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Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy


The 2006 film Out of the Blue by Robert Sarkies (director and co-writer with Graeme Tetley) details the November 1990 shootings of 13 adults and children in the tiny village of Aramoana, near Dunedin. The small city of Dunedin is the central hub for the lower South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. The film is based on a book written by Senior Sergeant Bill O’Brien, Aramoana: Twenty-Two Hours of Terror. The perpetrator was David Gray, an unemployed 33-year old gun collector, who went on a shooting spree after an argument with his next-door neighbour. Police located Gray the next day during a careful house-by-house search. When he burst out of a house firing his weapon, members of the Anti-Terrorist Squad (now the Special Tactics Group [STG]) shot and mortally wounded him (“David Gray,” NZ History).1

The isolated location of Aramoana (a Maori word, meaning “pathway to the sea”) was a prime cause of the extended circumstances of the massacre: the settlement is located on a sand dune spit at the mouth of the Otago Habour, opposite the end of the Otago Peninsula. It could only be accessed by one narrow, windy road that alternated between pavement and gravel, while the census population was around 260 people (see figure 1). Both the book and the film highlight that Gray was significantly more well-armed than the local police; further, the incident directly resulted in a 1992 amendment to New Zealand’s firearms regulations on military-style semi-automatic firearms. While—even now—the afflictions and motives of Gray are not well known, Sarkies has also specifically mentioned in several interviews that this was not what interested him about the story of Aramoana. Whereas O’Brien was quite forthright about his agenda in telling the Aramoana story: his goal was to “record the actions of frontline police officers first on the scene and those who followed during the night and the next day [...] I was determined to tell their story (8).” Further, O’Brien writes, “another major consideration was to accurately record the facts of a tragedy of such enormous proportions. Whether we like it or not the events of 13/14 November 1990 are [a] part of our history” (8). In my case, in examining the adaptive process of changing O’Brien’s account into a feature-length film, I am less interested in finding examples of historical facts (or deviations), which, after all, are still limited to ‘after the ordeal’ accounts by police and STGs coming out of the field.

Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: 
The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy 
, Thornley, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1

Instead I am more interested in the fact that, in adapting this story, Sarkies and Tetley chose to highlight the community, rather than the killer, unlike several forerunners in the true crime genre. They focused on three characters in order to invoke a triangular structure, something they considered necessary for audience identification. They were Constable Nick Harvey [Karl Urban], Helen Dickson [Lois Lawn], an elderly neighbor, and Gray [Matthew Sunderland].2 In writing about this shift, I extended Linda Hutcheon’s argument regarding the indigenization of specific adaptations. Such an adaptive shift broke new ground in this genre, emphasizing community over chaos.3

I now show how such a decision was received both nationally and overseas. A study of popular reviews around Out of the Blue allows me to trace three connections: between the screenplay choices made during adaptation, ‘high art’ connotations, and the feminist/art cinema genre (categories that the true crime film has been set against historically). This article argues that, as a result of the ‘adjustment’ evidenced in Sarkies’ and Tetley’s screenplay and the critical reception this adaptation has received, Out of the Blue has managed to firmly relocate itself within the arena of art cinema. In turn, this has changed the way audiences, both at-home and abroad—often, because of their national contexts, the ‘knowing’ and ‘unknowing’ audiences Hutcheon theorizes (n. p.)—think about New Zealand and its cinematic offerings.

Accordingly, I make a larger argument about community and the use of indigenous protocols in New Zealand, specifically how Out of the Blue—precisely because of its terrible subject matter—may provide a way to rethink how we understand these concepts. Out of the Blue comes to terms with the country’s legacy of Man Alone cinema (discussed in greater detail shortly), not only socially but also philosophically, by asking for an indigenous reading of challenging subject matter. Through accepting a film that celebrates lauded Maori director Merata Mita's prescription of “identity, resolution and survival” (Dennis and Bieringa 47-8) as applied to Pakeha [settler descendants]-coded events, national audiences are asked to mature in both their cinematic and ideological expectations. This reworked relationship between real life events and cultural memory points to the important work national films and national audiences perform in re-visioning—in both senses of the term—national history.

My argument also takes up both Francesco Casetti’s and Kyle Meikle’s joint call(s) for a recognition of that “final frame” (Meikle), the audience(s) for a film and their “set of personal and collective experiences that operate as a reference” (Casetti 84). Particularly, specifically, I am interested in how their expectations inevitably shape that frame. Out of the Blue’s multiple audiences inevitably set up a series of final frames in many ways, composed as they are of ‘knowing’ and ‘unknowing’ audiences, nationally and internationally. It is these audiences that this essay sets out to unpack and—hopefully—reconfigure in the process.

Part I

The thing I learn[ed] through shooting this film is that the truth is so individual and when you’re dealing with an historical event, everyone has their own unique perspective and there’s no definitive version. And that was the most challenging aspect. (Karl Urban qtd. in Nick, ‘Essaying’ 25)

Russell Baillie, in his New Zealand Herald review, suggests that Out of the Blue is a film of “fierce restraint” (n. p.). However, as early as 2007 critic Shahir Daud would ask, “For such an important New Zealand film, why does it feel so forgotten only a year since its release? There’s something quite disconcerting about the hoopla surrounding other New Zealand films and their success overseas (I won’t name films), while this gritty slice of kiwiana seems to be drifting away from public consciousness” (lumiere.net.nz).

As Daud’s quote begins to recognize, Out of the Blue has been largely overlooked in New Zealand, not only because of its subject matter—the more obvious reason and the one most critics reach for—but also, I would argue, because of what I have termed national genre confusion. Small cinemas, such as those investigated by Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie, often create a corpus of films that end up pigeonholing these respective countries. For example, Irish films concentrate on “The Troubles,” while Scandinavian countries specialize in broody, weather-dependent thrillers and disaffected comedies (Cinema of Small Nations). This pigeonholing effect influences overseas audiences’ expectations regarding the cinematic output of small countries. Equally, it often limits the funding available for national filmmakers, the premise being that films must somehow conform to these preordained generic categories in order to be seriously considered for assistance. This leads to a consideration of generic conventions around the Man Alone trope and its tenacious connection to both past ‘true crimes’ and New Zealand’s Cinema of Unease through our national creative output.

First, though, a brief word about my use of genre in this context. While it is acknowledged that small cinemas have often been seen as operating at the margins (and sometimes outside) of recognized generic constructs, it is equally true that New Zealand films are always in relationship with preconceived and understood categories of genre. Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) may be a statement of our national ingenuity and rebelliousness but it is also (never only) a generic road movie. Once Were Warriors (1994) is a story about a specific Maori family but it is also (never only) a generic social problem film about a dysfunctional family, just as Utu (1984) and Crooked Earth (2001) represent distinctly indigenous takes on the Western genre. While the national film industry’s relationship to generic categories may be ambivalent, it is never absent4, giving rise to the idea of confusion expanded on here.

As a case study of these pressures facing small national cinemas such as ours, I argue that Out of the Blue failed to locate itself squarely in one of New Zealand’s two most recognized generic categories. These are either films that chart the exploits of white males within (and often in opposition to) the country’s awe-inspiring landscape, a home-grown “Man Alone” genre, or films that deal with art cinema concerns, emphasizing emotional rather than physical narrative development. Rather, what makes Out of the Blue such an interesting example to examine further is the fact that it inverts the relationship between these two categories, providing art cinema narrative and aesthetic conventions using subject matter firmly encoded as Man Alone.

In the case of New Zealand, Lynette Read makes the argument that our cinema encompasses these two distinct trends, “blokey ‘Man Alone’ films” (11) and feminist/art cinema (which I will refer to simply as ‘art cinema’ from now on). The notion of Man Alone was first coined with John Mulgan’s eponymous 1939 book. Examining both New Zealand fiction and film, Lawrence Jones argues that the phases of the Man Alone myth in relation to New Zealand society and its dreams of itself have spanned the last century, often acting as a gauge of the country’s morale in times of war and hardship. The first phase began in the colonial/late-colonial period, when the idea of the Man Alone was not originally seen as a negative connotation. Then, such a character was more a ‘founder of society,’ earning that respect through sweat and labor rather than through laws or titles. He (and it was, almost without exception, always a “he”) was viewed as a commonplace hero carrying out the Pastoral Dream. Jones points to the ever-present nature of solitude embedded in such a moniker because, at this stage, the Man Alone’s labour is always a case of deferred gratification. As Sophie Osmond writes of her character Frank Mallory in Ponga Bay: A Story of Old New Zealand, “intent on developing this little corner of the far south into a garden of fountains and singing birds,” a Man Alone works so that others may later benefit (qtd. in Jones 298).

During the 1930s and 1940s, this characterization shifted somewhat to an outsider capable of questioning society’s values, particularly regarding the Depression’s effect on people who supported the notion of a ‘just society.’ Jones now sees the Man Alone not as “a hero affirming society’s values and dreams but rather a victim of the puritanical and narrowly materialistic society that has subverted those dreams, a society whose flaws were made manifest by the Depression” (301).

Finally, this devolves to the “inarticulate rebel who strikes back violently.” The film Bad Blood is particularly relevant here because while ostensibly the historical background and subject matter of both Bad Blood and Out of the Blue are the same, the two films evidence distinctly different approaches to the material in question. Bad Blood and Out of the Blue each visualise the mass murders of innocent people by homicidal gunmen in rural New Zealand towns. Both of these gunmen were separated physically and emotionally from the life of the communities they resided in and both suffered from paranoid delusions; however, the films differ regarding the amount of narrative time accorded to each, their ascribed motivations, and how the films position themselves in relation to the shooters’ actions. These ideas will be dealt with later in this article.

Brenda Allen goes even further, arguing that in New Zealand literature and film “the literary trope of the Man Alone, a recurring feature throughout much of the twentieth century, rests on modernist, colonialist assumptions that tensions between white settler (Pakeha) men’s attachment to their ancestral roots and feelings of belonging in New Zealand trouble their psyche” (n. p.). As Read recognised, national features have frequently fallen into one of these two cinematic categories of Man Alone and art cinema, often neatly dividing along such chronological and generic lines as Sleeping Dogs (1977) vs. A State of Siege (1978), Bad Blood and Smash Palace (both released in 1981) vs. Vigil (1984), or even Once Were Warriors (which many have argued constitutes a kind of Maori Man Alone film) vs. Heavenly Creatures or The Piano (all released over 1993-94).

Man Alone is a very different strand of national cultural expression than the art cinema offerings directed largely by women (with Vincent Ward’s work5 and Sarkies’ Out of the Blue standing as important exceptions to this rule). In contrast, this form of filmmaking focuses on general feminist concerns, particularly the position of women and/or the elderly in society, and concentrates on the domestic realm. A few examples of writers connected with the idea of art cinema include Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Patricia Grace, and Keri Hulme. As Read recognizes in her Illusions article, their work evidences “a concern for the inner life and subjective perception,” much as art cinema does (11).

Social problems that undermine the fabric of such domesticity are often held up to the cinematic gaze also: alcoholism in Rain (2001), welfare dependency in Ruby and Rata (1990), the impact of patriarchy in The Piano. Obviously, such social issues feature in Man Alone films as well—not many audience members will quickly forget Beth from Once Were Warriors flipping the top off a 40-ounce beer with a spatula on her arrival home after grocery shopping or Al Shaw’s brutal rape of his ex-wife in Smash Palace—but it is the way such activities are positioned within the narrative, the point of view trained on them, that provides proof as to where a film sits in terms of this aesthetic/thematic divide. Sarkies’ quote highlights this allegiance:

A film like this actually gets people in New Zealand talking about the issues around the subject matter, whether they be issues of gun control, issues of mental illness or how we treat others in our community. Better that we’re talking about those sorts of issues in relation to a film about something that happened several years ago than talking about them because another event actually happened. (Fowler 17)

Further, Sarkies had a goal of re-inscribing ‘beauty’ into what could otherwise simply be a visually straightforward movie about one man’s ultimate execution of thirteen others. Sarkies was concerned that Out of the Blue not become ‘a police procedural’ but instead that the film adequately portrayed the on-the-ground experience—not of the police officers as was O’Brien’s remit, but of the community. So, instead, Sarkies and Tetley responsibly and respectfully built a screenplay from other 'primary' sources, such as eyewitness reports, council floor plans, television news reports, a contemporaneous documentary, and police radio transcripts. They also interviewed certain people involved in the event, such as the policeman, Nick Harvey, and both the daughter (Chiquita Holden) and partner (Julie-Ann Bryson) of Gary Holden, who was the first person killed. Therefore, through his and Tetley’s careful adaptation, they became “first interpreters and then creators” (Hutcheon 18).6

By imbuing the events of Aramoana with a vision that is uniquely personal, poetic, and—at the same time—unnerving, precisely because of its aesthetics and concentration on character, Sarkies manages to reorient the social problem of mass murder from a Man Alone ‘take’ to a domestic slice-of-life ‘take.’7 Out of the Blue addresses Columbine-type murders, but approaches them from a Gus Van Sant slant (in his lauded 2003 Elephant adaptation), rather than employing the didactic methods of Michael Moore’s polemical documentary, Bowling for Columbine (2002). In Part II, I undertake a reception analysis of the reviews surrounding the film’s release, using them to conclude via the argument I introduced this article with: that of a kind of misrecognition or national ‘forgetting’ which has dogged Out of the Blue ever since. However, I particularly want to show that, although this turning away can be seen as an economic or industrial problem, it also presents an opportunity to re-vision New Zealand’s “small cinema.”

Part II

Out of the Blue begins, and continues throughout, firmly rooted in the everyday. Sarkies’ vision refuses to bestow narrative agency onto Gray and, instead, disperses it among members of the community, not all of whom survive. Although the DVD’s initial Menu screen features a silhouetted Gray-type figure, he is not the primary focus. Others are equally important: members of the community appear, as does Harvey, a prominent character throughout.8

The film then opens with establishing shots from high on the cliff overlooking Aramoana.9 The camera moves closer via a medium-distance shot, finally focusing on a small, run-down yellow plaster house, a “For Sale” car parked outside and orange sacks of pinecones stacked up against it. Further shots drift among homemade letterboxes, people taking out their compost, shipping containers used for storage and as accommodation: the sheer fact that nothing is happening is the salient fact. Sarkies dedicates a large chunk of the initial opening scenes to developing an absence of action. Furthermore, the camera’s attention is always wandering, never committed to simply one perspective or one main character. When it does alight for brief periods of time during the siege, it concentrates on Helen Dickson. Elderly and left alone during the night, she plays a pivotal role, assisting her wounded neighbor during the shootout by crawling repeatedly along a drainage ditch to check on him, despite just having had hip surgery. Several reviews of the film commented on the veracity of Lawn’s performance, given that she was an amateur actor.10

The most blatantly obvious cinematic allusion to the lack of importance Gray is given in the narrative arrives early in the piece. He is shown with an out-of-focus lens, black skullcap in place, the camera in an uneasy relationship with him, his place of residence, and even his habits. We are afforded only snippets of his world: hand-rolled cigarettes, paperbacks with red remainder marks crammed onto hand-built shelves, a padlocked fridge. He spends his time drinking tea made from a kind of ‘double boiler’ arrangement (one teapot stacked on top of the other), reading gun magazines, and collecting rocks to mark a perimeter around his crib. However, even here Sarkies chooses to investigate the quotidian rather than the exceptional, the mundane rather than the exploitative.

While I mentioned above that art cinema investigates social problems, exposing them in order to address and combat them, I now argue that Out of the Blue turns this idea on its head, combining elements from Man Alone films with the critical reform suggested by art films. Specifically, Sarkies takes the idea of community, so often ridiculed and rejected in the Man Alone genre,11 and re-establishes it as a centrepiece of this narrative. While Alexander Greenhough rejects this decision in his article on the film, arguing that Sarkies ultimately sublimates the realistic tenor of the events of Aramoana to a kind of “nostalgic haze,” I counter that this is precisely the strength of Sarkies and Tetley’s treatment of such appalling material. Art cinema asks us to recognize social problems: in this case the social problem is the Man Alone, specifically Gray. Out of the Blue’s answer to this problem is the community’s commitment to each other, to survival, and to the many years that continue beyond this incident.

Furthermore, several critics point to Sarkies and Tetley’s focus on ‘softer relationships’ within the film; those moments where relationship is sustained, protected, shored up, rather than being broken down.12 Traditionally, feminist cinema looked at gender rules in order to highlight women’s negotiation of such strictures (specifically, Jane Campion’s and Gaylene Preston’s work comes to mind here). However, Sarkies and Tetley use the main male characters’ interactions with others (e.g. their families, the victims) to envision a different way of being than that possible for Gray or, indeed, any of the Man Alone figures that litter New Zealand’s cinematic and literary landscape.

Greenhough spends a significant amount of his article detailing two pivotal scenes in Out of the Blue, both of which work to tether masculinity less to the idea of ‘mate ship’ and more to family/whanau connections (with the coming together of a blended family around the dinner table; see figure 2) and bodily frailty (in the case of Harvey vomiting at the sight of a dead child’s body). Therefore, instead, I will focus only briefly on a scene that does similar work, but in a much more concise rendering. One of the most gut-wrenching moments occurs when the police have to move three children from the back of a pick-up truck—two of whom have been killed, while the last is badly wounded with a bullet in her stomach. Harvey rests the small body of one of the boys under the truck: a kind of misguided idea of safety and one that foreshadows the moment he hesitates in carrying out his duty, when he has the chance to shoot Gray. It also humanizes the police and shows the very small circle of influence and protection they work with; Harvey knows these children and, by default, their families.

Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: 
The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy 
, Thornley, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2

All of the transitions between the different acts of the film are marked by scenery shots, while during the massacre the passing of time is shown via the movement of sunlight around the edge of a crib and across faded cotton sheets hanging on the line.13 These are the same sheets that Helen’s son, Jimmy, hung out earlier in the film, and they demonstrate how Sarkies has chosen to avoid obvious violence. Only Jimmy’s terrier, Patch, comes back to see Helen and it is through this that we realize her son is probably dead. The understated simplicity of these details allows the audience to identify, not only with the characters, but—more importantly—with their slow and terrible reckoning regarding what is occurring around them.

In fact, the audience learns about many more deaths and losses through a similar feeling of absence, echoing the absence of activity at the start of the film. Addressing the idea of originality in creative works, Edward W. Said recognises that it is in these moments of authorial (or directorial) choice that “[…] presence and absence cease to be mere functions of our perception and become instead willed performances by the writer” (129). Absence does not need to be a negative theme. In this respect, Sarkies has made it positive; he has made a choice, both in terms of form and content. For this reason, Said suggests, “Writing can be seen then also as the setting in which the interplay of presence and absence methodologically takes place” (original emphasis, 129), and uses Rilke’s description of the fundamental element of Rodin’s art to express this idea further: “This differently great surface, variedly accentuated, accurately measured, out of which everything must arise” (qtd. in Said 130). There are any number of ways to visualise carnage: perhaps the greatest kindness is not to picture it at all. Instead, to accentuate and measure absence is to foreground the emptiness to come in ways much deeper than a representation ever could.

Sarkies’ strong authorial vision, another hallmark of this genre of film, can be seen perhaps most clearly through his subjective point of view. He uses careful composition of shots, including distortion in camerawork and mise-en-scene. For example, in the few scenes depicting Gray’s perspective, we see him through blurred shots and discordant sound effects. Read’s thesis also supports the idea that Sarkies’ work is redolent with scenes that anthropomorphize the landscape, another recurring trope in art cinema, as is telling the story through the visuals rather than relying on dialogue. However, the role of the soundtrack is deemed important.14

The following quote clearly demonstrates the director’s choices around—and impact on—the psychological rendering of events through the soundtrack, as well as the anthropomorphization of the landscape. Sarkies says, “What we were attempting to do was use real sounds but put them together in a way that created an emotional landscape for the audience and hopefully sometimes took you into quite a strange and surreal headspace, though not in a self-conscious way” (Fowler 15). He then describes how Dave Kolff (art director) drove a sound recordist and a sound person to Aramoana at midnight during winter in order to capture surround sound recordings, using quad microphones, of the beach at that hour.

Those sounds actually play through the beginning of the film because that particular recording sounded like waves crashing or could have been gunfire or could have been thunder: we called that sound the heartbeat of Aramoana. We wanted to get people inside the film and inside the head of that character to understand something of that disturbed mind. I used to listen to shortwave radio when I was a kid and I was always intrigued by the sound between stations on a radio, and I felt that David was a man between stations. And in a way he was, through that night he was a man between night and death: the two stations. (Fowler 15)

As mentioned earlier, Read suggests that the characteristics of art cinema include an emphasis on the psychological reproduction of events, rather than simply physical (11), and Sarkies seconds this when interviewed

Then of course you’ve got ten or fifteen minutes of, in a traditional filmic sense, ‘action’ where the murders are taking place. I hope that when people see the film they’ll see that this wasn’t what interested me or [Tetley] about the project. Therefore[,] the murders are not depicted in a visceral way: they’re very intentionally both understated and treated quite differently from each other. (Fowler 15)

Early in the siege a young man from the community witnesses the deaths of several members of a family while he is hiding up in a tree. He is powerless to help; however, we are only given his reaction and do not see the murders themselves (see figure 3). In quite pointedly choosing not to employ the traditional shot-reverse shot continuum, Sarkies sidesteps the audience’s expectations for this genre. Sarkies states that the film “was an excuse, framed by tragedy, to explore who we are.” When asked whether he felt like a voyeur, he replied “Of course […] because that’s what a filmmaker must become.” Although he tried to stop short of showing actual murders, “[…] the horrible thing is when you don’t show something, but you hear it perhaps, or you see it as a reaction, it becomes more vivid, because that event takes place in the viewer’s imagination. A good film is not a film that plays on the screen, it is actually taking place in your own head” (Knight 5).

Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: 
The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy 
, Thornley, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3

In Sight & Sound, this perspective is echoed by Carmen Gray, who writes, “Admirable care is taken not to glorify the killings, and Sarkies minimises gore by never showing the victims being directly hit, shying away from an adrenaline-rushing pace and instead weaving slowly between the characters as they stumble in and out of the focal point” (71).15 By referencing similar critical reactions in Part III, I extend this argument regarding point of view.

Part III

Historically, art cinema has been more successful with overseas audiences than the Man Alone genre (Read 11). This is most likely due to the critical, and therefore promotional, weight garnered by our films’ trips around the international film festival circuit.16 Indeed, in the case of Out of the Blue, how the film was received nationally is especially telling, particularly when benchmarked against other well-known national films from that period, such as The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) and Whale Rider (2003). Although all three films are located in the Top 15 films released at the New Zealand box office (New Zealand Film Commission; Table i.), Whale Rider and The World’s Fastest Indian appear significantly further up the list than Out of the Blue. As I will shortly outline, to simply suggest that this is due to their varying subject matter (i.e. Whale Rider is seen as heart-warming and mythological while The World’s Fastest Indian is unapologetically nostalgic, whereas Out of the Blue is both based on true events and extremely disturbing) misses the point. In comparing Out of the Blue with Once Were Warriors, this discrepancy becomes even more apparent. It is clear that New Zealanders do not shy from seeing some of their secrets on screen, but they want such difficult material served up in particular ways.

Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: 
The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy 
, Thornley, Literature Film Quarterly
Table i

To provide an overview from which to continue building the case that Out of the Blue has moved itself (or has been re-located, by dint of the critical reception it has received) into the arena of art cinema, I again reference Baillie’s New Zealand Herald review. Baillie’s response turns on the notion of restraint in Out of the Blue, particularly how that moderation undermines the relationship usually assumed in action genres between the antagonist, the film itself, and audiences’ roles in relation to both. Baillie (as well as others, which I will examine next) recognises that both Sarkies and Tetley have sidestepped the normal narrative pacing and framing associated with the action/thriller genre:

By rights, you should be punching the air with satisfied relief as Gray—an unnerving performance by Matt Sunderland—writhes his last while the squad which has just dealt to him lift their gas masks to light each other's cigarettes. Except, Out of the Blue is not that sort of movie. It's one that makes you dread every sound of gunshot, every movement in the dark, every death. […] It's a powerful piece of work, made more so by a fierce restraint in its delivery. […] [The narrative does not] run to a conventional thriller timetable.

Not only is Out of the Blue more subtle and slower-paced than most movies in this genre, its cinematic choices move audiences—by barely perceptible degrees—towards community identification. Sarkies states, “The camera is living along with the characters, whereas whenever you see David Gray, the camera is usually static, almost completely still. […] I guess to depict the lack of life in his life. There’s a sadness there” (Making Of documentary). This lack of identification with Gray is also accomplished by framing and point of view; Sarkies discusses his decision to shoot several shots from behind Gray, looking over his shoulder but never directly at him (Making Of documentary; see figure 4). So, as Gray is reading in his crib, cycling into town or riding on the bus, even while he is waiting in the bank, the camera is exploratory, investigative—but only to a certain point. In some ways, it quickly loses interest, returning to what is simultaneously happening in Aramoana and, by default, moving audiences’ attention there, rather than letting them linger with Gray.

Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: 
The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy 
, Thornley, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4

Extended excerpts from Dennis Harvey’s Variety review clearly show the cinematic and narrative choices by which Sarkies moves Out of the Blue away from conventional generic restrictions:

An effectively harrowing and non-exploitative recap […] Chilling, often moving docudrama focuses not so much on the mayhem or murderer, but on the bewildered, occasionally courageous reactions of ordinary citizens caught in the inexplicable violence. [… The film] rigorously avoid[s] conventional thriller portent or pacing […] Pic makes no effort to explain or analyze [Gray’s] actions. […] But the focus here is not on the ‘why’ but the ‘what,’ as Blue vividly depicts the confusion, panic, horror, and even tedium of average folk waiting out a catastrophe without knowing quite what's happened. Mixed pro and non-pro thesps create a wholly natural sense of community, while dialogue, staging, editing and sparse use of music further underline unvarnished realism. […] Eventual realization of the toll that Gray exacted—including several very young children—is handled with wrenching restraint. (62)

Phillip Matthews agrees with Baillie that, “No one really stars here” (‘Dreaming,’ New Zealand Listener n. p.). He also uses the word “restrained” in his review and suggests that “the terrible beauty of Out of the Blue” (the subtitle of the piece) can be seen as both the reason for, and related to, the film’s minimalism. Matthews writes, “[Out of the Blue] often plays out in miniature: one scene standing in for many, one person representing several, a gesture or a look summing up an entire person. It’s a kind of minimalism that is probably a result of budgetary necessity, but has been turned into an aesthetic advantage” (n. p.). Like the threefold relationship suggested above by Baillie between the character(s), the film, and audiences, Matthews draws his own links between the secluded beauty of the area, the film’s moderate budget, and the ways in which Sarkies has brought the two together to his advantage in the aesthetically-aligned slant of Out of the Blue, one so unlike the preoccupations of several Man Alone films. As Sarkies stated in a Sunday Star Times interview, “There was no desire to take people to a dark place, because the events of the story are so dark anyway. What we were trying to do was offset that through, well, a kind of beauty. The beauty of the place, the beauty of the people’s actions” (Knight 5).

James Bowman concurs. He writes “[…] the salient detail is the one about ‘the last place on earth’” and suggests

Mr. Sarkies’s camera does its best […] to persuade us that the murderous rampage that Gray went on […] was somehow connected with the place where it happened. For a movie containing so much sickening violence, this one has an idyllic appearance and pace. Often, the camera cuts away from its narrative duties to shots of the stark and beautiful New Zealand coastline—sometimes in static aerial shots that seem intended to give us the impression of looking down on the human tragedy from an immense, god-like height. It's an interesting idea, thus, to supply a purely cinematic and passionless perspective on such emotionally harrowing material. (New York Sun n. p.)

Although I agree with Bowman in relation to Sarkies’ use of the natural environment to mitigate much of the horrendous subject matter of Out of the Blue, I also suggest that Sarkies is more concerned with the community than Bowman chooses to acknowledge. Indeed, in all these areas—the slow pacing, the circling amongst various community members going about their day, the ample use of local scenery, and the value that Sarkies places on painting a naturalistic picture of Aramoana and foregrounding the people who live there—there are cinematic links to celebrated New Zealand director Barry Barclay and Ngati (1987), his film about a small Maori community. Ngati has been recognized as a quintessential portrait of Maori life and one that ties into my concluding argument about visions of community for New Zealand (see figure 5).

Adapting Robert Sarkies’ Film Out of the Blue: 
The At-Home and Abroad Reception of a New Zealand Tragedy 
, Thornley, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5

While it is clear that there were distinct cultural and political reasons for Barclay’s concern to include Maori at every stage of producing Ngati, similar concerns regarding representation at both a textual and extra-textual level can be glimpsed in Sarkies and Tetley’s extended and nuanced consultation with the local community. Stuart Murray points out that Barclay’s process “involved a series of complex negotiations with a variety of bodies, and the implementation of a revisionist filmmaking practice, that mark Ngati as a unique instance of film production in New Zealand” (55). Twenty years later, I would argue that Sarkies’ handling of Out of the Blue could be also seen in this light, as a Pakeha approach that utilized many of the same protocols and accorded a similar level of respect to the local Aramoana community as Barclay did with Ngati Porou (the iwi or nation that Ngati features).

In particular, Sarkies’ clear commitment to representing both the beauty of the area and the ‘everydayness’ of the period into which Gray’s violence intruded echoes Murray’s description of the aesthetic highlights of Ngati. These include a mise-en-scene that picks up on the “natural beauty of the East coast setting,” developing “the link between people and place,” and which creates a “politics of image that stresses the contemporaneity of iwi culture” (58). With Sarkies choosing to value these aspects, rather than narrowing the narrative to concentrate only on Gray’s worldview or chart a tried-and-true police procedural format, Out of the Blue has much more in common with Barclay’s earlier vision and political remit than the Man Alone genre it would be easier to categorize this film with. This connection threads through both sets of reviews as well; the comments made by reviewers for Ngati17 are similar to many of those I have already examined for Out of the Blue. Here, I provide just one example: writing in the Australian In Press magazine, Leigh Paatsch stresses the “quiet dignity” of Ngati, the ways in which Barclay “ignores the tight formatting and pacing of modern cinema” (qtd. in Murray 63), connecting the two films at a reception level also.

Sarkies worked to include the community throughout the extended filming process, holding several meetings with the Aramoana community, which were covered by the local media. In the Lumiere Reader DVD Review, Daud writes, “David Gray may have robbed Aramoana of thirteen of its residents, but also managed to strengthen the town’s resolve. Consulting on the script, requesting the change in title, and participating in the censorship process, the residents of Aramoana certainly linger both in and out of the film’s searing frames” (n. p.). Because of this, Out of the Blue’s audiences leave the theatre having seen a story in which the community had extensive, unique collaborative input in bringing it to the screen.18

Daud continues, “[Out of the Blue] also revisits a terrifying moment in New Zealand history with such skill and delicacy that the full horror of David Gray’s rampage seems to have been entirely redefined” (n. p.). This redefinition occurs on both textual (filmic) and extra-textual (reception) levels. Using art cinema techniques, rather than Man Alone signifiers, to tell the Aramoana story simultaneously allows a movement away from a national mythologizing of Gray19 —even if this is a subconscious sentiment—and towards New Zealanders fully understanding what the Aramoana community went through. While this is clearly an admirable goal on Sarkies’ part, I believe that one reason for the low attendance and subsequent failure of many New Zealanders to see the film (and therefore to receive such a message) has to do with the fact that they are used to such material being delivered in a familiar Man Alone format.


Local resistance to Man Alone material being presented in an art-house format occurs not only because many New Zealanders would rather not watch a film about a massacre that occurred in their own country (although this is surely a factor). It could also be that New Zealanders don’t know what to do with the shape of the film that Sarkies has made about such an event. The cinematic coding would be strange to them e.g. Where is the focus on Gray? Where is an explanation of his motives, even more direct tracking of his actions? Where is the initial hostility between the community and Gray? Preceded by films like Bad Blood, a film that spends a third of its narrative detailing the alienation experienced by Stanley Graham, the main character, and his wife versus the local community—or even Smash Palace and Sleeping Dogs, whose narratives resolutely revolved around the Man Alone figure as played by staple actors of the genre like Bruno Lawrence and Sam Neill—national audiences would be expecting a similar situation in Out of the Blue. Instead, a 30 second argument over the location of some rocks around Gray’s shack is all that precipitates the first killing, which is abrupt and unexpected. A narrative that did not unfold as expected may then have further alienated audiences who did in fact decide to face the subject matter of the film.

By treating Out of the Blue’s Man Alone material with techniques usually coded as art cinema, and therefore popular on the international film festival circuit, Sarkies has made a film that speaks more to audiences outside of the country than to those who live in it. However, this is far from being a weakness. I believe this is a productive shift for a number of reasons, as I have outlined. The interaction between the content of the film and the reviews following its release have in this case allowed a necessary fracture to occur, forcing a reconsideration of what kind of film it is possible—and important—to make here, thus also “lend[ing] new dimensions to Hutcheon’s knowing/unknowing binary” (Meikle). Not only does Out of the Blue ask national audiences to change their own perceptions of how such material should be handled, precipitating a greater maturity within New Zealand’s cinema-going public, it also opens up the field of New Zealand’s cinematic exports, showing that it is possible for a small country to make more than just the few genres it has become (perhaps too) well known for. We are capable of much more than only male angst or romantic melodramas, as several recent releases from various national Pacific and Asian communities (among others) have made clear.

Further, I suggest that the model I have outlined here—of films that fall between accepted national genres—can be extended to other, usually smaller, countries to investigate the success (or otherwise) of national films. Out of the Blue’s perceived short-term ‘weakness,’ its shifting aesthetic and thematic markers, may in fact be its long-term strength if it becomes known as a film that allows New Zealand to circumvent the generic restrictions often placed on the cinema of small nations.

But it may take time for national audiences to recognize the importance of Out of the Blue. Tim Wong, in a review titled “Suddenly, Last Summer” from The Lumiere Reader, acknowledges this:

In its distilled, composed articulation of tragedy amidst a prolonged drought of truly courageous local films, Out of the Blue can perhaps[,] in time, be considered something of a watershed in New Zealand cinema. It is far too important to avoid, though may be too painful for some. It is at once paralysing and cathartic. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again.

Finally, I also want to explore Maori filmmaker Merata Mita’s assertion that the national industry surrounding the peak of Man Alone films was (and—if she were still with us—she would probably say, maybe still is) a “white, neurotic one.” Mita states that repression and fear are overriding concerns in a body of films that includes such national cinematic staples as the Man Alone films listed at the start of this article. Mita traces this “notion of the white man or woman at odds with his/her environment, with his/her country and him/herself” to a form of colonial dislocation and unease, an absence as obvious as the presence of “identity, resolution and survival” in films made by Maori (Dennis and Beiringa 47-8). With Sarkies’ film, I want to make a larger argument that the community’s response to this horror is precisely where they lay claim to all three of these attributes. In the community’s reactions, we can see commitment both to the place and to living through this terror.

But I also want to suggest that, in some ways, the wider Pakeha or settler history of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand requires that claiming such attributes will not come without a cost—and it is this cost that Out of the Blue makes most clear through its measured treatment of Gray’s rampage. Mita is referencing Pakeha colonisation as the force Maori have struggled against in their search for these three characteristics, whereas Sarkies’ film recognises that, if there is to be a resolution to our Cinema of Unease, we need to face our own demons. Indeed, our demons—as evidenced by Gray and his actions—are often amongst us.

However, in the final analysis, I believe a film like Out of the Blue can give hope, although that may be the last descriptor most would attach to such subject matter, and clearly not simply at the level of breaking out of nationally-preconceived categories of genre. I say ‘hope’ because although Aramoana is the place where this tragedy happened (and Out of the Blue does not shy from this fact), it is also the place that survived that tragedy. It is, in the end, the place and the people that continue. No one is more aware of this, I would argue, than those who were touched by the events at Aramoana; Sarkies’ film manages to both represent and respect that.  Further, this essay has “acknowledged [the] different but equally tenable attitudes that adaptation audiences can take towards the adaptations they watch […]” (Meikle). When other New Zealanders begin to recognise these shifting “final frames,” when they find themselves more receptive to the important work that a film like Out of the Blue has done (and is still doing)—and this may take decades!—will, I believe, mark a point. This point is one place from which they can begin to work through their own metaphorical struggles with this country’s legacies of colonisation, Men Alone, and our Cinema of Unease: hopefully moving closer to Mita’s prescription for “identity, resolution, and survival.”


1  https://nzhistory.govt.nz/david-gray-kills-13-aramoana

2  The DVD copy of Out of the Blue is accompanied by several auxiliary materials, including a Making Of documentary, The Tragedy and Honouring Aramoana featurettes, cast and crew interviews, audition outtakes, and an audio commentary by Sarkies and O’Brien.

3  This aspect is covered in my topic chapter from my edited collection, True Event Adaptation: Scripting Real Lives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

4  As Jim Leach recognizes in his article on genre and Canadian cinema, national filmmakers have two choices: to either reject Hollywood genres outright or to subvert and deconstruct them (357) by, as Kenneth Marc Harris terms it, “denying the expectations they arouse in viewers saturated by American mass culture” (1). Although Sarkies chose the latter, even filmmakers who choose the former are still making that choice in contradistinction to pre-formed generic conventions.

5  Lynette Read addresses the question of how Ward’s work aligns with others’ in the art cinema ‘canon’ through her Metro article.

6  This paragraph is abridged from the relevant chapter on Out of the Blue in True Event Adaptation: Scripting Real Lives.

7  See my argument employing Hutcheon’s idea of indigenization (cf. above).

8  Dennis Harvey from Variety comments “The random way in which some residents became involved in the tragedy (or were fortunate enough not to) is shown by the script which avoids a traditional dramatic-arc emphasis on particular characters, although two do emerge as nominal leads: policeman Nick Harvey, one of the first on the scene, and Helen Dickson […]” (62).

9  One of the requirements of filming—agreed between Sarkies, Tetley, producer Steven O’Meagher, and the Aramoana community in advance—was that a minimum of (largely scenery) footage would be filmed in the township. All reenactments of the events of November 13 were filmed at Long Beach, a nearby community similar enough in size, layout, and general atmosphere to ‘pass’ for Aramoana (Jackson 8).

10 My thanks to the anonymous reviewer who suggested that the Helen Dickson character can also be seen as a Woman Alone (cf. Benson), given her extraordinarily strong role—particularly for an elderly woman—in Out of the Blue.

11 Jones’ essay even goes so far as to suggest that Bad Blood’s point-of-view elevates Graham over the local community, seeing a kind of tortured justice in his actions. “Inevitably he is set against the community, Man Alone against the pack, and the community does not appear very attractive. Their bumbling, the utter lack of style in those so nicely captured social occasions from which the Grahams feel excluded, small town dances in the hall with the clumsily sweating males with their short-back-and-sides Kiwi sheep-shear haircuts, the awkward dancing, the gossiping women (ladies a plate)—it seems as if these people somehow almost deserve what happens to them, just for being what they are” (311).

12 For example, Baillie, Gray, Greenhough, Nick’s interview with actor Karl Urban, and Wong.

13 Tetley’s memories factored in this aesthetic decision: “My memory of the events was patchy—waking up on the morning of November 14 1990 and finding—how many dead! The TV reports left me with two images—a bits-and-pieces little settlement at the end of nowhere hunkered down in the grass and lupines and rusted corrugated iron: and sheets on a clothes-line on an early summer morning—twisting and flapping near the road and not a soul in sight. Forlorn” (‘Telling’ 24).

14 One of the more prominent differences between Out of the Blue and Bad Blood can be seen in the two films’ use of sound (in the inclusive sense of dialogue/natural sound/sound effects). Bad Blood relies heavily on expositionary dialogue to provide background about Graham, whereas Out of the Blue has minimal references to any events or factors outside of the 24-hour period shown during the film’s plotline. Tetley states, “We wanted to tell the story over the night and day of the massacre and siege. (It was a complex story. It needed focus. We did not want it to unravel. But it meant the back-story could not be easily told.)” (‘Telling’ 24).

15 A correction to Gray’s point is necessary here; Gary Holden is shown being shot, but none of the other murders are portrayed directly.

16 The cache that New Zealand films have built up within the international film festival circuit is tempered by resistant local audiences at home, so much so that national films often premiere and make the rounds overseas (for up to two years in some cases) before being released in New Zealand.

17 I examine a range of critical responses to Ngati in my article, “Indivisible” (2006).

18 As outlined in my chapter in True Event Adaptation (on the film’s adaptive process).

19 The kind of national deification I am thinking of has already occurred in the case of Once Were Warriors’ Jake the Muss (as well as for most of the characters that Bruno Lawrence played during his career) to the extent that a 2012 comedy called Fresh Meat parodies many of Jake the Muss’ lines. Lawrence Jones recognizes this also with Graham’s character in Bad Blood when he writes: “…the feeling-tone of the film finally contributes to the remythologizing [of the Graham story]” (311).

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