John Dempsey O'Shea (1920 - 2005)

JOHN DEMPSEY O'SHEA (1920 - 2001)
Tribute by Gaylene Preston
Illusions 33, NZ, Autumn 2002

I nearly missed the Pacific experience. I walked in off the street into the old bakery at Kilbirnie, just as the industry was freelancing and television had gone in-house leaving the few existing independent companies high and dry and scurrying for commercials. John asked me to join Pacific Films as their new art director form London. I had come from a few years living in England sure, but I had been working in a psychiatric hospital. John considered this 'p-perfect training.' And it was.

I felt like I had arrived in the equivalent of Walt Disney's Garage. The place was full of driven creative people, very versatile, varied and focused in that down home classic way of New Zealanders. Extremists who masquerade as moderates. John was our leader. He was the funniest, the most vitriolic, the most literate, the most political and by far the wiliest. He ran the place like an extended family and like a true Irishman wasn't too keen on anyone leaving home. I didn't. I got the sack — along with about thirteen others who he had to let go. Pacific Films was going through one of the thin times and it was last in, first out. But before he left me to paddle my own canoe, on my last Friday in the big old art room, he sat with me as the sky outside the bent Venetian blinds turned from blue to pink to dusk, and told me everything he thought I needed to know to survive as a film maker. In the end all I could see was his cigarette glowing and the occasional suggestion of movement as he flicked the ash off his tie. I never forgot.

I'm glad I was around when John was around. Otherwise it would be easy to fall into that trap us baby boomers perpetuate. We think we invented everything — drugs, sex, rock' n' roll, and the New Zealand film industry. But when it come to inventing, John really was the one who knew all about that. When I stumbled into his domain ('an old d-drop out trying to drop back in again') John was on the final part of what had been a long journey towards setting up the Interim Film Commission (1978). He needed it much earlier, twenty years at least. And then when others much younger came to stand in his footsteps, he began to be called 'the grandfather', 'veteran filmmaker, John O'Shea'. He hated it. 'It makes you feel like a car,' he complained to me one day. He didn't like it because he knew that that was how they would sideline him. Veteranise on a pedestal and ignore. And he just wanted to make films, tons of them.

In a time when 'passion' was a word used to describe private behaviour nobody would want printed in Truth, he was a stubborn bloody minded Irish pakeha visionary — not easy in the monocultural Persil white fifties. He believed in the absolute necessity of a vibrant and vigorous National Cinema — about us, for us — in all our imperfections. One could illuminate and interrogate the culture's unique soul, so as to understand ourselves a little better. And he knew that central to this undertaking must be a strong Maori voice of the Tangata Whenua. It was a thankless task, and one he was still struggling with when he died.

One day when we were together in his office and I was young and hungry and probably haranguing him on something to do with womens' part in all this, he fixed me with a challenging gaze and quoted the bible.

'By their work ye shall know them.' Then he laughed.

A mighty tree has fallen. A warrior is lying down.