Stephanie Beth (b.1948, Hastings)

Pioneering feminist film maker

Dip FA (Film) 1978

Interviewed by Tracy McCaw
August 2007

“Studying at a New Zealand art school was all I wanted at the time.”


Recollections: the 1975 time period
Those of us who went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in the 1970s knew of our New Zealand predecessors on the international stage – Hodgkins, Lye, Angus... The list was short. We knew about the urgency of awards and scholarships. We knew that the school tried to keep itself current, and we were aware of its fragile size alongside the mainstream university. We knew that an artist launching had to be culturally sensitive. Vincent Ward and Tim White, for example, a production pair one year ahead of me, shrewdly selected a Frame short story as their first launch. A State of Siege (1978) was successfully screened in Wellington. In comparison, an early Ihimaera film adaptation made for government television, one of the Winners and Losers series, was removed from broadcast circulation.

In the first year, we looked at our lecturers and our leadership. Prof. Simpson had designed lamps in connection with the Bauhaus. Don Peebles had plied his post-painterly abstractions in New York. Bill Sutton and Doris Lusk had stature as regional painters. We realised that one fine piece of Italian granite for lithography constituted the printmaking department (under Jack Knight), and that the Swiss school of typography that imbued Max Hailstone was positioning us in the 1970s. We heard of 1960s photorealism in New York from Lawrence Shustak and made a transition from solid sculptural forms to soft wraps and whimsy with Tom Taylor and Martin Mendelsberg. Simpson, Peebles, Taylor, Lusk and Sutton were of the Depression and wartime generations.

The delivery of an arts culture was still enormously tenuous in New Zealand; the school's birthday celebrations will remind us of this. There were no artists making a living in 1975. A primary school art curriculum was only formalised in the 1960s. The New Zealand fine arts scene still reached out to London's Royal College as a link.

Personal art education
Overseas travel to art galleries filled in a lot of my understanding about 20th century art. I made many outings to the Tate Gallery in London as well as The Frick and Moma in New York and European museums such as the MusĂ©e Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels – I sidetracked to Klimt as I had got to know one of his younger contemporaries in Austria.

I lived in London in 1971 and 1973. One time at the Tate I saw a constructivist exhibition with a full-scale model of Tatlin's tower, and beside this a scale model of the Lenin train emblazoned with, 'The dictatorship of the proletariat will bring us from capitalism's gloom and oppression to a radiant future [under communism].' Things were afoot in the Western contemporary scene. New York's abstract expressionist Frankenthaler, abstractionist Rothko and pop artist Warhol by this time featured in the UK. Courses at school segued into such art. I remember in the first year writing an assignment on Franz Klein.

Moving image
Maurice Askew (Lecturer, Moving Image) defined 1975 as a peak year for his course. Vincent Ward, Tim White and David Coulson were in the graduating year ahead of me. Most people know of Ward's films (his latest was River Queen in 2006). Fewer know of White's productions (Ned Kelly, Map of the Human Heart, Two Hands, Oscar and Lucinda, Death in Brunswick, No2) and Coulsen's editing (Footstep Man, Illustrious Energy, Broken English, User Friendly, Desperate Remedies, North Country).

I think the mid-1970s was a renaissance period. When I think now of how much time we were prepared to give to arts and exploration in the face of certain penury, I'm almost impressed. We were a country no longer reliant upon British technical know-how and were doing more and more for ourselves. There was a Values political party only three years old after 1972. There were 'Woman has a Right to Choose' rallies on the abortion issue.

Askew was always a gentle raconteur. He had come from England to Christchurch from the design department at Granada Television. We knew about his special effects with the rooftops of Coronation Street and his canary. Maurice was a magician for our pleasure: a) he was the pioneer of our little department, and b) he was the Canterbury president of the Film Society. This meant that he showed us editing on the quaint 1950s-style stand-up editing Moviola, oversaw the first purchase of a CP American 16mm camera and gave us previews of current collections of 16mm world cinema films that arrived weekly to his office by post. Our small study band packed into the film school's back room couch or carpet for Fellini, Ray, Snow, Cassavettes, Bergman, Truffaut, Chabrol and Jean-Luc (Godard). The collection over two years covered post-war neo-realism (De Sica's Bicycle Thief (1948)), the prolific French 1960s, including Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Pick Pocket (1959) and Lancelot du Lac (1974)), to high moments of Polish cinema (Wadja and Knife in the Water (1962), an early Polanski), post-Stalinist Russian and American poetic films and documentaries. So many of them were classics written about by early critics – famous ones wereFlaherty's Nanook of the North (1922),Resnais's Night and Fog (1955),Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957), Ray's The World of Apu (1959), Arnold Rogosin's On the Bowery (1957) and Ken Loach's 1966 television drama Cathy Come Home. The American independents were Cassavettes' A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Kopple's Harlan County (1976). There were experimental and environmental works by Anger, Brackhage and Michael Snow. (I had filled in other gaps in London—Fellini, Warhol (Morrissey), Kubrick, Fonder and Hopper.)

The Film Society collection was our lifeline. It was a collection well known to Bill Gosden, who for almost twenty years has selected for the country's annual world cinema festival. My known work, I Want to be Joan (1977),is a reflection of the female gendered socio-economic times of post-1950s New Zealand. For the making, I was impressed by Godard's research into film essay. I leant towards the symbolism of a colour field and the use of constructed 'pieces to camera', as he used them in Tout Va Va Bien (1972), and applied these ideas as a determinant on how documentary might listen to women who wished to speak out. The film made it to the 7th Wellington Film Festival after a review in a Nelson newspaper during its 1978 tour. To me, this was a thrill and a boost. The experience linked me to the rest of the country, and I successfully gained Film Commission funding for a second film eighteen months later.

As to film school life, hiding away in the Creyke Road house was our social scene. The cost of film study was pretty exorbitant. For me, it was $6,000 to get through one-third of a year-three assessment (film stock was 16mm Kodak Reversal). However, for those years, I really had no qualms. I was an older student who had travelled. Studying at a New Zealand art school was all I wanted at the time. High costs were compensated by the pure thrill of producing and a sense of comprehension about life in this society: 'What are you doing right now?' 'I'm making a film.'

We were a miniscule bunch. You could imagine a general impression in the country that American cinema, BBC-style radio and television were the only mediums. However, we all knew there had been predecessors such as Len Lye, the expatriate kiwi in London who had been a Post Office employee, for we had all done our compulsory scratch film in the FINT year. We knew who they were – O'Shea, the Waimarama commune (Murphy, Bolinger, Lawrence).

I could pick up ignored scripts by Visconti, Antonioni and Kurosawa scripts, and critical writing by Bazin in Christchurch and Wellington second-hand bookshops for $5 a piece. Independent filmmaking was only just dawning on society at large. Under Askew's leadership, it was assumed that we would settle on a good idea, visualise and go forth – as the French and the American Independent had done. The 1970s was about self-reflexivity and demystification. In an equivalent honours year, before I started In Joy (1980) in Auckland, I distributed I Want to be Joan on borrowed projectors from schools and village halls around the country, making myself available for discussion on documentary processes. I identified with female ideas. After 100 screenings I recouped my student debts.

There hasn't been a repeat of the high times of the 1970s in New Zealand. Vast economic restructuring was soon unravelling the sleepy hollow country, the conservatism of which seemed to limit ambitions in the  independent film arts field.

Short narrative and documentaries were our fine arts platforms. None of my year continued in production or made it to the 35mm spectrum. The independent filmmaker needed to move swiftly to 35mm status to ply trade (usually producer, director, camera operator or editor). Chan set up an industrial video business in Auckland. Peter Bannan went into fashion photography and commercials.

New Zealand film definitely had some successes pre-Peter Jackson. Most of the 'driven' directors who reached 35mm budgets had to go offshore; they could afford to bless us with their return after fifteen years or so. There has been Pillsbury's Crooked Earth (2001), Donaldson with The World's Fastest Indian (2005) and Ward's River Queen (2006). And the producers O'Shea, Maynard and Barnett were people we held in regard. I got to meet these people at various times.

Going to art school, and especially taking a film to market, cinched for me what I am doing now. I teach senior media studies and foundation film studies at a high school. I picked up an Anthropology and Cultural Studies degree during the 1990s at the University of Canterbury to properly fulfil my tertiary education obligation. I teach the pupils to aim for festivals after they have gotten an education. Glenn Standring is the latest of my ex-pupils to have spent time at the Canterbury film school (in the 1990s). His film Perfect Creature, a straight-to-video horror/thriller, had a July 2007 release in Dunedin. As for documentaries, these are now funded by New Zealand On Air, unless there is theatrical market potential. Glenn's DOP was Leon Narbey, who also taught at the school. He has a running list of credits: Illustrious Energy, The Footstep Man, No 2, Perfect Creature. Which brings me to notice Paul Swadel, also a past student at the school, and director of the television documentary on Colin McCahon. These threads and links in the New Zealand industry are treasures of memory and connection. I do hope some more students enter Canterbury's film school for similar enrichment.