The Adventures of Jonathan Dennis, Founding Director of the New Zealand Film Archive
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Jonathan Spencer Dennis (b.1953 d.2002) was the director of the NZFA in its first decade (1981 -1990). A passionate cinéaste, Dennis was proud to have met Lillian Gish, to be friends with Kenneth Anger and to be guided by the advice of Len Lye and Mary Meerson. He studied at the 1979 FIAF Summer School in East Berlin and the BFI (at that time called the British National Film Archive). He also worked at the British National Film Theatre during an extensive study tour of Europe and North America. Yet in the first few years of the Archive’s development, something happened which drew the organization away from its early influences. Witarina Te Miriarangi Parewahaika Harris (nee Mitchell b.1906 d.2007) star of the 1929 film The Devil’s Pit aka Under the Southern Cross (Dir. Collins, L. Universal Studios) became Dennis’ friend and the first kaumātua (elder) of the Archive. She guided Dennis to engage with the iwi of the motu (the people of the country) so that a new type of archive firmly embedded in the traditions of the South Pacific was able to develop. Along the way there was great tension as power imbalances within society were reflected within the Institution’s walls. In turn this tension led to a new creativity, a recognition of the potential of the Archive which incorporated its spiritual as well as intellectual and historical value. Under Dennis’ and Harris’ influence The New Zealand Film Archive began to evolve into Ngā Kaitiaki o Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua: The Guardians of the Treasured Images of Light.