Beyond the shadowplay

ONFILM  December 2009

A devotion to ‘reportage’ can skew the story – see how it warps the weave by throwing a light up against the texture? Sure, it’s the shadows that create the interest but, let’s face it, it’s no way to explore truth, reckons Waka Attewell…


Having lost something is not the same as having it taken.

I’m walking across the rolling green in Raglan and the old women are telling the cameras that they have been wronged; they talk about the ancestors and the recently deceased, they talk about their people who are walking with us now. It’s a hard thing to imagine this manicured meadow was once a place of a larger community.

I’m a wee bit flustered as I’m here on a professional basis and the junior in the scheme of things. My job is to keep the film loaded in the camera – my life is ruled by 10 minute blocks and 25 frames per second.

I have to run to the van to get more film and a small man barks at me that there are club rules and etiquette I must adhere to whilst within these boundaries of sand trap and greens. The game’s a Scottish invention; they call it golf; it’s something to do with anger management.

My shirt’s undone down to the third button; that’s what’s attracted the ire of the club captain. He calls this place “my golf course” – I’m sure the presence of the old kuia out on the fairway is the cause of this personal claim to the property. I should be wearing a tie and stick to the paths, he says – this world of the golf club has rules that must be maintained, just as the government taking land and displacing an entire community is shrugged off as normal wartime practice… but he knows why we are here. The presence of the cameras is not of his making, nor will they point at him: he has told us this.

And then the old woman stops in the middle of the fairway and says, “This is the front door to the meeting house.” We stand in the open void of golfers swishing and yelling “fore”, yet apart from the odd near miss and fleeting glances, we are somehow invisible to them and somehow inappropriate.

I am here; I keep the camera safe; I keep it loaded with film. Meanwhile the old Mäori women are wailing laments for their ancestors, and I must also respect their needs. I must keep the film loaded and rolling. I’m loading like a madman and hoping the camera batteries don’t run flat. The club captain cares little for my dilemma and I briefly stick to the paths until I’m out of his sightline.

The job so far has been exasperating and complex – Mäori don’t trust our cameras or what we will do with the images, yet now we stand transfixed on the fairway and the moko-faced kuia wipes away tears. She explains the way her people and her family lived here until the Second World War, and then the bulldozers came one night; the next day it was an airfield.

My head is reeling with too much information and the camera is again running low on film (10 minutes and two cameras to load). Having lost something is not the same as having it taken – it rings in my ears – I hear the words again and again. I keep the cameras loaded and carry the gear. I’m 19 years old and this is 1974; my head is reeling with the responsibility – it’s almost too much.

We have now recorded this story and there’s no denying that the politics regarding fairness and truth are finally rolling off the hills. Later, back in Wellington and in the edit suite, the producers and the broadcasters will argue its worth and whether it compromises the rest of the series. Back in Kelburn, my flatmates couldn’t give a damn about where I’ve been or what I’ve seen.

An orthodox broadcaster will try and use the argument of balanced reporting to hide behind, but not this time – John O’Shea makes sure of that. The hurt and these truths are played in their entirety a few months later in the Tāngata whenua series. In a nation of one channel and two peoples, Sunday night TV will never be the same.

The footage appearing on the TV will spark the return of the land – it’s not news or current affairs but a documentary that tells a story without overt judgment or bias. A story not complete but enough – it involves people and families. But then, this is the 1970s and this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day; in fact, this might be the first time.

This was a time before the truth is captive to the law and the lawyers. You could sign a deal on the back of an envelope and it would be binding; everyone knew what was up and people honoured their word and expected it from others.

These days I throw myself at the feet of the larger purpose and adjust myself so I stay sane. Back then, I’m just 19 years old and looking at a new world and a new way of thinking and hoping it’s not all true…

The grieving is different – especially if that grieving involves a few hundred years and many generations. These are the stories of our land and our people. I never knew and suddenly I’m understanding the back foot. This is where we live.

There’s a story Charles Dickens once wrote that might not have been published had his editor been of orthodox leanings or had bought into the politics of the day… A small boy asks for more food; he asks for more food so as to live and grow to his potential; so he can live beyond the needs of the ‘capitalists’. It’s a big ask and steeped in complex social issues; a seemingly simple act that has become such an integral part of our literature we don’t think too much more of it. But back then, in 1837, it was possibly as big as a moon landing – kids were sent into slavery, kept skinny to sweep chimneys, and the publishing of this fact went against the grain.

Where are the stories today in which we’re asking for more?

There would be room for a government official in this story of hurt and betrayal and rules and regulations. I’d have him looking over the fence at the filming of the old kuia and at the golfers and I’d direct him to be ‘not too sure of what to do’. Then, speaking directly to the camera, he would explain the rules of golf and the law of the land regarding land issues and how everything in this particular case was done within the law.

He might answer a few questions from an unseen voice off to the left; he might tire of our presence and tell us it’s nothing to do with him or us.

He will conclude that the golfers have rights too and his time for us is up. He will dismiss us with a glance into the lens… only in the end credits you will see he’s an actor.

Barry Barclay always said we have to reach beyond the commentary and the reportage – that this is where the real work lies. I’m only just starting to understand what he meant.

Charles Dickens must have also known this.

There are stories that go deeper, to the core – golf and the rules of gentlemen, an old kuia standing in an invisible doorway, a small tear for the past so the future will know the truth. You’ll find these stories unexpectedly – or do they find you? Their enormity takes on a life of their own.

This country is full of them. It’s something to do with our past. We should be doing something about it.