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Bill Gosden in the 90s. Photo: NZ Film Festival
Bill Gosden in the 90s. Photo: NZ Film Festival

SocietyNovember 14, 2020

Together in the dark: Gaylene Preston on film festival virtuoso Bill Gosden

Bill Gosden in the 90s. Photo: NZ Film Festival
Bill Gosden in the 90s. Photo: NZ Film Festival

Aotearoa lost a giant of our national culture last week when Bill Gosden, the decades-long director of the New Zealand Film Festival, died at 66. The illustrious NZ film-maker Dame Gaylene Preston pays tribute

He walked around like he was some ordinary person. Understated. But if you were paying attention, you could notice that his denim shirt had fine leather beading, that he preferred blue suede shoes from Italy, and his jacket had a particularly well-tailored swing.


Often to be found in the Deluxe Cafe in the Embassy Cinema building in Wellington, Bill loved a fresh cheese scone for morning tea, and when I had breakfast with him at Capitol, on the other side of The Embassy, his “usual” included a double helping of black sausage.

Bill Gosden was a southern man. Understated.

Born in Dunedin: part of that great, well-educated baby boom that our play-based, child-based education system launched into the stratosphere. Bill Gosden grew a world-class film festival that, over 40 years, shaped the cultural life of this country. His promotional skills became legendary. At Ronin Films in Australia, they called him “Bill Godsend.”

In the early days, Bill and his tiny team delivered unwieldy prints to little clacky projectors of varying age and operation all over the country. Cinema Paradiso meets NZ Railways freight. An audacious idea that miraculously delivered a wide feast and usually an Elvis film.

Before it was remotely fashionable, Bill championed local work – not always easy. Having to watch long cuts of unfinished films (often really unfinished) and needing to turn some down, Bill sometimes had to take it on the chin.

When he refused to screen a documentary I made in 1980, I did what many filmmakers since have done: I saw red and behaved badly. I thundered up the stairs to his cramped, first-floor office at 30 Courtenay Place and confronted him. He was sitting down, I was standing up. It was hardly what you’d call a conversation.

”I’ve spent two years around the corner making this film and if I’d been doing that in Paris, you’d already have screened it!”

“Gaylene, it’s been on television. It’s not eligible.”

“If it had been on television in Paris, it would be!”

I stayed unreasonable. He stayed seated. Bill did not change the rules to make anyone happy.

A southern man.

As is the case with most of Bill’s close associates, our argument began a long conversation. When I later made my first feature film, Mr Wrong, no cinema would screen it. Bill saw the film and wrote a funny, deft piece for the film festival brochure, proclaiming it “a thoroughly spooky good time”. The rest is, as they say, history.

He programmed the premiere for 5pm in the middle weekend, while I believed it should have been an opening night film and, in no uncertain terms, told him so. But Bill knew his audience, and he knew which time would suit what tribe. I was wrong, he was right. The premiere sold out.

In a packed auditorium, they laughed till they screamed. Bill understood the power and thrill of an audience watching movies all together in the dark.

He was, above all, a writer. It was always a pleasure to read the New Zealand Film Festival brochure. There were those of us who would never miss Bill’s opening night speech. It was written at the last minute in his office above The Embassy and delivered with great aplomb. I’ve never known anyone else able to thank the sponsors with such multi-layered messaging.

Cunningly understated.

I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of sailing alongside Bill in this last while. Bill was my friend, my neighbour. Even when he was very sick, he recommended books carefully curated for my reading pleasure. Near the end of his life, he could still beat me to a joke.

We are all going to miss him more than we could possibly imagine.

Moe mai rā e te Rangatira o te au kiriata. Haere atu rā.

Read other tributes to Bill Gosden here.

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