ so the fact they picked up on the archives underlines how compelling archives can be to a modern day audience.

From a historical perspective the NFU films are important because we learn from the past. In addition, documentary footage gives us the real people in real time, therefore it is the closest assessment of events of that time.

As a filmmaker, what do you think the importance is for the NFU collection to be preserved and made available to New Zealanders?

Incredibly important - Archives NZ are the custodians of New Zealand’s moving image history and it is vital the films are preserved and digitised for future generations. We are fortunate nowadays as digital formats offer everyone the opportunity to view, research and enjoy the films online. Digitisation not only prevents the loss of archival footage at risk due to deterioration or format obsolescence, it brings out the detail and enhances the footage when scanned at a higher resolution.

For filmmakers the NFU films provide immense value to their productions, they really are a national treasure.

I would like to thank Katherine C’Ailceta and everyone at Archives NZ for giving me the opportunity to take part in celebrating the National Film Unit 80th anniversary and for preserving the nation’s heritage.