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December 16th 2006

Filmmaker, photographer and writer, John Feeney, has died in Wellington, aged 84. Born in Ngaruawahia, Feeney saw himself as a ‘river man’ – so to speak – his birthplace and home being between the two rivers, the Waipa and the Waikato.
     At an earlier time, he himself elaborated on this aspect, saying, “Another New Zealand river soon flowed through my life, with the making of one of my  early films, The Legend of the Wanganui River in which my growing love of bush, stream and Maori myth came together. Years later, far from these shores, life’s journey brought me to the greatest river on earth, the Eternal Nile, traversing half the length of Africa”.
    During the war years, Feeney served in the Royal New Zealand Navy from 1941 to 1946, escaping from Singapore, and later, being part of the Invasion of Normandy on D  Day.

     His “Letter from Normandy” which he sent to his family was an account of that great sea-borne invasion. This was the beginning of several years of writing and radio talks in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, which eventually led to his main work in life – the making of films, followed by much written work and still photography, particularly for the Saudi Aramco World magazine. (An early editor of this periodical remarked that “We learned he (Feeney) not only made films but wins prizes with them”.

     He contributed to this publication for some 30 years on subjects of Medieval and contemporary Cairo: The Scents of Egypt, The Circus, The Domes and Minarets, The Shadow Puppets, Tentmakers of Cairo, The Good Things of Cairo, Truffles Galore and many others. One of his last articles in the May/June 2006 issue of  Saudi Aramco World was a looking back to his making of the lengthy documentary, Fountains of the Sun, “An 80 minute masterpiece that tracked the Blue Nile and the White Nile from Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea”. He writes,

            Forty-two years ago, in June, 1964, I and my four-man Egyptian film crew set out from Cairo to capture on film the very last Nile flood that would come to             Egypt. From the moment the flood began in Ethiopia, we followed its progress for 3200 kilometres (2000 miles).This had never been done before, and the Cinemascope feature documentary we produced,“Fountains of the Sun”, became the only filmed record ever made of this event.

     (An interesting addendum to this article states that in 2001, the film was nominated for inclusion in the “Memory of the World” register of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  which regarded it as “one of the most important films about the River Nile . . . showing for the first time on the screen the sources and wonders of the White and Blue Niles).”

     Feeney initially worked with the New Zealand National Film Unit and is remembered for his films: Hot Earth, Pumicelands and The Royal Command Film: Kotuku. Between 1954 and 1963 he directed ten National Film Board of Canada productions. Most of his NFBC films focused on the Canadian Arctic and the Inuit. In 1958 he received his first nomination for an academy Award for Documentary Short Subject with The Living Stone which shows the inspiration often related to belief in the supernatural behind Inuit sculpture. In 1964, he was nominated again for his  Kenojouak (1963) , a groundbreaking look at the work of the Inuit graphic artist.

     After Canada, he arrived in Egypt, in response to an invitation from the then Minister of Culture to make a documentary, intending to stay for one year but staying 40 years, making films. A recent  exhibition in 2005 of 40 Years of Photographing Egypt was not inappropriately called  John Feeney Retrospective. In the words of one observer, the photos “depict the epic grandeur of Egypt”. One of his first exhibitions at The American University in Cairo in 1997 was of Cairo’s Domes, Minarets, and Mashrabiyas.

     Over the years, at home in Cairo, with his faithful helper and friend, Mohummad,  together, they created hundreds of original recipes, set down in his book, The Good Things of Egypt. Egyptian Soups: Hot and Cold appeared / was published in November.

.     New Zealand was John Feeney’s homeland but he was also a Montrealer and a Cairene. France, Egypt and Canada were where much of his life was played out. His achievements extend from the Arctic Circle to Equatorial Africa and his deeds – for him – from the far west in Canada to the far east in New Zealand.

     Much of his writing and correspondence he has donated to the Alexander Turnbull Library and the New Zealand Film Archives has received copies of his films.

     John Feeney is more Egyptian than most, if not all of us. He loved Egypt where he spent most of his life. He enjoyed its sunny and warm weather. He followed the Nile to its origins and captured its very last flood in “Fountains of the Sun”. He toured deserts and oases and searched for desert truffles. He visited  Pharaonic monuments and temples across Egypt. He was an authority on Islamic Cairo. He photographed its mosques, their minarets and their domes. Through his writings he has revived its hammams, its sabils, its mashrabiyas, its citadels and its mausoleums. He liked Egyptian foods and drinks, fruits and vegetables. He developed new recipes for them…….Most of all, he loved ordinary Egyptians and depicted them through the expression on their faces in eloquent photos. He has given Egypt his love, his life, his knowledge and his art . . .


John at his Waikanae home


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