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Al Barry has been the con­science of New Zealand documentary-making for over 40 years. In 1973, he sailed to Mururoa with his cam­era to record the protests over French nuc­le­ar test­ing and in 1979 he formed — along with Rod Prosser and Russell Campbell — the Vanguard Films col­lect­ive of pro­gress­ive film­makers who pro­duced a series of doc­u­ment­ar­ies about the increas­ing fric­tion between the author­it­ari­an Muldoon gov­ern­ment and the labour and nuclear-free protest move­ments, includ­ing Wildcat (fol­low­ing the 1977 tim­ber work­ers’ strike) and Islands of the Empire (about New Zealand’s depend­ent mil­it­ary rela­tion­ship with the United States).

In 1988, Al released the first in what would become his life’s work — a series of films mak­ing up a com­pre­hens­ive his­tory of New Right polit­ics in New Zealand and the steady destruc­tion of the wel­fare state and the post-war lib­er­al con­sensus. Someone Else’s Country cost only $40,000 to make and was a sur­pris­ing suc­cess, prompt­ing him to fol­low up with In a Land of Plenty (2002), A Civilised Society (2007) and then an adapt­a­tion of Nicky Hager’s invest­ig­a­tion into polit­ic­al cor­rup­tion, The Hollow Men in 2008.

His latest film, Hot Air (co-directed with Abi King-Jones), is about the polit­ics of cli­mate change — what he describes as “the mundane nature of this cata­strophe and the glob­al response to it… you know, just ordin­ary folks like you and I who happened to be in pos­i­tions of power and for very ordin­ary human reas­ons didn’t do any­thing or do enough”. It takes much the same film­mak­ing approach as his pre­vi­ous pic­tures: assembly of a case through a painstak­ing trawl through years of tele­vi­sion archives in order to find evid­ence of the key play­ers essen­tially con­vict­ing them­selves with their own testimony.

At least this part of the job is get­ting easi­er, thanks to tech­no­logy. The Auckland University Chapman Archive of all tele­vi­sion news and cur­rent affairs broad­casts since 1984 has long been a treas­ure trove of New Zealand his­tory and is now avail­able for review by the gen­er­al pub­lic at the Film Archive.

Alister test­i­fies: “The Film Archive and the New Zealand Television Archive have been won­der­ful resources right through the dif­fer­ent stages of the pro­cess, from look­ing at it on paper using the TVNZ data­base through to going down to the base­ment at the archive and spend­ing hours and hours and hours look­ing at their record­ings of every news pro­gramme over the last ten years or so, which now can be viewed there for free. You can go and look at his­tory unfold­ing as each day goes by in the six o’clock news.”

Making a film might be get­ting easi­er, but fund­ing it and then get­ting it in front of an audi­ence is get­ting more dif­fi­cult, and Al is grate­ful for the atten­tion the New Zealand International Film Festival provides: “In a funny way it has become more import­ant because we’ve got a stage (or a screen) where the films can be shown and not lost in the deluge, and people like your­self, for example, and indeed this con­ver­sa­tion that we’re hav­ing now, mean that films like ours do get poin­ted out.”

[Printed in the July issue of Wellington’s FishHead magazine.]

Update: Here’s the trail­er for Hot Air, play­ing in Wellington on July 31 at 6.15pm and August 6 at 11.00am (Paramount).