The art of making it look easy

By Elizabeth Allan

Auckland documentary maker Shirley Horrocks has her latest studies on creative New Zealanders screening back-to-back.

The art of making the difficult look easy has a name in Italian - sprezzatura. It's a renaissance ideal Shirley Horrocks used when talking about one of her documentary subjects, but it applies equally to her own work.

Horrocks has two documentaries in this year's International Film Festival: The Comics Show, about comic book artists, and Questions for Mr Reynolds, about artist John Reynolds.

The latter fits in with Horrocks' other documentaries about New Zealand artists - including photographer Marti Friedlander, poet Allen Curnow, and Samoan-born writer Albert Wendt - while The Comics Show surveys a cross-section of comic book artists.

"Often the people I've made documentaries about are out there, but perhaps they're not widely known. I wanted to get them more widely known because I think they really should be," she says at the Grey Lynn office of Point of View Productions, the company she directs with husband Roger Horrocks .

Both documentaries are compelling, informative and entertaining with no preamble or spoken narrative, and little text.

"I consciously want to let the subject tell the story, which is not to say the director isn't at work, but I really don't want to impose an outside narrative on to that person's story," she says.

Horrocks' step-son, Dylan Horrocks, is one of the featured comic book artists but she still had a lot to learn about the comic book world.

"One of the things that really surprised me when I got into the subject was how many talented people were working on the area, just quietly beavering away.

"And people have had the idea it's more of a guy thing, but what came through quite clearly was that there are some very talented women doing it.

"Also, comics could talk about anything. This is really an alternative."

Horrocks wanted the documentary to have an unusual visual style so editor Tibor Riddering incorporated cartoon elements into the footage and created shifting photographic images - giving it a genuine comic book feel.

The Comics Show jumps between artists while tracing the development of the art form - from the war era when artists had to apply for rationed paper, to the popularity of conventions such as Armageddon - whereas Questions for Mr Reynolds is literally organised into a series of questions.

Horrocks borrowed the idea from a schoolboy who had written to Reynolds, saying he wanted to do a project on him and including a list of the same title.

"I think exploring questions is often more interesting than the answers. And it fitted very well with the openness and lateral nature of John's thinking," she says.

Dubbed the painter who doesn't paint, Reynolds is shown creating an installation piece based on the Dictionary of New Zealand English, making giant outdoor works with plants, tattooing a friend's leg, reworking the Swanndri design for Karen Walker and recording a cameo on Bro'Town.

"I was very aware of the fact that 30 years of experience is going into his art. When I did my university study I did a lot of Italian, and in the Italian renaissance one of the ideals was sprezzatura - making something look easy, as though it hadn't required much effort, but it required a huge amount of effort.

"And I suppose that's the same thing with a documentary - you gather all the footage but then you've got to tell the story and cutting it down is just brutal. But I love that part. I love the editing. I'm there working with the editor all the time - I never leave it," she says.

Horrocks started out as a high school English teacher in the 1970s before studying drama then getting into film.

"I had to teach Shakespeare as a text or play and I didn't know a huge amount beyond it being literary. So I did a course at Auckland University, which was the Drama Diploma with Mervyn Thompson, and as part of that year we had to produce a piece of work.

"I ended up making a documentary about Theatre Corporate, which was run by Raymond Hawthorne. This was a wonderful thing to do because I followed it from the first meeting with the designer right through to opening night of The Seagull by Chekov. So I did my first documentary there."

The following year, 1980, Horrocks went to New York.

"I explored film-making non-stop, went to courses and such, and when I came back I never went back to school teaching - I just went straight into the industry."

Since then, Horrocks has produced a collection of documentaries that illuminate New Zealand art and culture. Most popular was Kiwiana, a high-rating television documentary about the icons of New Zealand life.

Most successful was Marti: The Passionate Eye about photographer Marti Friedlander, which was shown at film festivals around the world and won best documentary at the World Jewish Film Festival in Israel. Marti has been shown on Air New Zealand international flights and television.

Horrocks chooses the subjects of all her documentaries but most are commissioned for television, which is a key source of funding. Questions for Mr Reynolds and The Comics Show were made for the TVNZ series Artsville - "they've kindly allowed them to be shown at the festival before being on television later this year."

"In this country, be it a feature film or a television documentary, there's just a little pool of money and everybody's passionate about their ideas and wants to make it. But they can't do that without funding. Although I have to say things are changing slightly now, with technology changing - more people can just go out and do it. But it's still hard."

Horrocks also works to get her documentaries into education as resources for universities, schools, libraries and community centres. This year she has made three short educational dramas.

"One was on the TV news, a drama called Sophie's Story, which was made to warn about the dangers of the drug P. It's very topical at the moment. It's being shown in high schools as part of the health curriculum and comes with a teaching booklet."

The other two topics relate to obesity. The dramas are mostly aimed at senior high school students but Horrocks says they will also be used in the community to guide adults.

"We've been approached by sports clubs and all sorts of groups that deal with the

problem, but it's really to talk to people before they get to that stage. It's not a 'you shouldn't do it'. It's a story, and you can make up your own mind," she says.

Although all her work is to some extent educational, Horrocks' documentaries still fulfil the key goal of most movie-goers - to be entertained.

"I think while I certainly aim to get as many good ideas and as much good subject matter as possible, they've still got to be entertaining and I don't think one rules out the other. I think my interest is in good narrative, and if it's a good narrative it's going to grab the audience anyway."

On screen

Who: Documentary maker Shirley Horrocks

Screening: Auckland - The Comics Show and Questions for Mr Reynolds screen together on Saturday July 14 and Monday July 16 at 1pm, at the Academy Cinema, Lorne St (107 mins).
Wellington - The Comics Show screens on August 1 at 12.15pm and 1.45pm (50 mins). Questions for Mr Reynolds screens on August 2 at 12.15pm and 1.45pm (65 mins). Both at the Film Archive, cnr Taranaki and Ghuznee Sts.

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