Award-winning New Zealand film director Gerard Smyth has produced and directed more than 60 documentaries in his career – and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
As a young child, Gerard owned a Super 8 movie camera and though the technology was limited he remembers making small clips with it.
“We couldn’t edit them,” he explains. “You chose the shot and you couldn’t do two takes, otherwise the film had two takes of the same thing.”
By the age of 19, Gerard had progressed to working as a cameraman with the
New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (which became Television New Zealand in 1975), filming dramas, ballet, operas, science programmes and rock ‘n’roll shows. “It was the beginnings of TV in Christchurch in those days,” he says. That was back in 1969 but even now Gerard still works with Sky TV, filming items such as the rugby.
Needless to say though, Gerard’s passion lies in his documentaries. He has won a string of awards for them, including the CEVMA’s Best Documentary award for Sonja Talking in 1994, a highly commended in the Media Peace Awards for Nikki Butler – Out on a Limb in 2004, winner of the New Zealand Television Awards’ Best Director Documentary for When a City Falls in 2012, which also achieved Best on the Box People’s Choice award for best documentary. In addition, Gerard has been nominated for a long list of other awards in directing, cinematography and genre.
Gerard remains modest about his work, however, claiming he hates the idea of a ‘film industry’.
“The word ‘industry’ talks to me about the end result being to make a profit and I don’t see myself as making a profit, as much as telling stories.”
He still chooses to see his films as an essential service, rather than an industry, and who’s to stop him? We all love a good story.
To the people of Canterbury, When a City Falls is not just a good story, it’s their story.
“It was very personal,” says Gerard. “I was filming a lot of people I knew. It was a painful time.”
Gerard’s approach was to make the film more like a home movie by being both the interviewer and the cameraman.
“I’m a wee bit like the one-man band with a cymbal on your head and playing the drums with your feet,” he laughs.
Gerard works in this way to ensure the reality of the moment is upheld and in some instances, he himself is in the film.
“At one point, near the beginning, I walked up the road and saw the Christchurch Basilica and I burst into tears because I’d been an altar boy there.” (The Basilica was destroyed in the February 2011 earthquake). Nonetheless, Gerard says it was a great film to make because it was such a good story to be a part of. In 2014 he released his latest film, Aunty and the Star People, which follows the story of a New Zealand woman changing the lives of many Indian children.
In his film-making career, Gerard has met thousands of people from all over the world. And that, he says, is one of the main perks of the job. Filming in Africa, India, Europe, America, Ireland, the Pacific Islands and Australia has not only allowed him to travel extensively, but also exposed him to some incredible experiences, including famine in Africa and the aftermath of a massive earthquake in India.
A lot lies behind the scenes the filmgoer eventually sees. The three-part process of planning, filming and editing before a film is ready for release takes “a very long time”, says Gerard.
At the moment, he is working on a film that has so far taken seven years to make and is planning a separate film that has taken him five years. “The longer one can film, the better.”
However, more footage does result in a much longer editing process. When a City Falls took 10 months to edit because I had so much footage,” he explains.
Gerard doesn’t edit his films though. He sees the importance of having a separate editor as “the audience’s advocate”, who can provide fresh eyes for him. This is also his favorite process. “When you’re marrying it all together it becomes more than just a sum of the parts – it becomes a magical film.”
If there was one message Gerard would give to any aspiring director, Gerard says it is this: “Hopefully you’d choose this career because that’s where you think you can make the world a better place.”