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Divergent gradients of Indigenous Film-making

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A philosopher, a film-maker and a deadly chess opponent, was Barry Barclay (1944–2008) nō Ngāti Apa.

His works possessed a deep metaphorical and philosophical understanding, but at the time, were deemed un-othodox. After thirty years of making films, Barclay began his written work reinforcing his backlash against systemic racism in the New Zealand film industry that lacked both an authentic Māori voice and support for Māori practitioners at the time. His work along with others, ignited the beginning of a new era of indigenous filmmaking and media practices.

Aside from Our Own Image, Barclay published a number of articles and papers (1988, 1991, 1992, 2006) and in 2005 the University of Auckland published what may be seen as his enduring written legacy, Mana Tuturu (2005), a considered exploration of the difficulties that arise when indigenous cultures enter the commercial world. The common thread woven through all his writings is the matter of indigenous ownership, however, Barclay did not write specifically on Fourth Cinema, and his key commentary on the subject is contained in the texts of two speeches he gave, a year apart, in the early 2000s. Images of Dignity: Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema written by Stewart Murray, is the first major study and analysis of Barry Barclay’s work and Fourth Cinema.

Barclay communicates through his work a transfiguring Māori gaze which also acts as a movement towards an endemic ‘Māori Sublime’, an in-house Māori conversation.

One intended to be shared with receptive members of the dominant culture and one that unproblematically celebrates a Māori epistemology, world-view and ontological system in a work of what Barry Barclay called emergent Fourth Cinema.

You cannot mention Barclay without mentioning his ally Merata Mita (1942-2014) nō Ngai Te Rangi rāua ko Ngāti Pikiao, another key contributor to indigenous filmmaking with documentary work like ‘Patu!’ A startling record of the mass civil disobedience that took place throughout New Zealand during the winter of 1981, in protest against a South African rugby tour, the feature-length documentary is a landmark in Aotearoa's film history.

The question for me is not if Barclay’s theory and methodology is still relevant — they clearly are — but rather why? My first ‘paid’ job was working on Barclay’s final documentary, The Kaipara Affair and now, a practising film technician myself, I have a continuing desire to contribute to his legacy with my own pursuits in academia accompanied with film work that will use both Barclay’s and Mita’s films as ‘templates of thinking’ about filmmaking as distinct film modes of address.

It’s important now to outline the deeper defining features of Barry Barclay’s Fourth Cinema that resounded with indigenous communities worldwide, although I will only use contemporary New Zealand cinema and television practitioners that have used Fourth Cinema principles in their work.

“We have a history of people putting Māori under the microscope in the same way scientists would look at insects. The ones doing the looking are giving themselves the power to define.” - Merata Mita.

The issues raised by Fourth Cinema are not simply ‘film’ issues. They are multi-faceted more boundless, issues of law, knowledge, and property. Barclay referenced international films like Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) - as evidence of the colonial gaze. In one particular scene, men are ordered from the ship onto the shore to enjoy the flesh of indigenous women, a representation of indigenous people as passive objects. It was through this example Barclay developed his metaphor of indigenous cinema as ‘the camera on the shore’ reversing the direction of the colonial gaze. This is the heart of his argument: the indigenous camera will see differently, frame differently, provide a different context and serve a different philosophy.

Fourth Cinema cannot be identified solely on surface features that make up the ‘exteriority’ of film narratives such as rituals, language, the use of elders or attitudes to land for example. It’s the ‘interiority’, or the heart that distinguishes this mode of cinema as a force or presence of the longer human history of place.

‘Maui’s Hook’ A feature documentry film by Māori psychologist and filmmaker Paora Joseph who invites open discussion of suicide through a series of wānanga that brave families who grieve the suicide of someone close. Their stories give the film its soul-stirring centre as the film constitutes both interiority and exteriority narratives. Upon its release it toured marae nationwide and in particular to the grieving communities the families live in. This accentuates a key motivation of Fourth Cinema: the desire to rework the principles of te ao Māori to give vitality and richness to the way we conceive, develop, manufacture and present our films.

Barclay explains his “divergent gradients” phenomenon in this way: A majority of films principal period of glory is at the beginning of its release and then the gradient of vitality tracks downward. It is not that a great film’s greatness simply evaporates, more of a gracious retirement. This is what he calls the Gradient A phenomenon. But, with Māori work (within the Māori community) the gradient tracks upward. This is Gradient X. The early life of the image document might be rather modest, but the document increases in vigor and relevance as each decade goes by.

Here, Barclay demonstrates the different understanding of the word ‘treasure’ from the pākeha world: the family heirloom, the historic document, the archived transcript, the restored artwork. ‘Taonga’ are more of a growing thing, increasing in vitality as the decades pass. Perhaps taonga grows in strength, as one generation holds it for a time and then passes it on to the next, like that in whakapapa which is all-pervading in te ao māori, that respect for the past is our future, for the living family that stretches back and stretches forward.

Yet, at the same time, a massive shift away from these purely indigenous Fourth Cinema modes of representation of our images in content and form is also happening. A new kind of making that is based on an acceptance of cultural hybridity and an awareness of global youth culture, as well as Indigenous film-makers continue to make films and television. Audiences responded enthusiastically to Taika Waititi’s Boy, because it authentically showed them themselves – a desire that Taika Waititi himself had taken on board: “I think actually most people want to see themselves or versions of themselves on screen, and I think this film kind of captures New Zealand at a time that had sort of been forgotten, and a lot of people – especially in my generation – never thought they’d see on screen.”

Barclay and Mita developed conceptions of indigenous film-making that prioritised a responsibility to honouring indigenous stories, and storytellers. But how do those ideas stand up now? It has been 44 years since Tangata Whenua, and 40 years since Bastion Point: Day 507. Since then, some things have changed. Digital technology has mitigated the significant and prohibitive costs of film; organisations like Nga Aho Whakaari emerged to support the Māori film industry, and the wider proliferation of Māori and Pacific artists working with film has challenged any single definition of indigenous film.

While Barclay, Mita and others looked back to criticise the past, they were both looking towards the future, and the potential of filmmaking to both honour indigenous content and guide indigenous makers. Barclay’s work openly state what they never had themselves; working models, teachers and a foothold to jump off from.


Photos. A: Barry Barclay with actor Nissie Herewini, during the filming of Te Rua, 1990. Photograph by Tyrone Kallmeier. B: Nanny Matai (Nissie Herewini – with stick) along with other cast and extras in a scene from Te Rua. Dominion Post.

Barclay, B. (1987), Nga-ti, Wellington: Pacific Films.

— (1988),‘The control of one’s own image’, Illusions, 8, pp. 8–14.

— (1990), Our Own Image, Auckland: Longman Paul.

— (1991),‘Housing our image destiny’, Illusions, 17, pp. 39–42.

— (1996),‘Amongst landscapes’, in J. D. and J. Bieringa (eds), Film in Aotearoa

New Zealand, Wellington: Victoria University Press, pp. 116–29.

— (2003a),‘Celebrating fourth cinema’, Illusions, 35, pp. 7–11.

— (2003b), ‘Exploring fourth cinema: A talk given in Hawai’i as part of Summer School Lectures’, Re-imagining Indigenous Cultures: The Pacific Islands for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Summer Institute, BarclayExploringFourthCinema2003. Accessed 12 May 2014.

— (2003c),‘An open letter to John Barnett from Barry Barclay’, Onfilm, 20: 2, p. 14. -

— (2005), Mana Tuturu: Maori Treasures and Intellectual Property, Auckland: Auckland University Press.

— (2005), The Kaipara Affair, Auckland: He Taonga Films.

— (2006), A Pistol on the Table, Wellington: privately published.

Bennett, K. (2006), ‘Fourth cinema and the politics of staring’, Illusions, 38,pp. 19–23.

Hokowhitu, B. (2007),‘Understanding Whangara-: Whale Rider as Simulacrum’, New Zealand Journal of Media Studies, 10: 2, pp. 53–70.

Hokowhitu, B., Devadas, Vijay, and Devadas, V. The Fourth Eye: M Ori Media in Aotearoa New Zealand. U of Minnesota, 2013. Web.

Milligan, C. (2015), ‘Sites of exuberance: Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema, ten years on’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 11: 3, pp. 347–359, doi: 10.1386/macp.11.3.347_1

Murray, Stuart. Images of Dignity : Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema. Wellington, N.Z.: Huia, 2008. Print.

Pihama, L. (1996),‘Repositioning Ma-ori representations: Contextualising Once Were Warriors’, in J. D. and J. Bieringa (eds), Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington: Victoria University Press, pp. 191–94.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies : Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Zed : Distributed in the USA Exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

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