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Page history last edited by FilmSociety@gmail.com 12 years, 10 months ago



In 2010 several boxes of documents relating to the history of the Nelson Film Society were passed to the committee by Craig Ward. He was a member for decades through to the 1990s and took the records into care when the Society went into temporary recess in 1999. We thought that you might be interested in a short report. It is possible that somewhere some of you might have further pieces of memorabilia that we could add to our archive.

Nationally, the Film Society movement began before the Second World War. A PhD thesis by Simon Sigley of Massey University, notes that from 1933 “Film societies began to appear throughout the country, not only in the four major cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin but also in smaller centres such as Wanganui, Hamilton, Hastings and Hawera” but not, apparently, in Nelson. As it happened a scandal resulting from the screening of a Russian film The Road to Life (Nicolai Ekk, USSR, 1931) in Wellington, in 1933, without the approval of the censor, brought about a court case and a token fine of £1.11s, together with a continuing battle against the constraints of censorship basically of politically left wing material (“subversive propaganda”) and anything judged sexually suggestive (“pornography”). Thus, “Film Societies had an image problem. Large sections of the New Zealand public reckoned that such societies were seedbeds for perverts, radicals, and ‘arty’ types, or all three combined.” By June 1936 the Wellington Film Society gave up the struggle and an Extraordinary General Meeting was called to close the Society officially. One by one the other fledgling groups followed suit and the movement went into abeyance until after the War.

The first record in our collection consists of the minute book with details of the Inaugural Meeting of the Nelson Film Society held on Tuesday 8th August 1947 together with a newspaper clipping from the NelsonEveningMail presumably dated Wednesday 9th August.

The first programme that we have is that for 1949 by which time the Society was screening monthly in the Theatre Royal. Over the years the Minutes detail regular concerns with securing a venue and the ability to pay for it. A flat charge per screening was made which was sustainable in ‘good’ years when membership was ‘up’ but became problematic when membership dropped. The other continuing problem referred to the ownership and operation of the 16mm projector that was needed to show films obtained through the N.Z. Film Institute and, later, the N.Z. Federation of Film Societies. At first a 16mm projector was used at the Theatre Royal operated by Mr Dixon (the cost was heavy - a third of the annual budget) later they were ‘borrowed’ from the Cawthron Institute and the High Schools. The Society’s first purchase of a second-hand Bell and Howell projector was made in 1953. Finally, when the Suter Theatre opened in June 1979 the Society was able to use the much brighter machine bought by the Trust Board supplemented with a second which was paid for by the Society itself. Although this could have obviated a need for an interval whilst reels were changed the Society was keen to continue with the social advantage of a regular meeting over coffee and biscuits (until it was curtailed, as “too demanding of their time” the supper, prepared by the ‘ladies’ on the committee had been quite elaborate!).

Apart from the Marsden Library and the Theatre Royal referred to in these first records the ‘minutes’ record the use of Women’s Christian Temperance Union Hall in Collingwood Street, The Automobile Association meeting room. Chez Eelco, Nelson and Waimea Colleges and eventually, with the generally enthusiastic assistance of Austin Davies, the Sargood Gallery and finally ‘Stage Two’ in the Suter Art Gallery.


Offers in 1949 were: Patron: Sir Walter Scott. President: Mr A W Parrott. Vice-Presidents: Miss E B Kidson, Mr R S S Meredith. Hon Secretary: Mr A W Bowman. Hon Treasurer: Mr C W Johnson. Committee: Miss L Grayson, Mrs A S G Adam, Miss E Heine, Mr W T Keesing. The Patron, Sir Walter Scott was followed by his wife after he died. Lady Scott continued to serve enthusiastically in that role for two decades.

The first programmes tended to rely on documentary films from the National Film Library along with a limited range of historical classic feature films obtained by the ‘New Zealand Film Institute’ which was the predecessor to the ‘NZ Federation of Film Societies’ to which we belong today. There was a continual demand for more feature films reinforced by the competition from Television in the 1960s which was blamed for a drop in membership from 90 to 70 members by 1966. But, full-length films tended to be hard to come by and too expensive for non-theatrical showings. Nevertheless there were some notable acquisitions. Blue Angel although ‘old’ was sufficiently scandalous to attract a large audience when it was first screened by the Society in 1953 and, in the 1970s, when film censorship became less restrictive for film societies a series of Danish sex comedies (I am Curious Blue and I am Curious Yellow) attracted the largest audiences – and membership to that date!

From the very first screenings ‘The Bulletin’, a regular information sheet, was mailed to members. It’s production and postage was always a significant and oft debated cost. (We do not have a single copy of the Bulletin and would welcome any for the archive). From the 1970s the name was changed to ‘Newsreel’ the title that we use today.

Also, from the earliest days, the Society did its best to facilitate the screening of foreign films in Nelson – writing to the managers of the State and Majestic cinemas in support of the few that they did programme. The Society also hosted the first Film Festival in 1977, as part of the Nelson Arts Festival, using its own 16mm projectors at the Nelson Boys College. In August 1979, when the Suter Theatre was opened and operating as a cinema in its own right, the Society supported the advent of the International Film Festival there. Eventually, the opportunity arose, following the installation of the 35mm projector by Austin Davies and Mark Christensen, to access some of the films obtained for the Wellington Festival and by the 1990s the Society was able to take advantage of that projector to show some of the films obtained in the professional format within its annual programme. When the Society hosted the Annual Meeting of the Federation of Film Societies in 1992 Mark demonstrated the fine new sound system that he had installed. Unfortunately, membership throughout that decade, began to decline and because the cost of using the theatre was for a fixed, albeit modest, screening rate the committee began to fear that it would run out of funds before the 1997 season was finished. A ‘Special Meeting’ was called on 25 September 1996 to discuss the situation and it was decided to soldier on for one more year but at the ‘Hub’ and reverting to 16mm projection. Sadly, the result was such a decline in membership that at the end of the 1998 season the Society went into recess (with $86 dollars in the bank).

In 2001 Chris and Helen Watson came back to Nelson from Palmerston North, where they had served on the Film Society committee for many years. A method of payment to the Downtown Cinema 8 multiplex in that town had been negotiated with an annual payment based on a per member calculation - in much the same way as payment to the Federation of the annual programming levy is made. Chris was introduced to Elspeth Kennedy, a board member of State Cinema 6, and negotiated a similar method of payment for a Thursday time slot within the period rented by State Cinema from the Suter Trust Board. An added bonus was an agreement to allow the Film Society to move to the State Cinema itself when the Suter Theatre was needed by the Gallery. With the enthusiastic support of William Robertson and Mike Anderson the Society was revived and thanks to the support of the State Cinema and the Suter Gallery has gone from strength to strength in the last ten years until we are now the third largest society in the country with 222 members, behind Wellington and Auckland but ahead of Canterbury and Dunedin (and Palmerston North!).   - C.W.


End Note: Sigley Simon, Second Thought About Art: Film culture in the Depression. PhD thesis, Massey University, 200?, pp 87, 91 & 130.

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