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When Bill Gosden received a cancer diagnosis in June 2017 he was encouraged by friends and colleagues to write a memoir about his remarkable career.

Gosden – who had been at the helm of New Zealand film festivals for almost 40 years, astutely picking what went on cinema screens – chose not to. He used his time to travel and reconnect with friends overseas.

But Wellington's Gosden – who died in November 2020 just short of his 67thbirthday – did prepare a book, this rather beautifully presented collection of the introductions he wrote to festival programmes, pieces he acknowledges people probably skimmed past to get to the information of the films on offer.

Even with the brief reminiscences which preface these introductory essays, it seems a thin idea for such a lavish book, one elevated by programme covers (an audience of penguins for mid-winter Dunedin) with superb front-cover art by Tom Simpson and gorgeous inner-cover illustrations by Ken Samonte.

But a chronological series of introductions, even with brief reminiscences and some of his film reviews for each year?

It hardly sells itself.

However this collection – edited by Gaylene Preston and Tim Wong, the latter writing a lovely, sensitive and insightful Foreword – becomes more and more absorbing as the years progress.

Not the least for Gosden's barbed observations, sometimes waspish comments delivered with real sting and his perspicacity about social trends as much as those in local and international films he was championing . . . or arguing audiences should see and judge for themselves.

gosden_copyIn 1984 he delights in “this schizoid eclecticism [of the programme] that keeps film festivals safely from the clutches of cultural respectability” although in later years there the on-going battle with self-appointed censors (and the official censor's office).

A constant thorn is the upright moral absolutism of The Society for the Promotion of Community Standards, which he gleefully calls The Society for the Promotion of Ignorance and Fear, a group he says is prepared to spend our tax money to demonstrate their closeness to God.

“Face it . . . the land is awash with pornography,” he writes in 2003. “A couple of thousand people watching a handful of the more artfully considered representations of genital encounter is notthe the problem”.

He is frustrated by the conservative nature of the audience and distributors: “It's scary but true that many of the men who call the shots feel completely alienated from these films which might also be about their wives and mothers,” he writes, referring to some distributors' responses to films about pregnancy and older women.

New Zealand television could never rise so high as to still be beneath his contempt, and every year is there is the fear of financial failure (“we lost thousands” he admits when, through ambition and over-confidence, they tried to present Buster Keaton's Our Hospitalityin Wellington and Auckland with live orchestras). But triumph is also the handmaiden in waiting.

He's sometimes feted, sometimes hated.

There is the skirmishes with the Auckland festival programmers, a revolving door of sponsors and battles with the big distributors and cinema owners, and the seemingly endless struggle to keep, then have renovated, Wellington's wonderful Embassy which reads like a running gag in his brief introductions, except it's not funny.

The irony was when the Embassy was finally renovated the New Zealand International Film Festival (as it had become) took offices there in 2005 which, as Gosden wrote tremble “to the thunder of War of the Worlds. Last week it was Batman Begins”.

Outside the street is festooned with blue and red: the touring Lions are in town and rugby is winning the battle for bunting space.

There is post 9/11 reflection in his 2002 introduction, “a sense of the fundamental triviality of our pursuits” and the disconnect between the world outside and what is on the screen.

film_copyInevitably introductions requite a litany of thanks to sponsors, his many colleagues, tireless PR people and so on, but even here Gosden brings a smart turn-of-phrase and flattering pithiness: “Exotic and wildly unbalanced, as only a Parisienne from Upper Hutt can be, Sandra [Reid] refuses to admit that working for a film festival cannot be fun all the time”.

He jokes that when Ant Timpson's “outlaw” Incredibly Strange Film Festivalcame under the NZIFF he “brought a new strand of disrepute to ours”.

He delights in notoriety.

Gosden's own pieces on the few films in each year are tightly written and give just enough of setting, themes or character to be enticing, but never – that failing of poor film reviewers – reveal the plot.

His sensitivity to the balance of women directors, minorities, gay, lesbian and other film-makers and audiences is evident but subtle.

The times, cinemas, sponsors and subjects constantly change and Gosden anticipates or responds: DVD replaces film; multiplexes – like Auckland's “hideously futuristic Force Entertainment Centre” – arrive; local film-makers become more prominent, confident and prolific . . .

Then in rapid succession: in 2008 after Gosden has had a sabbatical “the internet has rendered the souvenir programme redundant as a source of extensive writing about the programme”; the following years his introductions are more prosaic than he would have wanted; 2017 “it became increasingly obvious that I was ill . . . from that point on I work from home”: then “I tender my resignation late in 2018 . . .”

Despite its seemingly unpromising structure, The Gosden Years sings of his love of, and respect for, film.

And by the end you'll wish Bill Gosden were still here to elucidate . . . and illuminate the darkness.


This year's NZIFF is dedicated to the memory of Bill Gosden ONZM (1953 – 2020)


THE GOSDEN YEARS by Bill Gosden, edited by Gaylene Preston and Tim Wong. VUP $50

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