Monday, November 30, 2009

Martyn Sanderson

Martyn Sanderson 1938 - 2009, photo by Winton Cleal / The Dominion Post


A founder of Downstage Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand actor, filmmaker, poet and writer Martyn Sanderson made a series of experimental films in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s including, A STONE IN THE BUSH (1970), A STITCH IN TIME (1976), LIKE YOU I’M TRAPPED, CHARLIE HORSE (1978) and THE MAGPIES. Sanderson also made two documentaries and the feature film FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE (1990) which he had adapted from a story by the Samoan writer Albert Wendt. Actor, poet, storyteller Wanjiku Kiarie worked in theatre, radio and television in Kenya before moving to London, England in 1977. In 1979 Kiarie toured New Zealand's North Island with the Keskidee theatre group, performing in marae, prisons and community centres. After returning to England, Wanjiku helped found African Dawn, a fusion of poetry and music. In 1983 Kiarie and Sanderson married, living first in Auckland, then on the Kapiti Coast. Martin Rumsby interviewed Kiarie and Sanderson at their home.

MR: You were born in a car on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island?

Sanderson: I think it was a Model T Ford.

MR: And you grew up in Christchurch?

Sanderson: We shifted from the West Coast because my parents were in danger of being lynched. Dad had preached a sermon at the funeral of a coal miner saying that it was God’s judgment he had been killed playing rugby on a Sunday. A few years later, 1945, Dad had to leave the Ministry because of laryngitis. No work. We moved to a house with holes in the floorboards.

MR: They were hard times growing up?

Sanderson: Very hard times from then on ... I got a Scholarship to Christ’s College in Christchurch, where I felt alien. I didn’t have any money and everyone else did. Then I got a Scholarship to Oxford in 1956.

MR: Was Oxford a step up from university in New Zealand?

Sanderson: It was like going to the source of all knowledge and learning and sophistication and spirituality. It was the Holy Grail of anything academic ... If there was something important to be done then this was the place to meet other people and get directly involved ... I did three years there and got a degree in English Language and Literature. It was an interesting time. Ken Loach was a bit more than an acquaintance. People like Dudley Moore and Alan Bennet. It was a radical time in theatre. I saw one of the first English productions of Waiting For Godot. Went to a theatre in Brighton, had never heard of the playwright, and saw The Caretaker by Harold Pinter. But the real excitement was cinema. I would go to two or three films a week - Kurosawa, Les Enfants du Paradis, Ray, Bicycle Thieves, you name it.

MR: Where would you see these films?

Sanderson: There was a cinema called The Scala down a back street of Oxford. Nothing like I had ever seen in New Zealand.

MR: What was the best of that experience?

Sanderson: There was an extraordinary intellectual tolerance and people like Ken Loach whose value emerged over the years. I might say that the most valuable thing was contempt for the English class system.

MR: Did that help you to define yourself?

Sanderson: I was still trying to work out this psychologically repressive Christian upbringing in New Zealand. I thought art, so to speak, was a metaphor for the real thing, which was some spiritual reality. I decided to do Theology and become an Anglican Priest.

MR: Why did you return to New Zealand?

Sanderson: I had come back to New Zealand between going to Oxford and going to Cambridge. I was going back to Cambridge to study Theology and be ordained. From my first day at Cambridge I thought, “I don’t belong with these people.” And the feeling got stronger and stronger. I think the psychological change that gave me the courage to walk out was getting married.

MR: You became a non-conformist?

Sanderson: Not in the evangelical sense ... Left Cambridge. Borrowed a car. Drove to Cornwall. I hadn’t a hope of getting a real job in London. So we appealed to my wife’s father who, somewhat grudgingly, lent us the fare home. Came back. Taught at Napier Boys High for a couple of months.

MR: What was that like?

Sanderson: Failure.

MR: And then what?

Sanderson: I applied for a job at the Adult Education Department at Victoria University (Wellington) running courses at housewife’s gatherings up and down the Kapiti Coast. Bit of radio drama. Meeting people like Jim Baxter. Arranged poetry readings with Peter Bland and Tim Elliot, who formed Downstage Theatre with me. There was a lot of radical stuff happening. A whole lot of stuff that went into Downstage.

MR: Did you start Downstage as a co-op?

Sanderson: It was an Incorporated Society. I suggested that we start a professional theatre. Because there wasn’t any.

MR: Did you have specific programming ideas?

Sanderson: My agenda was to change the whole of society. I absolutely did not want an imitation of English theatre. I wanted something more local and down to earth, whilst also doing the best international work.

MR: How has Downstage evolved?

Sanderson: It was never one thing. It was many things. My thing was only one of them ... the mainstream won.

MR: As it always tends to.

Sanderson: It’s a totally different world now.

MR: Then you had five years in Sydney?

Sanderson: Where I got into film, working for the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit.

MR: Which was like the National Film Unit in New Zealand?

Sanderson: Yes. It is now called Film Australia. I was writing documentary (material) for about three months, and then went freelance. I also wrote some television drama, a series called CONTRABANDITS based on the English series Z CARS. The biggest event, in terms of work, was acting in the film NED KELLY (dTony Richardson, 1970), the first film I ever acted in. Some friends of mine, Johnny Allen and Mick Glasheen, with individual attitudes toward filmmaking, (came along too) and shot A STONE IN THE BUSH (16mm Colour Sound 25 minutes 1970), an experimental film about Mick Jagger and the making of NED KELLY. The whole production was a buzz.

MR: Feature filmmaking is like war isn’t it?

Sanderson: Exactly. The logistics are like mounting a military campaign. That was a high. Earning money for a few weeks was nice. Channel 7 announced The Seven Revolution and actually bought A STONE IN THE BUSH. Probably showed it late at night. We felt that we were on a bit of a roll and came up with some other schemes - a film of an outback circus, a Phrenology Dome with a separate screen for each bump: Intuition, Memory etc. The Commonwealth Film Unit offered to finance, in a basic way, an Experimental Division.

MR: Like what Len Lye had been involved in at the GPO Film Unit in London and Arthur Lipsett at the National Film Board of Canada?

Sanderson: Yes. That sort of thing. But it didn’t quite happen. I did a programme for assembling images on principles of indeterminacy. A random choice of shots. They shot it then edited it much more determinedly than I proposed.

MR: You also corresponded with Stan Brakhage?

Sanderson: Yes. We had an idea of what was going on in North American underground cinema.

MR: How did you come to make A STITCH IN TIME (16mm, Colour, Sound, 12 minutes, 1976)?

Sanderson: The background was that the new Prime Minister of the time, John Gorton, was a film buff. He encouraged the Australian Arts Council to put up a sizable amount of money for new filmmaking. In the first year the policy of the Arts Council was not to make judgments on the quality of the proposals. They would simply divide up the money and give it to everybody who asked. I put in a proposal for a number of very short films. One to carry in your wallet. I buried a hundred foot roll in a compost heap for 3 months, to see what would happen.

MR: After it was shot and before it was processed?

Sanderson: Before it was shot. I never developed that roll because the lab refused to put it through its tanks. Because of the dirt ... So A STITCH IN TIME was the outcome of that period and it doesn’t conform to any of the ideas I proposed. We left Sydney to go to India and I hadn’t put it together. About a year later I had the footage back in New Zealand. How I ever managed to keep the footage I don’t remember, because most of our possessions were stolen. When we were living at Waimarama I put together a soundtrack of Blerta music then later Jack Body did another layer of sound based around one of Johnny Allen’s poems.

MR: Tell us about the shot of stitching flesh.

Sanderson: There are some very strong things happening. A lot of them to do with Johnny Allen. He shot half of A STONE IN THE BUSH. The stitching through the skin was Laurel Fox’s idea and it is her hand. It was to do with a sort of Surrealist pun on film stitching at 24 frames a second. Just as when we see film going through a sewing machine. It is a visual pun. Stitching the title into the palm of a hand.

MR: It is body art.

Sanderson: There are a lot of subterranean ideas happening.

MR: Avenues were opening up that had to be explored. Even if they turned out to be cul de sacs.

Sanderson: I wanted to see if I used the camera like a pen, writing words, if you would be able to read the words. Of course you can’t. But some (of those) images worked for quite different reasons.

MR: Was it related to the avant-garde idea of a new aesthetics for a new age?

Sanderson: There was a strong feeling that cybernetics and automation were going to transform the workplace. So the big problem would be leisure. Because workers wouldn’t need to work anymore. The naivety of it was unbelievable. Those technologies were instantly usurped by the rich.

MR: It seemed like that may happen, but we got unemployment instead and people with leisure became interested in watching sports on TV.

Sanderson: There were big ideas around. In our case not a lot of political analysis.

MR: It has been said that the best artists make the worst philosophers, and vice versa. Shall we look at the film?

A STITCH IN TIME, an anguished lyric, begins with a light bulb flaring on the screen as a bright idea. A voice repeats, “Beginning” as a hand-held camera explores a house interior, something like a Brakhagian home movie. The soundtrack features Jack Body’s music students imitating birdsong, leading on to electronic sounds, kaleidoscopic visuals, a vehicle going nowhere, intercut with images of sewing, putting a film together. A STITCH IN TIME, movie making, a time based art.

Sanderson: Really elemental symbols like apples, peacocks, roses and snakes.

MR: There are many things in there.

Sanderson: The terrific, idyllic innocence of it and then the snake in the henhouse.

MR: Then you went on to make a couple of films about Dennis Glover.

Sanderson: Alistair Taylor used some of the profits from THE LITTLE RED SCHOOLBOOK to commission Rupert Glover to interview his father Dennis Glover. Rupert shot the interviews then had a disagreement with Alistair and withdrew from the project. Alistair asked me to complete the films. That is how I came to put together two films of Dennis Glover’s poems.

MR: What were you doing visually in THE MAGPIES?

Sanderson: I think the first version of the poem is a simple illustration. An old abandoned house, an abandoned car and a few scrawny sheep. Not much more than basic images of what the poem is about.

MR: Toward the end there is a photograph of a couple with weeds growing around them.

Sanderson: Which is a more symbolic treatment of the poem’s themes.

MR: The poem is read twice.

Sanderson: I used the same format for Alistair Campbell’s poems. (LIKE YOU I'M TRAPPED, 16mm Colour Sound
25 minutes, 1975). Poems need reading at least twice. Accompanied by a conversation about the poem between each reading. The second reading is different. It becomes a different poem.

MR: Was there a sense for you of the importance of New Zealand art?

Sanderson: There were several things involved. At one level I wanted to be making films, getting on with something. I had always been involved with poetry and was intrigued to find out whether you could meaningfully put images to poems. Or whether they are better left to the reader’s imagination. And I’m not at all sure that I know the answer. It’s an old argument. How relevant is the personality of the poet? Does the poem stand on its own? I think that the documentary footage of Dennis Glover is far more important than the images we put to the poem.

MR: If you are interested in a work of art you almost inevitably become interested in the artist.

Sanderson: It is a fascinating and in many ways uncomfortable interview with Dennis Glover. I tried various other approaches to the question in LIKE YOU I’M TRAPPED.

MR: So THE MAGPIES created a problem? Things were not reconciled, forcing you into another work?

Sanderson: Having known Alistair Campbell over some years and feeling that he deserved that sort of presentation. LIKE YOU I’M TRAPPED was my own project, with support from the Department of Education. I set up readings at the Settlement Restaurant in Wellington. Then interviewed Alistair at his home in Pukerua Bay. Again, with each poem, there is Alistair’s reading, then an interview with him, followed by a visual interpretation of the poem. You get a chance to come back to the poem with a new insight.

MR: I think of Gertrude Stein’s poem: rose is a rose is a rose, which so easily becomes rose is arrows is eros is sorrows or maybe rose arose is arrows is sorrows. The more you recite it, the more meanings it lends itself to.

Sanderson: We had talked about this in Sydney. The possibility, with video, that you may play a film over and over just as you play your favourite record. So film wouldn’t be restricted to a narrative which had a surprise ending. Suspense would no longer be part of the equation.

MR: You have your own book of poems titled LIKE SMOKE IN A WHEELBARROW coming out this year or next.

Sanderson: It’s a collection over forty years. I hadn’t put much effort into getting a lot of poems published, partly because of a lack of context. Some were written before Downstage, then at a very different time in Sydney. I recently had a year as Writer in Residence at Massey University in Palmerston North. That gave me a chance to start gathering up a whole lot of old stuff and start sorting it out.

MR: And to write new poems?

Sanderson: Yes.

MR: Your film CHARLIE HORSE brings up the subject of Waimarama. How did all that come about?

Sanderson: We had come back from India in disastrous circumstances. Spent several months in Wellington, finding it hard to readjust. Geoff Murphy turned up one day looking for more people to work with Blerta. We did a late night revue at Downstage, various little filmmaking episodes and so on. The Murphy family and the Bollinger family were in pretty much the same economic situation so we decided to look for a cheap place in the country. Then a relative of Alun Bollinger came up with a place at Waimarama. Two derelict houses and about an acre of land for something like $1500. Which we borrowed from various people. And the three families moved in. Geoff came up with a short film, UENUKU, a Maori legend shot around Waimarama. ... I was looking for a different project. Something that was personally meaningful. Decided that one thing I should tackle was my fear of horses. There was a local shepherd who had quite a reputation as a horseman. I thought that I could make a film of him breaking in a horse. I would buy a horse, learn from Andrew, the shepherd, and overcome my fear.

CHARLIE HORSE (16mm, Colour, Sound, 25 minutes, 1978). A rather harrowing lesson in how not to break in a perfectly good horse.

MR: Was that subsequently useful, in terms of acting, say, as Len Demler in BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT (1980)?

Sanderson: Oh yes. I had ridden occasionally. I rode a horse in (the film) NED KELLY. But not with any great confidence. There was a Bolex movie camera hanging around Waimarama and 100 foot rolls of 16mm film. I got Department of Education backing and set about the process. I think that it went on for more than a year. It was in some ways a disaster. Andrew wasn’t always available and would get bored with the (filming). I would make mistakes and set back the whole process. It wasn't a great experience for the horse. It was also something that grew out of and reflected our relationship with the local community. Which was important. I didn’t shoot any sync sound.

MR: Sync sound in film is both expensive and complicated.

Sanderson: Alun Bollinger and myself shot the footage and I compiled a soundtrack, chatting with Andrew and another neighbour, screening rushes at a local marae then tape recording reactions. Then screening it to the kids, then in Wellington to about half a dozen friends and recording that sound.

MR: Then you mixed all the sound together with added music and a commentary?

Sanderson: It’s related to why I wanted Downstage called Downstage. Getting away from the sacred distance of the expert and bringing it down amongst the people.

MR: Your film CHARLIE HORSE is like freedom from The Film Unit. One of our first independent, personal films.

Sanderson: It was breaking out of the categories that society puts you in. So you don’t separate family life from professional life.

MR: I remember seeing CHARLIE HORSE at Alternative Cinema. It made me feel very uncomfortable.

Sanderson: When I filmed the gelding I had the camera in front of my eye and saw nothing except composition and colour.

MR: It became abstracted?

Sanderson: I understood those stories of a cameraman shooting a wrecking ball, getting closer and closer. And he thinks, “Right. The next one.” And it takes his head off.

MR: You can become so preoccupied with filming that you no longer see what you are doing.

Sanderson: I think that there is another element. Of not cutting. (Most filmmakers) fade out (the image) before the holes at the end of a roll (of film). Not fading out and showing those holes and flares, breaks through the manipulative thing.

MR: To show that you are showing everything?

Sanderson: Yes. If you are sucked into an illusion your emotions can be manipulated. This is not as powerful an experience as if you are reminded, every now and again, that you are watching something, in a sense, artificial.

MR: A formal referencing device?

Sanderson: The movement between shots, where the cameraperson has lined up a shot, then moves to a different angle (for the next shot). There are several places in LIKE YOU I’M TRAPPED where I have left in that movement between shots. You are reminded that there is the poet, the audience in the restaurant, there is us watching ...but, hang on, there is the cameraperson who is not just a neutral, invisible transmitter.

MR: What was Waimarama? Was it an artistic commune, a film set, a performance workshop, or all of those things?

Sanderson: It began for very practical reasons, there was nothing by way of a job that I could relate to in Wellington ... For me it was pretty much a retreat ... but Geoff (Murphy) was burning with ideas and Alun's (Bollinger) visual thing was happening. About a year later Bruno and Veronica (Lawrence) and the Blerta troupe came back from Australia and all our various talents coalesced. You could characterize it as a creative centre led by Geoff Murphy.

MR: You have been here and there. On a journey through England, India, Australia, making independent films, New Zealand drama and poetry, leaving the city and going to the country, acting in numerous films. Then you take a huge step into a three way intercultural situation as a Pakeha filmmaker documenting a tour by Keskidee, an Anglo-Caribbean-African theatre group through New Zealand marae.

KESKIDEE-AROHA, (16mm, Colour, Sound, 50 minutes, 1980) documents Keskidee's New Zealand tour, encouraging the expression of anger and frustration through drama, music and poetry.

Sanderson: A network of many people organized an extraordinarily ambitious tour through New Zealand of the only black theatre group in London. The motive sprang from an earlier visit by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Reggae was already a street music in New Zealand but the street kids didn’t get a chance to meet Bob Marley. Dennis O’Reilly and Tigi Ness went to London and decided that the Keskidee Theatre and the reggae group Ras Messengers would communicate with the outcasts in New Zealand in a way that Marley hadn’t been invited to. So they organized the tour. They set up a network as far south as Christchurch and as far north as Te Hapua of communities who would welcome and host Keskidee. The tour organizers went to TV and the Commission for Independent Productions Fund agreed to put up $55,000. The first director (Dale Farnsworth) they approached decided that he couldn’t do it. Barry Barclay, the only recognized Maori filmmaker at that point, was approached, but he was involved with another project. Barry suggested me as a possible Director.

MR: How much notice did you have?

Sanderson: About three weeks. I had a meeting with the Collective in Auckland then Merata Mita set about preparing me. Merata put me through a crash course in Maoritanga. I was utterly dependant on her guidance as to what was likely to happen in each place. I drew up a graph of what I expected the main themes would be. The relationship with the law, with the land, with spirituality and with music. That was about the only guide to a structure I had.

MR: Then Keskidee arrived in Auckland?

Sanderson: Yes. The KESKIDEE AROHA film became my first attempt at a professional television documentary ... I had no formal nor on the job training as an orthodox documentary director.

There were a number of intercultural films made around that time, Barry Barclay's TANGATA WHENUA television series (1974), Geoff Steven's TE MATAKITE O AOTEAROA (1975), Merata Mita, Gerd Pohlmann and Leon Narbey's BASTION POINT: DAY 507, (1980), Gerd's THE BRIDGE (1982) and Stewart Main's RACE AGAINST TIME (1983) which all sort of led to Merata's PATU (1983) and Geoff Murphy's UTU (1983).

At this point Wanjiku Kiarie joined the conversation.

MR: What was Keskidee?

Kiarie: Keskidee, when I joined it, was a building in Islington, London not far from Kings Cross station. I think it was an abandoned church. Keskidee was the first Black Community Centre which offered a library for street kids to drop in. Afterwards they started experimenting with theatre. Which is when I joined them in 1977. When I got there from Kenya. We performed black plays written by black people. For me, it was the first time to see one whole building functioning as a place where street kids could drop in and there would be food cooked for them. First level was an office, second level was a library and third level was a theatre. That took me by surprise because I never went through that in Kenya.

MR: Was Keskidee successful?

Kiarie: By 1978 and 1979 we were touring all over Europe, performing our plays. It was the first black professional theatre in England.

MR: What does the name Keskidee mean?

Kiarie: As far as I remember, as I was told, Keskidee is a Caribbean bird. Why Oscar Abram, the Keskidee director, chose that name was because the bird flew from Africa to the Caribbean. That was the significance. Keskidee was a bird that could transmit messages around what was happening.

MR: What was your role in Keskidee?

Kiarie: I came from Kenya and I thought I would join drama school in England. I auditioned to drama school, RADA, in Swahili. The panel was sitting there and I did Julius Caesar in Swahili. Which is Nyrere's version of Julius Caesar.

MR: You mean Julius Nyrere, President of Tanzania?

Kiarie: That's the version that I used for my audition. I didn't get it so I went to BBC World Service, Swahili Section, which I used to be a broadcaster of in Kenya, and they told me that there's this new theatre, founded in Islington. So I went to Keskidee and they told me to start tomorrow. They were rehearsing a new play by the Jamaican playwright Edgar White, LAMENT FOR RASTAFARI.

MR: It must have been quite a contrast, mingling a contemporary Afro-Caribbean-Anglo aesthetic with the Maori and Polynesian ethos of the late 1970s. The Keskidee actors were seen as catalysts for social change amongst outcasts in New Zealand?

Kiarie: I think that was a very frightful and educational aspect for me in a whole lot of ways. I knew a lot about Africa but the majority of Keskidee were brought up in England. They had never lived communally. Coming to New Zealand, going to Te Hapua, up north, performing in a marae and sleeping there was a huge experience and a shock in a sense that you are sharing, eating and sleeping in a marae. Keskidee people were not used to that. As far as I know when we went back, I think that for Keskidee, touring New Zealand was an eye opener, politically and culturally. They became radicals, they became outspoken. They saw an outlet after visiting New Zealand to question their situation in England. To see that there was a different way of life. Performing in prisons and maraes and community centres opened most of us to seeing life in a different dimension.

MR: What subsequently happened to Keskidee and the people in it?

Kiarie: It was still functioning in the 1980s but not as a theatre. It was a community centre. It had its function in the 1970s and early 1980s. During Margaret Thatcher's era we lost all our funding to function as a theatre. By then most black people had started their own acting careers and Keskidee was no longer needed. They have found their own way of functioning in film, theatre and television. I have seen some of them on television. Keskidee was a founding stone for a lot of black actors. Keskidee played a vital role.

MR: You went on to help found African Dawn, a group that put out two records.

Kiarie: After I went back and Keskidee was having financial troubles a Senegalese called Ahmed Sheik was also interested in theatre. He mentioned to me,
"What about poems?" I say, "Yeah, I'd be into that." We talked to a Ghanaian guy, Kwesi Owusu, and we thought why don't we write and perform poetry as it would be in Africa? There were some South African poets. We thought we will have three musicians to do the music and three poets who will write the poetry, fuse poetry with music and perform live. And that was the founding of African Dawn in 1981. We toured Europe then we came back and did our first record. We touched on every struggle - apartheid, South America, Iran. Some people asked me to perform a poem that had been written by an Iranian woman in prison. That poem is the most powerful poem I have ever read, I AM A WOMAN. So it wasn't just about Africa.

MR: I noticed a line about a place called the United Mistakes.

Kiarie: United Mistakes mistaking Viet Nam. It was correct. It was my perception. They thought that they were so powerful that they can just go into Viet Nam and clean it up and get out. It was a mistake. African Dawn hit London so strongly that we were performing in every struggle, whether it was Caribbean, Latin America, South Africa. African Dawn was there to perform for all those liberation movements. I am glad that I was part of it. The impact will be felt for a long time.

FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE (35mm Colour Sound 92 minutes 1990)

A young man, Pepe the trickster, son of a Samoan patriarch, feeling conflicted between tradition and progress rejects Christianity, leads a juvenile gang, experiments with alcohol and sex, burns down a church then robs his father's store, bringing shame to his family. Later, suffering from TB in a hospital ward, Pepe turns his hand to poetry, writing a letter to the self, which becomes the story FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE.

MR: I noticed a mention of FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE in John O'Shea's memoir. Was it a difficult project to get off the ground?

Sanderson: Yes. I had suggested it to John (O'Shea) who replied that it was time Samoans started making their own films. About 1978, for the first time, I consciously thought, I wanted to find a story to make a feature film of and started deliberately reading around, rather than hoping for some intuitive flash of personal inspiration. The story that struck me enormously was FLYING FOX. One element that really struck was the last will and testament of Tangata, the Flying Fox. It seemed an extraordinary piece of gallows humour. It had the qualities that I identified with in the Theatre of the Absurd, a Zen Buddhist meeting of humour and tragedy and Existentialism.

MR: Unusual contexts for a New Zealand film.

Sanderson: Absolutely extraordinary. And the dialogue, a Samoan patois in English as a vivid use of English in new ways. It was also highly condensed. A novella, about thirty pages long. Unlike an expansive novel, converting it into a movie didn't involve trimming out all the literary decoration. It was bare bones and very visual ... I started working on a proposal to film it which I put to the New Zealand Film Commission pretty early on. My timing was awful because it was just when Paul Maunder was filming SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME (1979) and the Commission had no idea whether that film was going to work or not so they were not going to commit themselves to another Samoan story by Albert Wendt. But I kept working on it, doing a radio adaptation which was broadcast. Then Aileen O'Sullivan and Lani Tupu did a drama workshop in Samoa (around 1981). I gave them the radio adaptation of FLYING FOX as a text to work with. It was translated into Samoan and used as part of that workshop ... Several years later, around 1987 or 1988, I finally wrote a complete feature script which I submitted to the Film Commission. They turned it down. Then I got in touch with (the film producer) Graham McLean, who had worked in Samoa, and he concocted a budget then twisted the arm of the Film Commission. It took eleven years.

MR: It is a universal theme, a young man's search for self, set in late Twentieth Century Polynesia.

Sanderson: It was quite consciously Existentialist on Albert Wendt's part. At the time he wrote FLYING FOX he was quite influenced by Camus. It is very much about the clash between progress and traditional Samoan values. It is complex because this upstart rebel who is saying, "I am my God" is also attempting to uphold ancient Samoan values against his father whose God has become the God of money. The other element that appealed to me, and that I felt licensed me to do it, in a sense, was the influence of cinema on Samoan culture.

MR: The film FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE was awarded Best Screenplay at the Tokyo International Film Festival. What was involved in adapting Albert Wendt's novel into a screenplay?

Sanderson: I think that the unique thing about this particular story was that there was a mythological depth to it which I was able to fill in because Albert had incorporated the FLYING FOX novella into a longer book called LEAVES OF THE BANYAN TREE. So there was a background and sequel to the characters which I was able to weave in. Apart from that the adaptation is pretty much all the technical business of storytelling ... the high points and shaping scenes for climaxes and so on.

MR: You try to finish each scene off on a high point?

Sanderson: You try to keep driving it ahead ... Because the literary model was so condensed it was a lot easier to adapt than most novels would be.

MR: It is unusual, in a medium that we normally see in terms of Hollywood action spectacles to see an entirely different cultural reality represented on film. Was it difficult to bridge the cultural divide between Palangi (European) New Zealand and Samoa?

Sanderson: I think Albert said that living in Samoa is a bit like Shakespearian times. There is a feeling that life and death are fairly close. They are not shrouded in all kinds of disguises. We had a diplomatic interaction with the locals. It was a matter of being aware of your own ignorance and the depth of feeling that could be aroused (by misunderstandings) and finding local people who understood where we were coming from and were sympathetic to Albert and the process.

MR: Was there a lot of pride that the film was made there?

Sanderson: Quite ambiguous. There had been unhappiness about SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME (1979). Because of the sex scenes. Albert has great mana but he is the only Samoan in history who doesn't go to church. They weren't sure whether to be proud of it ... We shot some scenes in the High School and it looks pretty obvious that it needs a bit of paint. They were a bit offended that we should show that. They want to show their best face to the world. They weren't quite sure what the film was going to say about Samoa.

MR: Clint Eastwood once said that actors directing themselves in their own movies tend to under utilize themselves. Given your electrifying performance as Commissioner Towers in FLYING FOX, could a case have been made to expand his role in the film, making him a more prominent character?

Sanderson: No. If we had a bigger budget I would have probably brought over another actor from New Zealand ... I have played one or two racists. People who don't have a strong political sense will try to soften the racist. I have a pretty clear image, not based on real life, or any particular person, of the kind of petty colonial mind that this man would have had. It is a small part.

MR: You have often appeared in films as a distinctive character actor, a rather mean spirited New Zealander. I think of you as Len Demler in BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT, the cinema manager in William Keddell's THE MAINTENANCE OF SILENCE (1985) and Commissioner Towers in FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE. How do such characters come about?

Sanderson: It is a sort of composite of people I've resented.

MR: How does an actor create a character?

Sanderson: There is a classic answer which I heard from a Chinese teacher at a workshop in London. The teacher said, "You western actors think that you get into character. No. No. No. Empty yourself and let the character get into you." There are times when I think some actors feel that they are possessed. I don't have any worries about that. I am not suggesting that happens ... There is a trend in individual, psychology based training now which ignores one of the sources of creating a character which is drawing on all the examples you have seen, on stage or screen. Not to say, "Now I am going to do a Lawrence Olivier or a Tony Hopkins." You have seen a representation of certain kinds of characters and what you will create will owe as much to those representations as to real life experience.

MR: What does an actor expect from a director?

Sanderson: I assumed, before I ever worked on screen, that the role of the director would be to have an overview so that he knew how each scene fitted and what the pace would be and how big or small to make your performance.

MR: What does a director expect from an actor?

Sanderson: Understanding of the part. Obviously all the technical things like maintaining your eye line. Someone who will listen and make adjustments.

MR: Some years later you acted in a play TUSITALA staged in Wellington and Christchurch.

Sanderson: Justine Simei-Barton started a Pacific Theatre. She had been intrigued by a Samoan tradition known as FALE AITU, House of Spirits. It is like stand up comedy and it is a living tradition in Samoa. The House of Spirits is an excuse, "It wasn't me that said that satirical thing about the President. It was the spirits."

MR: It is like a jester?

Sanderson: It is exactly the role of a jester. Anyway, TUSITALA is a play based on Robert Louis Stevenson's involvement in Samoan politics. The heart of the story is this, Stevenson is involved in political turmoil, supporting certain chiefs against other chiefs. Some of the people he has supported are imprisoned by the joint German and British Government. Whilst in jail they put on a performance of their version of DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. But as they do this FALE AITU performance one of the characters becomes possessed with the spirit of MR HYDE. The Samoans around Stevenson say,
"Stop him! Stop him!"
But Stevenson says,
"I can't stop him. What are you talking about?"
"Well, you created him."
"No. No. He is just a performer."
"No he's not. He is the spirit you created. Now do something about it."
They push Stevenson forward until he challenges Mr Hyde and produces the potion that will turn him back to Dr Jeykll.
It raised for me really strange questions about fiction and metaphor and drama. Stevenson himself wrote that what he called Brownies would come to him in his sleep and give him stories. He just had to wake up and write them down. What Justine was asking, in effect, is this, were they spirits or weren't they? Stevenson wrote about them exactly in the way a Samoan would talk about spirit possession or conversation with the spirits. But whereas Samoans, to this day, are very conscious of the dangers of immediate spiritual possession and various other phenomena which express themselves in quite extreme physical phenomena but which are known to be of spiritual derivation. To them, reading Stevenson talking about his Brownies was exactly in that territory. So what is he talking about in saying it is fiction? What is fiction?

MR: Something like the Australian aboriginal notion of Dreamtime that the waking and dreaming worlds feed into each other and are of equal value.

Kiarie: Westerners refuse to accept that dreamtimes or spiritual appearances do happen in other cultures. Westerners believe that they don't have any of it.

MR: If you film a continuous piece of Maori oratory and then cut it, for purposes of representation, or economy, is it still oratory?

Kiarie: You mean when it comes to editing?

MR: Yes.

Sanderson: It is like, "Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never hurt me." What? Words do things. They just don't say things, they do things.

MR: I just finished writing an essay on, language does not speak for us. It does not even know us.

Sanderson: That is a western point of view. Westerners don't understand the power of words.

MR: Was TUSITALA the first instance of Palangi (European) and Samoans appearing together on a professional stage in New Zealand?

Sanderson: There was a play by John Kneubuhl*, a Samoan television scriptwriter in Hollywood who, one day, took all of his scripts and dumped them in his Beverly Hills garden, burnt the lot of them then went back to Samoa and wrote, THINK OF A GARDEN. This play was set at the time of the Mau uprising (12 men were killed by New Zealand forces on the 29 December, 1929 in an uprising in Apia), which his father or grandfather had been involved in. We did it in Auckland several years ago. That was definitely a mix of Samoan and Palangi on stage. In the audience one night was Tupuna Tamasese Tupuola Efi the former Samoan Prime Minister whose great uncle was one of those shot by the New Zealand Police. It is an episode Samoans had not chosen to speak about. Possibly feeling that it was slightly shameful. So putting it on stage was quite an event.

MR: You are currently writing a memoir?

Sanderson: I am finding it hard work.

MR: Because it is difficult to write about oneself?

Sanderson: Partly that. Partly because it feels like dishonesty to create a story of your life. It hasn’t been a story. Very different, disparate fragments. A travel diary of six weeks in Kenya. Pages and pages of journals. Some of the most interesting episodes happen when you are too busy to write things down. They have to be recreated.

MR: I look forward to reading it.

*John H Kneubuhl was a playwright of mixed Samoan/American ancestry. Kneubuhl was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa on July 2, 1920 and died there on February 20, 1992. After growing up in Samoa, Kneubuhl was educated at Yale, then wrote plays in Honolulu before moving to Hollywood and working as television writer. Included amongst his numerous screenwriting credits are episodes of STAR TREK - #54, HAWAII FIVE-O - #4,(1968), MANNIX - #7, (1967), THE FUGITIVE - #79, 80, 85, 88, & 89, (1963), DOCTOR KILDARE - #7, BEN CASEY (1961), ADVENTURES IN PARADISE - #1,20,32,44,46,& 55, (1959) and GUNSMOKE (1955). Kneubuhl also produced the cult film THE SCREAMING SKULL in 1958. Kneubuhl's book THINK OF A GARDEN AND OTHER PLAYS was published by the University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1997. Further biographical information about John Kneubuhl is available from

Published in BRIEF #33, c2006

Recorded with support from the Oral History Awards, Ministry for Culture & Heritage

Copyright, Martin Rumsby, 2009