The Bunkhouse Theatre: A Cinema at the End of the World

After adding up all the hours in my head, I hoped that my destination was going to be worth all of my travels. Three hours on two planes to Invercargill Airport followed by a taxi to the city. Add the hour long bus ride and another hour on a turbulent ferry; I had spent my entire day and personal savings to make a visit to the most southern cinema in New Zealand (and quite possibly in the world). I had heard of the Bunkhouse Theatre several times throughout the year in various conversations with people in the industry; hardly anyone had made the trek, which added a hint of curiosity to my quest. Once I heard of the unique history, location, and marketing tactics of the Bunkhouse Theatre I knew that I needed to make a personal pilgrimage to Stewart Island. I had a personal drive to explore this cinema before my year in New Zealand concluded.

Walking off of the ferry dock and into the tiny village of Oban (the only town located on New Zealand’s “third” island) I knew that the journey had already been worth it. Passing the only pub on the island, I walked down one of the several streets, past the local school, and checked into my hostel. Somehow, the distant island town already seemed familiar to me.

 



 

I ended my day of travel at the local pub where I met Penny and Pete, partners and co-managers of the cinema I came to visit. They could not have been a friendlier couple. Small talk quickly transformed into stories which would crescendo into jokes and after a few hours of smiles and laughs we agreed to reunite in the morning. They couldn’t have set a better tone to welcome me to the island.

 



 

Most of what I had already known about this cinema came from Geoff Lealand’s blog, www.cinemasofnz.info. Geoff explains the unique story and charm of the Stewart Island Bunkhouse Theatre. “After experiencing cinema-going in the North Island and the South Island, you are now able to share the experience on New Zealand’s third island: Rakiura or Stewart Island. Through the sterling efforts of two locals (Pete and Penny), the Bunkhouse Theatre now offers evening entertainment for locals and visitors, to add to the pleasures of the great South Sea Hotel and cafes, or just sitting outdoors and listening to the call of the kiwi.

When I last visited Stewart Island some three years ago, its little cinema was sitting empty–not because of lack of patronage but because of the expense of running it (the cost of electricity on the island is at least five times than on the mainland). But it is back, with the main focus on screenings of a 40 minute locally-made film ‘A Local’s Tail’ over the summer months (October to April) to visitors at scheduled times, or other times for group bookings.

The Bunkhouse is closed during winter, whilst the island hunkers down but once or twice a month during summer they also screen a programme of classics, art house and NZ independent films. These are primarily for residents and there is an intention to show more NZ films. For example, the Show Me Shorts festival will feature in November.”

 



 

The following morning, I awoke to fisherman readying their boats prior to dawn. Being primarily a fishing town, I decided to join the local pace as I went for a nearby nature stroll among the cool morning air. Surrounded by ferns, sea cliffs, and charming birds it was the ideal way to start any day. The island is a nature preserve and attracts many hikers from around the world. The famous New Zealand Kiwi bird populates the island, while white sandy shores and crystal clear ocean water act as a border between Stewart Island and the remainder of the world. At night the stars become dizzying as they dazzle your imagination. All of these natural settings make a 3 day hike around the island tempting for fellow nature lovers and adventures seekers alike.

 


Shots around Stewart Island.


 

After a quick cup of coffee at the local pub/cafe, I strolled on over to visit my friends at the Bunkhouse. I quickly realized that tourism was vital to the island’s one-screen cinema. The Bunkhouse does not have access to a distributor. That is because no mainstream distributor (statistically) trusts that on a seasonal island of 400 locals that a cinema would realistically make a profit. Therefore, Penny and Pete had the ingenuity to produce their own film about the history and beauty of Stewart Island. This 40 minute film is titled “A Local’s Tale” and is comprised of neighborhood photographs, local home videos, and personal stories collected for the community of 400 locals – a true community effort.

Then, there is the star of this film, Lola, who happens to be Penny and Pete’s adorable dog. She is the face of the Bunkhouse and can be found on their postcards, posters, and pamphlets. Lola’s image is even posted on the side of their car which gets driven around the island daily advertising their three daily screenings.

 



 

Every morning, Lola greets visitors to the island as the main ferry pulls alongside the dock. She instantly becomes a local icon and becomes a recognizable comfort to every individual. She is even the poster child when it comes to the films reviews. Located within the lobby are several reviews of “A Local’s Tail” alongside fan photos with Lola. In the dozens of cinemas I have visited, she is the first canine employee I have ever seen. She’s even trained to ring the bell informing patrons that it is time to for the feature presentation.

Besides showing their daily screenings of Lola’s film, the Bunkhouse screens Independent New Zealand films, and the occasional classic film to its locals for weekend entertainment. Another annual favorite of the theatre is the Show Me Shorts Festival, which the locals rave about. If it wasn’t for the patronage and interest of the visiting tourists, realistically, the cinema would not be able to showcase occasional independent feature films for the community.

 



 

After spending the day with Pete, Penny, and Lola (as well as a screening of the film), I sat “Aussie Pete” down for a brief interview for a special segment featuring the Bunkhouse for my documentary. With the extra footage I shot, I asked Penny if she could use a video for their social media pages or website free of charge. She requested a video that simply showcased the atmosphere of the Bunkhouse. I created the video found below as a thank you for their participation in my film and their warm hospitality.

 



 

It’s no wonder that Stewart Island felt familiar to me as soon as I stepped foot onto this distant island. With a friendly dog there to greet you off the boat, hearty locals swapping stories at the pub, and picturesque nature surrounding the community Stewart Island is a mental safe haven and a welcoming escape from the cacophonous life found on the mainland. Oban is a community that is as authentic as they come. The Bunkhouse Theatre will always hold a special place in my heart and I cannot wait to make another trip in the not-to-distant future.

A note if visiting Stewart Island; The Bunkhouse Theatre is a seasonal cinema and only operates in the summer months. For further information, feel free to visit their official website at http://www.bunkhousetheatre.co.nz/.

You can also like their Facebook Page for exciting updates.



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