A giant has fallen: Remembering Barry Barclay
Friday, 22 February 2008, 11am Press release: Documentary Makers of Aotearoa New Zealand (DMANZ)
It's been a couple of days now since the phone rang, and I heard from his sister Pauline that Barry Barclay had died.
Barry was - and remains - an absolute giant in New Zealand and the World's film communities. He is widely and famously
regarded as the first member of an Indigenous nation to direct a feature film, and often held up in New Zealand as being
possibly our greatest and most influential documentary maker. But I think it's important to remember now that Barry's
more celebrated achievements - Ngati, the Tangata Whenua series, The Feathers of Peace - were founded on the back of a
long and compassionate journey of discovery of self, of others and a rigorous, vigorous, disarmingly playful and
punishingly sharp mind.
"Barry is a thinker" was one deceptively obvious little nugget that cropped up during an interview in Auckland a few
months ago. Obvious on the face of it; but how many people can we really apply the epithet to?
Barry was capable - and though he would never mention it, he had both the training and the firepower - of great and
original philosophical thought. Get yourself a copy of Mana Tuturu and read the opening chapters. Marvel and laugh as
Barry affectionately and accurately accuses Captain Cook of 'home invasion' - and then goes on to convincingly and
elegantly prove beyond any talkback host's wildest polemic exactly why 'country' and 'nation' are two very different
concepts. All of that in the opening pages, and there's still 300 to go Š Enjoy.
Or make the pilgrimage to the Film Archive's basement, and treat yourself to a viewing of Barry's early and wildly
experimental doco's Ashes, Autumn Fires, or The Town That Lost a Miracle. They are still head and shoulders above most
of the publicly funded obviousness that gets passed off as documentary today, and so far beyond the grasp of anything
our current crop of 'providers and funders' would ever contemplate as to beggar belief. Not just records of another
time; these films roll out like broadcasts from another planet: A place where 'pitching contests' and 'expected
outcomes' would be classed as criminal activities.
Barry made films from the position that the filmmaker was absolute; that everything was in the service of the film, and
that the film (and its makers) served only truth. His approach to documentary especially was completely uncompromising,
but somehow still malleable, adaptable, chaotic, and funny as all hell. His shoots were characterised by great humour
and a constant sense of winging it with the best of them - but the results were searingly intelligent, provocative,
idiosyncratic and timeless. I never actually heard Bazz say 'Damn the Torpedoes' (though I know he loved the sentiment),
but I certainly heard him mutter 'bugger the producer/broadcaster/funder' a few times.
In his last couple of years, Bazz was hitting his straps with a gentle fury that probably looked like fun to the
uninitiated. He was mightily enthused by the possibilities of cheap digital cameras and editing systems, and by the
knowledge that soon the filmmakers would have everything they needed to make a feature or a documentary right in their
own - or their communities - hands. He had a dream of a camera, an edit suite, and a broadband connection available to
every marae, and a central server - administered from the Film Archive - that could collate and store every second of
footage that came down the pipe. I don't doubt for a moment that, granted another year or two of life, Bazz would have
made it happen. Will one of us pick up that load now?
Over the last few days - and I guess a few more times in the days ahead, you'll hear and read a bunch of tributes that
will invariably begin 'Barry Barclay, the director of the film Ngati Š'. Well yes, Ngati is a staggering and gorgeous
achievement (hell, Bazz dying might even spur the NZFC into finally making it available on DVD Š). But right now, maybe
it's time to acknowledge some of the man's work that might be about to vanish into the basements and memories of the
many of us that he made friends of.
I was a barman when I first met him, I saw the tail end of the deluge, and I've heard something of the damage and grief
that a man of Bazz's size can cause when he's blundering in the fog. But for me it's the jokes, the games of chess, the
(ginger) beers, the sly charm, the righteous anger and the perfectly uncontradicted Marxism and spirituality that seemed
to me to inform every word he spoke and frame he composed.
They say - well, someone does - that the best way to mourn a man is to carry on his work. It'll take all of us and then
some to do a half of what Bazz might have done. But that's no reason not to try.
Tama Poata, John O'Shea, Wi Kuki Kaa, Michael King and now Barry. There is a clearing where a forest once stood.
About the author Graeme Tuckett is a Wellington-based documentary maker and film critic.
DMANZ Documentary Makers of Aotearoa New Zealand (DMANZ) is a free association of people actively involved in
documentary filmmaking. For more information: visit dmanz.org.nz.