From small beginnings creativity grows

Small can have its advantages. In a small bar, a small gathering becomes quite a crowd. And so it was the other night when a new film venture - Digital Features South - was launched with the ambition of putting feature-film-making back on the map in Dunedin and Otago.

The idea, explained long-time television producer and NHNZ associate Richard Thomas in the downstairs bar of the Duke of Wellington, was to take advantage of the new video technologies to tell stories at a fraction of the price of the standard.

He had lined up an editorial board that would be the envy of many a major organisation in any city; he had at least an inkling of interest from a broadcaster; he knew there was the talent across the film-making disciplines and he had faith that the city's storytellers would come to the party with original and intriguing tales.

Somehow, some way, the funding would follow.

Small beginnings . . . But in common with a number of other Otago arts entrepreneurs, spruikers, impresarios - call them what you will - Richard knows that there are two approaches to enlivening the arts and culture of the province: you sit around and moan about the dearth of finance and opportunity in this Southern outpost; or you get off your butt and do something about it.

He has seen it work with an outfit called Screen Dunedin - the brainchild of Mike Riddell, formerly of Dunedin - a sort of swap-shop of skills harnessed to creative effect.

With the assistance of actors, camera operators, composers, editors, and a writer, Mike produced, and his wife Rosemary directed, a short film called Cake Tin. It won the prize for best short in the Moondance film festival in Hollywood. All the way from Dunedin.

Following and adapting the model, Richard produced some short, low-budget TV dramas - the Table Plays - in Dunedin. A commission to take the concept nationally followed.

Building on the excitement and creativity such ventures engendered, Short Film Otago was launched and with the generosity of the Community Trust a number of short films have been realised. Now comes Digital Feature South.

Such enthusiasm feeds on itself; opportunities and experience give rise to a flowering of talent. Because of the cluster of interested parties and individuals arising out of such activities, this weekend Dunedin hosts a Festival of Film and Television Craft.

Visiting producers and directors will conduct workshops at the Otago Museum. Films will be shown, too. One is Mike Riddell's feature-length documentary of the wonderful, mad mission to take his James K. Baxter play Jerusalem, Jerusalem - with its cast of 13 local actors - to the Edinburgh Festival. It's called Next Year in Jerusalem*.

Riddell describes the film as a uniquely Dunedin story. "It demonstrates the unbending artistic commitment which is present in Dunedin," he says. "There's a pluckiness and co-operation among artists in the South which means they frequently overcome huge odds and generate genuine originality."

Both the film and the journey it encapsulates typify the sort of challenge Otago artists and cultural champions seem to embrace. This past weekend has seen another: with limited time and less money, Marshall Seifert, Sue Clarke and their hard-working gang have presented the 2009 Dunedin Heritage Festival, dedicated to art and literature.

The combined talents of the Southern Sinfonia, the City of Dunedin Choir, Deborah Wai Kapohe, Anthony Ritchie, Catherine Chidgey, Rima Te Wiata and Marc Taddei - in celebrating the life, times and legacy of Dunedin artist Frances Hodgkins - were a revelation.

On Monday night, at the Otago Anniversary Dinner, the inaugural Bluestone Awards were presented to three individuals in recognition of their contribution to Dunedin's heritage. They were doctor, author and historian James Ng, architect Ted McCoy, and historian, publisher, journalist and columnist - latterly of this parish - George Griffiths.

Three more determined and talented individuals it would be hard to imagine, each plugging away at their respective oeuvres, bequeathing to the rest of us an enriched and enriching heritage.

Yet they would probably not have it seen it as such; rather as small tasks begun because they needed to be, and because they were begun required completion. And which, de facto, have added layers to, and strengthened the foundations of, our culture.

From small beginnings . . .

*"Next Year in Jerusalem" has its world premiere at the Barclay Theatre, Otago Museum, at 4pm on Saturday.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times. He has been known to dabble in writing for stage and screen.


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