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Vincent Ward ONZM (born 16 February 1956) is a New Zealand film director, screenwriter and artist, who was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 for his contribution to film making. He is best known for his strongly visual and performance-driven feature films as wells as for his ability to create visually striking and magical worlds. His films have received international recognition at both the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival and they are acclaimed for their strong, iconic imagery. The Boston Globe called him "one of film's great image makers", while Roger Ebert, one of America's foremost film critics, hailed him as "a true visionary."

Vincent Ward

Vincent Ward (cropped).jpg
Ward in 2018
Born (1956-02-16) 16 February 1956 (age 63)
Greytown, New Zealand
OccupationFilm director, screenwriter
Years activeSince 1978

Life and careerEdit

Ward was born on 16 February 1956[1] in Greytown, New Zealand. He was educated at St Patrick's College, Silverstream and also trained at Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. While still at art school he began writing and directing films. He began writing and directing films at the age of 18. In 1978–81, he made the documentary In Spring One Plants Alone, which won the 1982 Grand Prix at Cinéma du Réel[2] (Paris), and a Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival. In Spring One Plants Alone provides the starting-point for his later feature Rain of the Children (2008). His debut feature was Vigil (1984).

Ward's films have earned critical acclaim and festival attention whilst reaching an international audience.[citation needed] Vigil, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) and Map of the Human Heart (1993) were the first films by a New Zealander to be officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Between them they garnered close to 30 national and international awards (including the Grand Prix at festivals in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the United States).

A State of SiegeEdit

At the age of 21, in 1978, he shoots A State of Siege, a medium-length film that adapts a novel by his countrywoman Janet Frame. A ghost story that goes with amazing ease from local costumbrismo to the mental torture of the protagonist. Everything in a house of Lynchian style, where the backyard has been devoured by the weeds, the hallways by the darkness and the rooms by the disturbing memory of the deceased mother of the protagonist. The atmosphere will grow in anguish with a soundtrack left to the own noises of the house and nature, while the dialogues will be saved for a terrifying telephone conversation. Even noticing at times the amateur of the shooting and youth of the director, few things so suggestive have been filmed by someone of his age. Ward has described Siege as his first "public" film. At least five predated it. While working towards a Diploma in Fine Arts (with Honours) at Ilam in Christchurch, he'd found his interest drifting from painting and sculpture towards filmmaking and animation.

In Spring One Plants AloneEdit

After graduating, Ward went travelling—not for the last time—searching for inspiration. Keen to learn more about Māori traditions, he ended up at the house of an old Māori woman named Puhi, and her mentally-ill son. Ward stayed on and off for two years. The result of his commitment: award-winning 45-minute documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (1981). This documentary was made over the course of 18 months that lasted the follow-up of the old Māori woman Puhi and her schizophrenic son Niki. Images full of the saturated greens of the New Zealand landscape and the 16 mm, future genesis of Rain of the Children and possibly of all his filmography. The nocturnal sequence, with the camera inside a car that advances illuminating the passage of two ghostly horses to stop just before Niki, made it clear that if something had Ward, was an enviable talent and very particular for the image.


His debut feature-length movie, Vigil (1984), follows "a solitary child who imagines, fantasises and dreams". Partly inspired by Ward's partly rural upbringing in the Wairarapa, it was shot in the Taranaki after exhaustive searches for the right location, and the right person (Fiona Kay) to play the central girl. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey won major awards at both the Australian and New Zealand film industry awards and has a freshness, depth and vitality that keep them alive, well and attracting audiences today.

Childhood, without a doubt, is an important theme in his work, but Ward's approach is far from softness. Vigil' is not Robert Bresson's Mouchette (1967), but there is the same inclination for hardness over the kind things, for the traumatic abandonment of childhood to deal with all the evil. Beginning with sex, death and the recurrent absence (or, if not, conflicting presence) of the father figure. The emblem image of Ward's cinema is found in the faces, in their fusion or contrast with the landscape. In this case in the little girl Toss, always under his father's balaclava, denying the loss, trying to remain under his protection. A face that will later be stripped, not before having been splashed (a circumstance repeated in other Ward films) by the blood of a sheep slaughtered on its arms. Vigil plays brilliantly with the sexual and morphological doubt of puberty as a visual extension of the oedipal: the girl who repels the mother, while seeking to recover the father by a double way: with a male substitute and with the own physical appearance.

The Navigator: A Medieval OdysseyEdit

Ward's planned follow-up was The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1981), which utilises "medieval" blue and orange tones to capture a group of 14th-century Cumbrian villagers after they tunnel through the earth, and find themselves in modern-day Auckland. Ward described the film to The Evening Post as "a muscular adventure story, a quest film"—and also as a collision, a "juxtaposition of two time periods which enables you to see your own time through fresh eyes".

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is perhaps his most famous film. It is not an Eighties youth film, nor an ordinary adventure movie, it is much more audacious. Griffin, the male version of Toss, will look for his brother to the father, and as it could not be otherwise, they will end up facing each other in a medieval and inhospitable Cumbria where austerity, the fantastic component (witches, ghosts, diseases, superstitions), the black and white, the rudimentary of the production and the almost guttural accent of the actors, remind the Scottish neighbour: Macbeth. The relative success of The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, is not enough to chain movies and continues spacing them with an approximate frequency of one per lustrum.

Alien 3Edit

Vincent Ward's Alien 3 was a 1990 script draft for a sequel to Aliens, written by Ward and John Fasano. Ward and Fasano were the fourth and fifth of ten different writers to tackle the Alien 3 project, and their unused script is by far the most famous of those created for the film. It is set on a monastery satellite called Arceon (not to be confused with Acheron), which is largely constructed of wood and crewed by an order of reclusive monks who have rejected all modern technology. Much of the plot and several of the characters from Ward's script were fused with the prison setting from David Twohy's proposed script to form the basis of Alien 3 as it was ultimately made. Ward's screenplay was written after Twohy's proposed script was rejected, and was followed by the first draft of what would become the final shooting script, written by Walter Hill and David Giler.

Map of the Human HeartEdit

Landscape is a strong feature in Ward's work. He has won a reputation for challenging locations. His actors have performed in caves, atop hot air balloons, in chest-deep snow in the Southern Alps, and on Arctic ice floes. The ice floes were first visited by Ward en route to his $20 million third feature, Map of the Human Heart (1993). Ranging from Canada to the skies over World War II Germany, the film charts the ebbs and flows of a relationship between an Inuit boy, a Métis girl and a visiting British cartographer. Screening as a work in progress at Cannes in 1992, it was later nominated for best film at the Australian Film Institute Awards. American critic Roger Ebert praised its unpredictability, sense of adventure—and "two of the most astonishing romantic scenes I've ever seen in a movie".

Map of the Human Heart is a Canadian production that could well have been New Zealander. Ward moves his obsessions to the Arctic Circle, writes himself the story and is deeply involved in the production. Again the isolation, the passage of time (the film covers from 1931 to 1992) and the stifling weight of a tribal tradition subjected to magical thinking. Also the family problems, the projection of the father in a stranger (the cartographer Walter) that will end up exercising the role of traitor. Formula completed here in a double sense when converting the child, over the years, into another lost father. And, above all, there is the stigma of the mestizo in three ways: an Eskimo, an Indian and their future daughter. Ward himself, born of the cultural and religious mixture of a German Jewess and an Irish Catholic, declares himself identified with the figure of the mestizo, so frequent in his films.

What Dreams May ComeEdit

During seven years in and out of Hollywood, Ward developed multiple projects, and took some small acting roles. He signed on to direct What Dreams May Come (1998), after injecting the plot idea that gives the film its unusual painterly look. Released in the United States on 2,600 screens, the tale of a man (Robin Williams) searching for his departed wife in heaven and hell scored mixed reviews, solid box office returns—and a 1999 Academy Award for its special effects. Earlier Ward had been offered Alien 3; his concept of a world ruled by monks was brainstormed on the flight to Los Angeles. Creative differences ultimately saw the film directed by David Fincher, but elements of Ward's storyline were retained.

The Last SamuraiEdit

The 2003 epic, The Last Samurai was a film inspired by a project developed by Ward. The film was in development for nearly four years and after approaching several directors, including Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Weir, he became executive producer. In the end, the job of director went to Edward Zwick.

River QueenEdit

In 2005 he returns to New Zealand and recovers his more immediate history, that of the bloody British colonisation during the second half of the 19th century. All the constants of Ward come back here with greater force, condensed in the "modern" formation of a country with a deep "primitive" root. River Queen (2005) is a film difficult to understand and it understands the coldness or bewilderment that can get to wake up. Not because of the presumed exoticism of the culture portrayed, nor because of the way of filming and showing certain sequences, not even because of the narrative mechanisms employed, as classic as the peripeteia of the trip and the river, but because of the sentimental swing of the protagonists, especially Sarah O'Brien, the Irish colonist played by Samantha Morton. The film won respectable audiences at home, but initial reviews crossed the gamut, and tales of the troubled winter shoot dominated the film's release.

Rain of the ChildrenEdit

Rain of the Children (2008), is perceived as one of those films in which the filmmaker on duty is delivered in a special way, with an absolute sincerity, driven by a pressing need to tell. In addition, it forms a curious triangle with My Winnipeg and Of Time and the City. The three are full of anguish, reflection, fantasy, reality, admiration and ghosts. Fascinating mix of autobiography, fiction and diverse tendencies of the contemporary archive documentary, Rain of the Children is not limited to retaking the story of Puhi and Nikki, who will also do it with images (many unpublished) of the original film. Ward extends it in time, backwards and forwards, using, in other resources, interviews with relatives and acquaintances, and fictional fragments full of charm. A memorable puzzle in which the director himself will act as narrator. The time comes for it to be himself, without intermediaries, who tells us the story. The film has been described as Ward's most personal film to date in which he tells the story of Puhi, an elderly Māori woman who was the subject of his earlier documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (1981). Puhi lived in a remote part of the Urewera Ranges caring for her violent schizophrenic son Niki and Ward recorded their day to day lives in his documentary. Puhi's story and background haunted him for years and in Rain of the Children he brings her to life.

Chosen by the audience from among 250 feature films, Rain of the Children won the Grand Prix at Era New Horizons Film Festival. The film was nominated for best director and won best composer at the Qantas Film and TV Awards in New Zealand. Vincent Ward was also nominated for best director at the Australian Directors Guild Awards[3] for Rain of the Children.

Painting and photographyEdit

In 2010 he published Vincent Ward: The Past Awaits, part mid-career chronicle and part large-format film photo book.[4] The book collects together poignant images from all of his feature films, including Vigil, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, Map of the Human Heart, What Dreams May Come, River Queen and Rain of the Children, as well as earlier films and others developed but never made. Interwoven with the images in The Past Awaits is also a fascinating part-memoir in which he explains why these films were made, and examines the themes that interest and motivate him. "This book is about the search to stay whole through making films, of being inspired by the people I have worked with and made films about, and how by seeing these lives it is perhaps easier to see more clearly into my own." German filmmaker Wim Wenders said:

Magnificent… I don't know if ever a book of pictures and stories moved me so much like Vincent Ward's The Past Awaits. It will go into my suitcase for that lonesome island.

While his fellow New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson said:

To read The Past Awaits is to take a journey, not just into the imagination of Vincent Ward, but into his heart and soul. These images have a power and strength that goes way beyond the context of the film they belong to. They present the spirit of New Zealand.

Ward is actively developing new feature film projects whilst also focusing on public gallery art projects. In an 8-month period he had three solo exhibitions of large-scale painting, print, photographic and cinematic installation work. In 2011 he presented Breath an exhibition of paintings, photographs and cinematic installations at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.[5] This was followed by the 2012 Auckland twin solo exhibitions Inhale and Exhale at the Gus Fisher Gallery and TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, respectively.[6] He launched a third book, Inhale | Exhale, to coincide with his twin Auckland shows (Ron Sang Publishing). His art work is featured throughout its 180 large-format pages. Ward has been invited to the 9th Shanghai Biennale 2012. He was New Zealand's first entrant to the Biennale with one of the very few solo pavilion shows, Auckland Station: Destinies Lost and Found, held in an historic former church[7] on The Bund.[8]

Like his films, Ward's gallery works have a visceral sensibility, relying more on psychic or transcendent states than narrative and dialogue. They often focus on the body in precarious situations (submerged, floating, flying, falling) or transformational moments, which evoke a heightened sense of existence and human vulnerability. These passing moments suggest an intensity of life that is shared by all creatures; as direct, fleeting or fragile as breath.

Cinematic style and themesEdit

Vincent Ward has earned international acclaim as an accomplished filmmaker with a reputation for crafting films with strong performances and a unique visual style. His work with its distinctive visual style, ability to replicate a range of cinematic styles and with its strong performances is considered brand making. His cinema is very immediate, without any artificiality or stageyness, capturing something that's happening at the moment, like the cinéma vérité films that started in the nineteen sixties. His films have a highly selective style which in fact is totally uncharacteristic of cinéma vérité, with its wide-angle lenses and hand-held camera-work which tries to pick things up as they happen.

Landscape features strongly in Ward's work. He likes to film in unlikely locations like caves or cliff faces. His films have regularly won praise overseas for their originality, atmosphere and imagery. He creates these haunting images of characters alone in wild landscapes using an almost documentary filming style, with hand-held camera work, minimalistic music and often uses colour schemes to express emotions. Some of the themes of Vincent Ward's films are: childhood, miscegenation, the problematic family relationship, nature and symbol, curse, isolation, betrayal, the idea of travel, the enunciation of history, tradition against the innovation or intense emotions through colors.

Vincent Ward established himself as a filmmaker of great individuality, intensity, and creativity. His narrative technique is centered on the fundamental importance of the image; he has a painter's eye for capturing arresting, eye-popping visuals. However, all of his films are united not only by their imagery. While he resists categorising himself and his work, Ward did admit in an interview with this writer that "I like to make films that say something about people." Ward's characters are linked in that they consistently are isolated, trapped by the barren, desolate rural environments in which they have come of age. Ward is most interested in examining the manner in which they relate to their surroundings and, even more importantly, how they are touched by the outside world. Clearly, this theme is tied into the filmmaker's own roots in New Zealand, a mostly rural country located at the very bottom of the world.

Ward's work is characterised by innovation, an adventurous approach and a seemingly fearless drive to explore, discover and undertake creative risks to make good films. His films have received international recognition at both the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival and they are acclaimed for their strong, iconic imagery. The Boston Globe called him "one of film's great image makers", while Roger Ebert, one of America's foremost film critics, hailed him as "a true visionary."


Year Title Director Writer Producer Notes
1978 A State of Siege Yes Yes No Short film
1981 In Spring One Plants Alone Yes Yes Yes
1984 Vigil Yes Yes No
1988 The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey Yes Yes No
1992 Alien 3 No story No
1993 Map of the Human Heart Yes Yes Yes
1998 What Dreams May Come Yes No No
2003 The Last Samurai No No executive
2005 River Queen Yes Yes No
2008 Rain of the Children Yes Yes Yes


By Vincent WardEdit

  • The Navigator, A Medieval Odyssey. Screenplay (Faber and Faber: 1989).
  • Edge of the Earth: Stories and Images from the Antipodes (Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1990).
  • The Past Awaits, people, images, film. Large-format, full-colour photographic book of images and stories (published in New Zealand by Craig Potton Publishing, 2010).
  • Inhale | Exhale. Large format. Full color reproductions of Vincent Wards artwork from his 2011–2012 exhibitions (Breath Govett Brewster Art Gallery, Inhale | Exhale Gus Fisher Gallery and Pah Homestead, Auckland Station Shanghai Biennale) (Ron Sang Publications, 2012).

About Vincent WardEdit

  • Making the Transformational Moment in Film: Unleashing the Power of the Image (with the Films of Vincent Ward), by Dan Fleming, (Michael Wiese Productions, 2011).

Awards and honoursEdit

His films have earned critical acclaimed and festival attention.

  • In Spring One Plants Alone won the 1982 Grand Prix at Cinema du Reel (Paris), and a Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival.
  • Vigil, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey and Map of the Human Heart were the first films by a New Zealander to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival. These films earned close to 30 national and international awards (including the Grand Prix at festivals in Italy, Spain, France and the United States). All three films have compelling and powerful performances by child actors.
  • The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey won major awards at both the Australian and New Zealand film industry awards.
  • What Dreams May Come was nominated for two Academy Awards and won the Oscar for best visual effects in 1999.
  • "Rain of the Children won the Grand Prix at Era New Horizons Film Festival. The film was nominated for awards and won at the Qantas Film and TV Awards in New Zealand. Vincent Ward was also nominated for best director at the Australian Directors Guild Awards for "Rain of the Children."


  1. ^ Vincent Ward – Films as director and screenwriter:, Other films:
  2. ^ Les Palmares depuis 1979 – Cinéma du réel Archived 17 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ ADG – Australian Directors Guild
  4. ^ Vincent Ward interviewTVNZ's Good Morning
  5. ^ Byrt, Anthony (7 January 2012). "Vincent Ward: Breath – The Fleeting Intensity of Life review". New Zealand Listener. APN Holdings NZ Ltd. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  6. ^ "Vincent Ward exhibitions". Scoop Independent News – Culture. Scoop Media. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  7. ^ "Art". Vincent Ward. Retrieved 26 October 2014.
  8. ^ "Solo Exhibition at the Shanghai Biennale". Vincent Ward. 2014. Retrieved 26 October 2014.

External linksEdit