A tribute to John Tristam

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John Tristram was born in New Zealand in 1939. Discovering a love of travel and film making at an early age, he would go on to produce over 100 films and television stories in the Pacific, in addition to many projects in Europe and Australia.

John Tristram was born in New Zealand in 1939. Discovering a love of travel and film making at an early age, he would go on to produce over 100 films and television stories in the Pacific, in addition to many projects in Europe and Australia.

6th December 1939 – 1st June 2016

John Tristram’s professional film making career began in 1970, when he formed Juniper Films with colleague and friend Ian ‘James’ Wilson. By chance John was in Samoa at the time of the first Papal visit to the South Pacific in November that year.  

Recognising an opportunity, John convinced the Bishop of Samoa that Juniper Films should record the Pope’s visit there.

Despite limited resources and experience, Juniper Films sprang into action and successfully produced Listen to our Voice, the historic event documenting Pope Pius VI’s arrival in Western Samoa and Mass at Leulomoega Church.  

When the final film was released it also included a history of the Catholic Mission in Samoa, filmed after the Papal visit. 

This was the beginning of the long and successful Juniper Films partnership, a collaboration between producer John Tristram and director/editor James Wilson, which would result in a significant body of work, particularly in the South Pacific. Over the course of the next four decades, the pair would film in many countries in the region, including remote areas, creating a lasting record of Island cultures at a time of great change.  

After their film making debut, Juniper went on to produce further films in Samoa in the next few years including The Best Kept Secret, which won the major PATA Travel Award in 1971; Samoa I Sisifo, which celebrated the 10th Anniversary of Samoa’s Independence in 1972 and Samoa Diary.

Following on from these film successes, the Governments of Fiji and Tonga commissioned films for their respective countries. All of these films won further major international awards. 

In 1974, Juniper Films moved to London, producing a series of six educational films and film strips in Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Nigeria and the UK for the New Zealand Education Department.

All of these productions received wide non-theatrical and television distribution in Europe, North America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

These films were produced without the standard voice over narrative, instead using only natural sounds, dialogue and music to create the story line. Juniper had similarly avoided voice over in their promotional Pacific destination films, but the technique represented a significant innovation in educational films at the time.

It had required all John’s extensive powers of persuasion to convince the NZ government to take this new approach and proved to be highly successful with schools, while also opening up greater opportunities for international audiences and television. 

Juniper Films returned to Australia in 1982 and began production on a series of one hour television specials focusing on the Arts in Australia.

These films featured the artists Albert Namatjira, Deszo Orban, Jimmy Pike, Charles Blackman, John Coburn, Gordon Bennett, David Boyd and the composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks. In addition, the NSW Government commissioned several more documentaries, including the 1988 Bicentenary film, Behind the Sun for the NSW Ministry of the Arts. 

However John was always determined that Juniper Films would do more projects in the Pacific, and in 1992 he and James Wilson returned as executive producers to work on a series about 10 Pacific Island nations, Ocean of Dreams - Currents of Change, commissioned by the European Union. This was followed by a 13 part series for Australia’s SBS Television, Pacifica: Tales from the South Seas, which enabled Juniper Films to produce 36 short television stories from the Pacific. The series went global with National Geographic and resulted in a follow up series with SBS and the Discovery Channel, Oceania: Tales from SE Asia and the Pacific, now generating more than eighty short stories from the region.

As a producer, John had established a reputation during this time for incredible perseverance in pursuit of goals and an amazing creative energy, constantly planning for the next project. Once he had an idea fixed in his mind he would enlist the help of anyone he could to get things off the ground. He also had a strong moral sense, never hesitating to speak his mind and always ready to offer support when needed. He could be irascible and prone to shouting, but together with James Wilson, built a culture around Juniper Films that generated deep loyalty, life-long friendships and ongoing creative output. 

There is a certain magic in the fact that John’s final project in 2012 was Samoa: The Journey, the film commissioned to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary of Independence, 40 years after he and James had made the 10th anniversary film there in the very early days of their collaboration. 

To the end of his life, John remained passionate about the Pacific and was hopeful that he would return for further projects. As creative producer of Juniper Films for over four decades, he leaves behind a body of work that represents an invaluable film and photography archive on the region, its cultures and traditions. 

John is remembered by all who knew him for his enormous enthusiasm, energy, tenacity, good humour, and loyalty to family, friends and colleagues. He is greatly missed. 


© Samoa Observer 2016

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