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find: Moving Image New Zealand

Ken Zemke  

film, video editor, New Zealand

Ken Zemke in his editing studio
where he produces the TV programme
Bahá´í On Air.
Photo: Sonja van Kerkhoff, 2002.

I was a freelance film editor working in Hollywood when I became a Bahá´í.
I cut my teeth on comedy TV series such as Hogan's Heroes, then moved onto television drama editing and one-off movies for television. I received two Emmy award nominations for best editing and, in 1974, received an Emmy Award for an episode in the series Medical Story.

I studied TV production at San Diego State University in the days of live television before video tape. There was no editing involved in my training. I learned editing in 1963 when I started working at CBS television in Hollywood, making programme promotions ('promos'). These were 30-second advertisements for TV shows; we have all seen hundreds of them.

At that time, they were created by physically splicing picture and sound film together. After my five-year apprenticeship at CBS, I quit and became a freelance editor for major film studios such as MGM, Colombia, and Warner Brothers. I ended up working in Hollywood for 15 years editing many episodes of TV series, some programme pilots and tele-features. The editor makes the first cut then screens it for the producer who then makes his or her comments. As the editor, I pretty much had control of the creative editing style and flow of the programmes.

My wife Mary and I became Bahá´ís in 1972, and I soon had an overwhelming urge to make films that reflected Bahá´í principles. But Hollywood is not a place where one can make humble, low-budget films. We prayed that someday we would go pioneering and God guided us to New Zealand. New Zealand was perfect because it had a small vibrant film industry and was an English-speaking country. It was good timing because when we arrived in 1981, the government had just given tax incentives for investing in filmmaking. For the first time, I was able to edit other types of motion pictures, such as documentaries and feature films. For editing a well known New Zealand feature film, Came a Hot Friday, I was awarded the New Zealand film and television GOFTA award for best editing. However my first job 'downunder' happened to be a Hollywood film, which was made in Australia. I lived and worked in Melbourne for six months editing The Pirate Movie, which gave us Yankee dollars. This kept us going for a while. It was blessing!

One memorable project was editing the five-part documentary TV series, Tangata Tangata, on the subject of the Polynesian people. It was commissioned by TVNZ in 1995. It was special because it was produced and directed by Polynesians. It began with a Samoan woman presenter saying: "Many people have told our story, but now we are telling our own story."

Stills from the Bahá´í On Air show, about the Australian textile artist, Karel Fontaine. Seven costumes presented in a dance-piece, inspired by Bahá'u'lláh's Seven Valleys, were shown at the 1998 Spirituality and Arts conference, hosted by the New Zealand Bahá´í community.

It was filmed all over the Pacific and went into great depth looking at the various cultures of the Polynesian people. I learned a lot about this wonderful race of people. Unfortunately, it was only aired once, having a limited audience and yet costing thousands of dollars to make.

I have worked for the Maori producer, Don Selwyn, on a couple of his English-language dramas. In 1997 he asked me to edit a programme in the Maori language. I said: "No way! I only know a few words in the Maori language!"
He told me not to worry because the editing script would have an English translation. To my pleasant surprise, I was able to work on the project. The editing was easier than I had thought and I was delighted to be part of an indigenous project.

In the meantime, I worked on my dream of making Bahá´í films. One of these was a documentary on well-known New Zealand printmaker and painter, Robin White, who was pioneering in Kiribati.
In 1994, I lived with her and her family for two weeks, with a crew of two. She was an ideal pioneer because she not only learned the language, she danced the dances, sat on the ground and dressed in their clothes, basically living as a Gilbertese while continuing with her art. In her early years as a New Zealand artist, she painted using New Zealand icons and people. When she moved to Kiribati, she didn't have access to paint and moved to woodcarving.

In the documentary, she talks about her medium and content, as well as commenting on the cultural aspects of island culture. Her father was the first New Zealand Maori to become a Bahá´í.

Over her 18 years there, she was able to live the Bahá´í life and teach the Bahá´í principles. As in most countries, women in that culture were not treated equally and, in many cases, treated very badly. Because of her knowledge of the culture and language, women were attracted to her and she was able to convey to them the principle of the equality of men and women. Many men woke up to the fact of the high station of women in society. Women began taking some radical steps there, such as organizing conferences just for women.

I have been active with the Bahá´í National Audio Visual Unit, whose purpose is to record Bahá´í activities on video and audiotape. One of these was making a video of the highlights of the international Bahá´í conference, Pacific Horizons. Two other videos evolved from this event, one focusing on the music and another on American Indian, Kevin Locke.

When making documentaries, I do not write scripts before shooting. I record the event or place then do interviews. The narration is written after the editing is roughed out and, as much as possible, the story is told by the interviews. My projects are always about people. If I cover an event, I present it through the people we see on camera.

For example, my approach on a programme about the opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel was from the perspective of the people who were there.

Over the years, another goal of mine has been to get the Bahá´í Faith and its teachings on television.

In 1998, the first community television station was started in the greater Auckland area. Triangle TV has the potential to reach a third of New Zealand's population - over one million people. I knew this was the time I had been waiting for, and began making half-hour programmes.

This is how Bahá´í on Air was created. We have been on the air since the station's first week of broadcasting in August 1998. The Bahá´í communities finance the broadcasting fees, which pay for two weekly airings and the station repeats the programme two more times, at no cost, during non-prime time. The series is presently airing in a few other centres in New Zealand and the Cook Islands. It has also air in Australlia, American Samoa and as far away as Botswana.

Our programmes vary in style and content. One week it may be a documentary on a Tongan performing youth group, presenting musical items on cultural and social issues on the Island of Niue. The next week, it could be a person with a PhD in education discussing spiritual education in public schools around the Pacific Rim.

In a lot of our programmes, we air interviews with Bahá´ís of different backgrounds and nationalities. Sometimes it is about youth service projects. It may be a doctor talking about substance abuse; or an American Indian hoop dancer visiting New Zealand. For some shows, I use material produced by Bahá´ís in other countries, adding a local feel at the beginning and ending of the show. We have also made programmes about Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb and the history of the Bahá´í Faith. We use a wide range of presenters, representing many different cultures, so the shows reflect the unity in diversity of the Bahá´í Faith.

Now days I travel a great deal, mainly to countries in the Pacific area, making episodes for the Bahá´í on Air series. This gives the series a much wider viewing audience. I feel there is a large section of the public who like to listen to and watch people from different cultures. We are getting a lot of direct response from people. We know thousands are watching and getting an understanding of the Bahá´í Faith. We all know the power of TV.

I'm not a great video cameraman, but I do know good composition through taking hundreds of slides over the years with a still camera.

Now, with small and good quality digital video cameras with automatic adjustments, it's possible for me to get very adequate motion pictures. Having an editor's eye, I know what and how much coverage I will need to make sequences work in postproduction.
In 1999, I filmed four Pacific Islanders who made an extensive performing tour of Okinawa, Japan, for cultural understanding. What a wonderful experience we had. The project was called Ocean of Light Tour of Okinawa. My camera was with me most of my waking hours - in cars, out of cars, on stage, at the beach, at formal tea ceremonies, informal fun gatherings and so on. I got lots of interesting and what I call 'magical' moments. I made five half-hour Bahá´í on Air episodes from that memorable journey. There is no way we could produce a weekly TV programme if it were not for the modern video technology of computer editing and digital cameras. Making motion pictures on 16mm film would be much too costly and it is much slower in postproduction.

I'm retired, but I work much more and harder with my craft now than when I was paid for it. What a blessing it is to use my years of experience on producing material that is close to my heart. I believe that by making TV programmes reflecting Bahá´í culture and values, I can in a small way help elevate humankind.

I'm happier now producing regional TV than I ever was working for major film companies - and this work is never ending.

My next project is to turn my footage from the 2002 Hawaiian Fire in the Pacific conference, celebrating one 100 years of Bahá´í presence in the Pacific, into at least one programme for Bahá´í on Air. I've got shots of many of the 1200 people from 54 countries in their native costume, of hula, dance, and Bahá´í prayer done in hula form.

Detail of a still from the Bahá´í On Air show, about the Australian textile artist, Karel Fontaine. Seven costumes presented in a dance-piece, inspired by Bahá'u'lláh's Seven Valleys, were shown at the 1998 Spirituality and Arts conference, hosted by the New Zealand Bahá´í community.
At this printing (2002), Bahá´í on Air has produced over 80 programmes.
These can be ordered for NZ$20 each from:

Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands