The local movie industry can boast a healthy crop this year and much groundwork for further growth, reports PETER CALDER.

There's a part of our national character which won't be able to resist claiming The Lord of the Rings as a New Zealand film.

When the first part of the film trilogy lights up screens across the globe at Christmas, it is this country that will be on show (and not just the landscapes, most of the talent is local). But the record will show that it's an American movie, financed with American money. We may only bask in its reflected glory.

By comparison purely local achievement may seem pallid. But in fact there's much to celebrate in the local film industry. It's been a belter year for local features as the lineup at next month's Nokia Film Awards attests. The slick poolroom caper flick Stickmen, anarchic road movie Snakeskin and the moody and delicate Rain are jostling for top honours. None is the foregone conclusion of some recent years when winners seemed to be elected unopposed. And only an industry flush with self-confidence could produce a list of nominations which leaves Neil Finn out of the soundtrack category.

Meanwhile shooting begins next month on South Pacific Pictures' Whale Rider, the first fruit of the $22 million Film Production Fund the Government set up last year to boost local production. With a budget of $10 million, it's a big movie by local standards.

There are pleasing signs of vigour at grass roots, too. A record 110 applicants sought grants in the last funding round of the Screen Innovation Production Fund, the Creative New Zealand-administered purse for small, innovative, experimental movies.

As a result only one in seven projects was offered a grant, according to the chair of the assessment panel, Alastair Carruthers. But the list of successful applicants includes some promisingly offbeat material.

Most unusual is the plan of Auckland filmmaker Jonathan Brough for a production called Circle of Friends, which uses video technology to break a story into eight parts and shows it on eight screens arranged in a circle around the audience. The result is an installation piece that offers multiple possible outcomes.

Digital video has revolutionised filmmaking and it's now possible for small (even one-person) crews to undertake quite challenging assignments on shoestring budgets without necessarily producing something which looks low-rent. Several of the grants, which range from $2000 to $22,000, have gone to assisting with the production or post-production of digital features, some of them for nationwide release on DVD.

Online media, such as the Flash 5 animation programme, are the mode of choice for others. Damon Clapshaw and Andrew Bunyan of Pakuranga got $22,000 to produce an animated satirical comedy about the vexed matter of genetic modification.

More traditional approaches are used in several documentary projects which on the face of it might have warranted interest from the television channels.

Hitendra Patel, of Mt Eden, has developed the subject he studied for his masters degree in anthropology into a documentary idea, Children of Zion, about the lives of the Rastafarians in and around the isolated East Coast settlement of Ruatoria.

Patel, a student at the School of Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Auckland, says he managed to win the trust of the locals over several visits.

"Some issues are more sensitive than others," he says, and he's not referring to the Rastas' taste for marijuana which has a sacramental significance. "That may be a media issue, but it's not an issue for them. What's more important are land claims which stretch back over 100 years. It's not simple."

Meanwhile, Anoar Ahmed is undertaking a history of dance music in New Zealand, but the Charleston, foxtrot and Saturday Night Fever won't get a look in. By "dance music" he means the underground, electronic DJ-based entertainment which was born in the big Northern Hemisphere cities and now dominates night life for many young people here.

"I'm not so much interested in the music as the culture that celebrates that kind of music," he explains. "In a sense it's very derivative, very influenced by New Zealanders coming back home, but now it's got its own identity here and is regarded as one of the most exciting places in the world by international DJs."

Among these mainly young filmmakers lurk many of the feature filmmakers of the future. But for those whose process of gestation is further advanced, a visit from two experts on the art and craft of screenwriting is an exciting opportunity.

Englishman Stephen Cleary and Joan Scheckel of Los Angeles are script educators who are running - separately and together - workshops and public forums on scriptwriting in several centres during November. Most are already booked out. Scheckel is also conducting intensive workshops (one for Maori filmmakers, another for writers with feature projects already at first-draft stage) later in the month.

Their visits, funded jointly by Montana Wines, the British Council and the Fulbright Foundation, are the first major step of the New Zealand Writers Foundation, a group established this year to concentrate on script development.

Local film scripts have, with a few conspicuous exceptions, varied from bad to dire since the industry was kickstarted a quarter-century ago. The foundation, which uses as its motto Hitchcock's famous pronouncement that there are three things needed to make a successful film - "a great script, a great script and a great script" - is promising to do something about it. Filmmakers and filmgoers alike should take heart from the news.