It happens every year now on April 25: Maori Television morphs into our very own history channel.

And thank heavens it does.

While TVNZ is no longer required by government to provide anything like a public broadcasting service, the state-funded Maori Television has assumed the responsibility of telling New Zealand the stories it needs to hear on one of its most important days, Anzac Day.

While TVNZ and TV3 offered viewers not a lot, Maori Television opened its Anzac Day coverage at 5.50am yesterday with the dawn parade and service at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and continued its Anzac Day programming (including a tribute concert, live coverage of the dawn and Chunuk Bair services at Gallipoli and a multitude of documentaries) until well after dusk.


Even the old war movies were good ones: The Dam Busters and Das Boot are both classics. However it was the documentaries that made Maori Television's Anzac Day memorable.

I thought I knew a bit about the 2nd New Zealand Division's long, bloody march up the Italian peninsula between 1944-45, but it turns out I didn't know the half of it. The Italian Campaign reminded me that the division's last campaign didn't just involve the tragedy of Monte Cassino, but was actually preceded and followed by a series of bloody and bloody awful battles which were often won with a greater cost to New Zealand lives.

"A sea of graves almost as far as the eye can see," said historian Dr Monty Soutar, who lost an uncle in Italy, "speaks for how many lives were lost - and why we should never forget them."

It wasn't just a straight recounting of the division in action with black and white war footage. Interviews (old and new) with members of the Maori Battalion along with a few locals in the Italian towns and cities the New Zealanders passed through gave this a real sense of time and place and tragedy.

Soutar was also a key source (along with former Maori All Black coach and Vietnam vet Matt Te Pou) for Nga Uri o Ruku Te Kapa, the second of four annual Anzac Day documentaries recording the exploits of the four companies that made up the rightly famous 28th Maori Battalion. This year it was Company B, dubbed the "Penny Divers" because many of its soldiers were from Rotorua.

Again this doco wasn't a simple retelling of derring-do. It gave one a real sense of who these young Maori who joined up were, and how the war affected them when they returned home. Excellent stuff.

However, it was Born of Conflict: Children of the Pacific War which I found the most absorbing, mainly because these were stories about how the impacts of war can still be felt many, many decades after the shooting stops.

The children (now adults in their 70s) left behind by US servicemen talked candidly about the search for their fathers and their "other families", while an old US sailor (93 at the time of the interview) talked about fighting US Navy bureaucracy to return to his Samoan wife and their child in Western Samoa immediately after the war.


The great enemy on Anzac Day isn't the drizzle at the dawn service or bum notes from the bugler playing The Last Post, it's sentimentality. However Born of Conflict managed to tell three very moving stories without a hint of it. Very nicely done.

This year was the ninth Maori TV has made Anzac Day something special, and all those involved deserve much praise for doing so. I look forward to what they do next year, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign.