Out of the Mist, perhaps counterintuitively, opens on a pack of clouds. The clouds in question hover over New Zealand’s Mt. Cook, captured in gorgeous aerial photography – and in Cinerama no less. The first voice we hear is likewise surprising, a slightly pitched up Orson Welles narrating the 1958 psuedo-travel documentary South Seas Adventure. Welles speaks as if opening an adventure epic, savouring every syllable -“they call this country ‘Aotearoa’, the land of the long white cloud.” As the music swells, though, the sense of grandeur is amusing punctured, with Man Booker Prize-winner Eleanor Catton, this film’s actual narrator, simply saying “this is New Zealand” right before editor Peter O’Donoghue cuts to Hugh Macdonald’s 1970 film of that very name.
Tim Wong, editor-in-chief of long-running New Zealand arts review and film journal The Lumière Reader, has made his first foray into feature filmmaking with, perhaps fittingly, an essay film.1 Very much in the vein of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself and some of the work of Mark Cousins, Wong’s Out of the Mist cycles through engaging and eclectic film clips, pulling from feature fiction and documentary, shorts and a wealth of experimental cinema to posit an alternate canon in New Zealand film history. Rather than dwell too often on the negative impacts of the Lord of the Rings series being the most mainstream influence on the image of New Zealand in popular culture, instead Wong and Catton walk us through the way in which early colonialist art and photography hampered any accurate depictions of the culture or landscape of the country and how this had a trickle down effect on the national cinema.
In terms of revisionist film history, Not Quite Hollywood this is not. Rather than a interview-heavy celebration, Wong instead gives us an intelligently composed and consistently insightful argument about the state of a forgotten cinematic landscape, a version of Red Hollywood where the suppression of filmic ideas and personalities isn’t as a result of the red scare but a widely-accepted, and relatively conservative, depiction of national identity on screen.2 What this particular focus does is put the notion of discovery in both execution and form of the film, buoyed by O’Donoghue’s fluid approach to editing, which, for the most part, dwells less on individual films that the collective sensation of a cacophony of interrelated images flashing by. Divided into clearly defined segments – Image, Landscape, Colonialism, Identity, Authorship – Out of the Mist‘s central thesis nevertheless carries the aim of shining a light on underappreciated and underseen films and arguing for their value in shaping an image of New Zealand. Another similarity with Andersen’s work, then, is that you’ll lose track of just how many films shown you’re suddenly desperate to uncover for yourself, particularly as Wong moves towards close analysis of select films in the final two segments of the film.3
The clearest argument in the film, though, is in its approach to landscape, something intertwined throughout all of the segments. Films like the aforementioned South Seas Adventure and This is New Zealand act to mythologise the wonder of the land over its culture, effectively whitewashing their seeming depoliticised view of the nation. Wong suggests in their place Annie Goldson’s essay film Wake, in which her father’s tourist-shot film reels reveal unconscious similarities to colonialist paintings, and Vincent Ward’s River Queen, a visceral account of a war between Maori tribes and British colonisers.4 Refreshingly, these alternative approaches to landscape are actually prompted by a through-line in art and photography, from the 1930s onwards artists were placing a focus on the man-made intrusion into the theoretic idyll of the New Zealand countryside rather than just the landscape itself.
In terms of assessment of the identity of self over landscape, however, Wong dives headfirst into genre films and experimental cinema, presenting a compelling counter-cultural canon ranging from the Tarkovsky-aping Strata to sex comedy Angel Mine and the Luhrmannesque stylings of Desperate Remedies, the soundstage-shot film from Stewart Main and Peter Wells. There is also time spent on the Australian/New Zealand co-production Next of Kin, which Wong cleverly positions in the New Zealand filmic camp “on a technicality” because of the Kiwi team of co-writer Michael Heath and writer/director Tony Williams, both of whom have an earlier work appear in Wong’s film, the Cannes Film Festival-set documentary Lost in the Garden of the World.5 This experimental and genre fare seems very much in a bubble, though, film financing cited as one reason, with Wong thereafter placing the hope for modern New Zealand identity in cinema in the hands of independent dramatists and documentary filmmakers – Florian Habicht’s Love Story and Alyx Duncan’s The Red House are the most recent films featured, the latter of which acts as the relatively abrupt coda to this film.
What Out of the Mist should inspire in its viewers is a re-evaluation of their own national film identity. Its in-depth and revealing assessment of a national self-image governed by the echoes of colonialist art will be particularly impactful for Australian audiences, a country seemingly unable to escape the appeal of the war film and for whom national film history is almost uniformly ignored, save for the recent revival of ’70s exploitation films.6 As film criticism should inspire reflection and discovery, so too does Wong’s essay film ask us to resist the conservative trappings of national film history and seek out the unusual, the honest and, most importantly, films of “ecstatic truth”, those that are “made and seen on its own terms.”
As of the 5th of November, Out of the Mist is available to stream online worldwide here.