Explore the very best movies from Oceania and the Pacific, based on a selection of over 8,500 films.
Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.
As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.
The History of Oceanian Cinema
Over the course of the 19th century, the many islands in Oceania were under constant threats from British, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, and American ships. With most of Oceania being under colonial control to some extent in the early 20th century, cinema on the Pacific Islands, as well as in Australia and New Zealand, was heavily influenced by Europe. In spite of most nations being granted independence by the mid-20th century, many film productions taking place in Oceania were still produced by foreign industries.
Up until the 1950s, for example, many films shot in Australia were produced by either the United Kingdom or the United States, even when they were adaptations of Australian novels, set in the Australian Outback. Still, Australia was the only country in the region that managed to compete with the flood of imported films coming from Western Europe and North America and establish a film industry of its own.
The Lord of the Rings-films, released in the early 2000s, presented the lush and beautiful landscapes of New Zealand to the world in a way no-one had ever done before. The films sparked interest in the country as a location for shooting films, and several New Zealand directors have gathered attention at the worldwide box office since.
While production still remained virtually non-existent in the Pacific’s many island nations, recent local incentives have stimulated the interest of locals in film. Samoa and the Cook Islands now boast a handful of aspiring filmmakers, who aim to share the traditions and cultures of their people through short films…
Table of Contents
Pick a Country
The Best Films from Oceania and the Pacific
Get lost in the vast Outback of Australia, and scale the snow-capped mountains of New Zealand, before sailing a mōkihi to the remote island nations of Samoa and the Cook Islands.
Australia: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
Directed by: Stephan Elliott, 1994.
The production of The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) marked the beginnings of the Australian film industry. Throughout the history of Australian cinema, the story of Ned Kelly has been a popular subject of film: there are over 10 films based on the life of the infamous bushranger and outlaw. Australia soon became one of the most prolific film-producing countries in the world.
During and after World War II, Australia produced several successful historical war dramas, such as 40,000 Horsemen (1940) and The Overlanders (1946). In the decade that followed, many popular Australian books and plays were adapted to film through co-productions with the United Kingdom and the United States, such as A Town Like Alice (1956) and Robbery Under Arms (1957). Producing films for the English-language market, Australia had a relatively secure market to operate in.
Over the years, many Australian actors were welcomed to Hollywood: George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery to play James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Nicole Kidman made her Hollywood debut with Days of Thunder (1990), and when Mad Max (1979) became an international hit, it turned Irish-Australian actor Mel Gibson into an international star. Additionally, British actor Hugo Weaving who resided in Australia hit all the right spots as drag-queen ‘Tick’ in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). The film mixed the cinematographic landscape of the Outback with contemporary urban sub-culture and set Weaving on his path to star in The Matrix (1999), The Lord of the Rings (2001), and V for Vendetta (2005).
Nowadays, the 1970s and ‘80s are regarded as the “Golden Age of Australian cinema”. This period saw the release of the Outback dramas Walkabout (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and A Cry in the Dark (1988), as well as the dark science fiction film Mad Max and the more light-hearted Babe (1995), war epics ‘Breaker’ Morant (1980) and Gallipoli (1981), and the popular romantic comedies Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994).
Though the 2000s were less successful for Australia, films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Happy Feet (2006) still proved to be international hits. Another notable example of Australian cinema was Daniel Nettheim’s eco-thriller The Hunter (2011), set on the remote island of Tasmania. The Hunter combines its unique, atmospheric setting, with a terrific layered performance by Willem Dafoe as the titular hunter.
Riding Priscilla, a lavender-colored bus, two drag-queen performers, and a transgender woman travel across the Australian desert to perform their show at a resort in Alice Springs.
Find The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Amazon.com.
New Zealand: Once Were Warriors
Directed by: Lee Tamahori, 1994.
After debuting its first feature film in 1914 following a period of exploration with film as a medium for documentary, a small-scale film industry developed in New Zealand. Unlike in its neighboring country, Australia, very few films were produced. It wasn’t until the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission in 1978 that local cinema really found its footing in New Zealand. The island nation became an international player with the musical drama The Piano (1993) and the biographical film Heavenly Creatures (1994).
Though local Kiwi directors Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi undoubtedly put New Zealand on the map as a country of splendor with modern blockbuster films such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and indie gems like Boy (2010) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), the country also has a rich history of art films. Though American and British movies often take preference at award ceremonies based on English-language films, it would be a shame to overlook the gems sprung from New Zealand’s artistic wells.
Over the past few decades, the New Zealand government has taken a stand for the country’s Māori minorities, by allowing tribes to claim compensation for the historic injustices done to them and by supporting the preservation of their cultural heritage. Though laudable, these offers are a far stretch from improving the individual lives of those still living in poverty. In 1994, director Lee Tamahori kick-started his career with Once Were Warriors (1994), a film assessing the struggles of a lower class Māori family.
Though, sadly, the director’s career plunged downhill at a disturbing pace with lackluster commercial projects such as Next (2007) and franchise-killers Die Another Day (2002) and XXX: State of the Union (2005), his Māori drama still stands tall. The layered drama manages to display the reality of alcohol abuse and domestic violence in a brutally honest way and is superbly acted out by Māori actors Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison.
Based on author Alan Duff’s bestselling 1990 novel of the same name, Once Were Warriors tells the story of an urban Māori family struggling with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence.
Find Once Were Warriors on Amazon.com.
Samoa: The Orator
Directed by: Tusi Tamasese, 2011.
Around 3,500 years ago, the Samoan Islands were first settled during the Austronesian expansion. Contact with Europeans was established in the 18th century when Dutch, English, and American ships began to arrive. Serving as a colony of Germany, and later New Zealand, Western Samoa was separated from the United States’ territory of American Samoa. Still, relations between the islands were good, and American director Robert J. Flaherty filmed the anthropology documentary Moana (1926) on Samoa, as a spiritual follow-up to his earlier film, Nanook of the North (1922).
Though the United States used American Samoa as a filming location for Return to Paradise (1953) and Pacific Destiny (1956), film production on Samoa remained virtually non-existent. Samoa gained its independence in 1962, and it would take several decades more before the country started to produce its own films. Foreign influences remained small, as the screening of films in Samoa’s only cinema was strictly censored, and many foreign films were banned.
In the early 2010s, the short films Sacred Spaces (2010) by Tusi Tamasese, and Malaga (2010) by Daniel Poleki and Robert Poleki made a splash at international short film festivals in New Zealand, Canada, and Hawaii. A year later, Tamasese directed the island nation’s first-ever feature film, The Orator (original title: O Le Tulafale, 2011). The film was shot entirely in Samoa and features a Samoan cast. Samoan chief Manu Asafo served as Tamases’s cultural advisor. The chief described the film as an attempt “to portray Samoan culture”, displaying the life and traditions of the people of Samoa.
Small in stature, the humble taro farmer Saili is forced to defend his land and family, following the ancient customs and traditions of his village to do so.
Find The Orator on Amazon.com.
Cook Islands: Dog Save the Queen
Directed by: Marcus Hamill, 2013.
Throughout over 100 years of cinema, only two notable films were (partly) shot on the Cook Islands: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and The Other Side of Heaven (2001). Like Samoa, the Cook Islands were colonized in the late 19th century and later became a dependent territory of New Zealand. Though the island nation is still part of the Realm of New Zealand, the islands gained independence in 1965.
Even though there are two cinemas in Rarotonga, it took a long time before a local film was ever shown there. In the early 2010s, Stan Wolfgramm, one of the founders of the cultural Te Ara Museum on Rarotonga, sparked the first developments in the local film industry with the launch of the project Film Raro. The project was meant to put the Cook Islands on the map as a mecca for tropical island filming, and filmmakers from all over the world were invited to hand in scripts for potential short films.
Receiving just under 2,000 scripts, Wolfgramm selected six teams of enthusiastic film-makers, who were then flown to Rarotonga. The film crews turned the island into a film studio for two weeks, mentoring locals in the art of cinema, and shooting their films. In spite of the tropical torrential rain plaguing the island on the day of the premier, close to five thousand Cook Islanders attended the event – almost 50% of the island nation’s population. Film Raro was a great success, and in the years that followed several other Samoan shorts were produced.
The six short films shown at the 2013 festival were The Seed, Dog Save the Queen, Mou Piri, Little Girl War Cry, Islands, and The Offshore Pirate (all: 2013). For our list, we’ve picked Australian director Marcus Hamill’s Dog Save the Queen. With a cast that had never been in front of a camera before, a 10-year-old Samoan boy as the main star, and an untrained island dog as his companion, the film was a wild and wonderful experiment. In the film, a young boy’s world is upside down when the British Queen traces the Royal Corgi bloodline back to his dog Cyclone, who was the product of an encounter with one of the Queen’s corgis during her visit to the Cook Islands in 1972.
Life is about to change for islander Nuka and his loyal dog: with the Royal Corgi bloodline facing extinction, the British Queen’s search for a descendant of her dogs leads her to the island of Samoa, which she once visited with her corgis in 1972.
Watch Dog Save the Queen on Vimeo.
More articles on Movies
- Cinema of Central America and the Caribbean
- Cinema of North America
- Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific
- Cinema of East and Southeast Asia
- Cinema of West and Central Asia
- Cinema of South Asia
Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveller who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.