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The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis

The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis

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The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis

Bicultural film archiving practice in Aotearoa New Zealand

By Emma Jean Kelly

Publication date: 2016
Total pages: 200
ISBN: 9780 86196 722 3
Price: £ 20.00


Jonathan Dennis (1953–2002), was the creative and talented founding director of the New Zealand Film Archive. Dennis became a conduit for tension and debate from the time the Archive opened in 1981 in relation to both the indigenous and non-indigenous presentation of film archival materials. His work resulted in a film archive and curatorship practice which differed significantly from that of the North American and European archives he originally sought to emulate, and the practice of the NZFA became influential outside New Zealand. As a Pakeha (non-Maori/indigenous New Zealander) with a strong sense of social justice, he argued for an awareness of geographical location and cultural context in his work. He supported a philosophical shift in archival practice by engaging indigenous peoples in developing creative and innovative exhibitions and programmes from the 1980s until his death, and recognised that much of the expertise required to work with archival materials rested with the communities outside archival walls.

Dennis was part of a conversation about the contested ground of the archive, the biography and the nation during his lifetime of work, presenting counter-narratives of national identity in artistic productions as well as archival presentations. This book presents new interviews gathered by the author, as well as an examination of existing interviews, films and broadcasts about and with Jonathan Dennis, to consider the narrative of a life and work in relation to film archiving. Ultimately it is a reflection upon how an archive can respond to the materials within and the movements outside its walls with a commitment to community in its many and varied forms.


Acknowledgements; Glossary of terms; Archival sources and key; Interviews

1. Introduction

2. The practice of the archive

Biculturalism in the archive; Archive as biography of the nation

3. Jonathan Spencer Dennis and the early years

The drive to represent a “national identity”; The New Zealand Film Commission is established; The struggle to establish the Film Archive; The Film Archive is founded

4. Biculturalism and the NZFA

Films of the tangata whenua; Nga Tamatoa: Young Warriors lay down a challenge; The spiritual element: Nga taonga – kaupapa Maori

5. The New Zealand Film Archive become Guardians of the Treasured Images of Light/Nga Kaitiaki o nga Taonga Whitiahua

Springbok tour protests, the NZFA opens; Te Maori and its implications for biculturalism

6. Narrative of Jonathan Dennis’ archive

Oral histories; Narrative co-construction through oral history; Fabula in the narrative; Versions of the story:

If I dreamed of anything I dreamed of being a film star; 24 Frames: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told; Friendship Is the Harbour of Joy (2004); The intimate public – silences in the narrative; Representing gay men’s lives: Folds in the heteronormative world

7. Beyond cinema, beyond the NZFA

Honouring the ancestors; Cinema for the ears

10. Concluding discussion: Archive as biography of the nation

List of Appendices: 1.James McDonald films catalogue; 2.Jonathan Dennis’ bibliography; 3.Constitution Kaupapa of the NZFA 1988; 4.List of Interviewees


Emma Jean Kelly is a Pakeha (English, Irish and Scots, New Zealand born) scholar based in Wellington. She has recently completed her PhD thesis study through the Communications School at Auckland University of Technology. She has an interest in film and archival histories and philosophies, museum studies, social media discourse, gender construction and queer theory.

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