…and we keep the faith

NZTECHO   Winter 2016 – Wide Angle

Cinematographer and general scribe Waka Attewell sends us thoughts on a national cinema, from Otaki.


Remember that moment when you first put on a Walkman and hit the play button… wahoo!! It was like a new world arriving – a brighter, better place. A place where boundless happiness was possible… remember that first time it happened in the cinema? That movie that crashed into the back of your cranium. That movie so profound that it somehow managed to bypass your optical nerve – inserted straight into your soul… well actually, not so much profound, but a 7-year-old did wet his pants from laughing so much in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. You took the track through the park and across the river. Small town New Zealand. A shilling every Saturday matinee would open a new world. One week we were cowboys, the next knights in armour made from Weetbix packets jammed on our heads, a slit to see and chicken feather up on top.

Later, you then get involved in the whole mystery of filmmaking for the love of something that you, at first, can’t quite reach… you hear the expression at film society ‘wonderful cinema’ and you know what it means, but you sort of don’t either… that indefinable thing that just is. You know it when you see it. Yet ‘cinema’ was still this thing that gets done somewhere else… on the far reaches of the planet; you haven’t yet heard the expression ‘national cinema’ and when you do it feels frightening in its possibilities… and then, being from NZ, we assign a government-backed bureaucracy of non-film people to administer the funds, then they get their hands on controlling the scripts… good on ya kiwi…. But like a ‘cargo cult’ you still desire this mystical Hollywood thing to arrive.

The next beat of that story is when it all comes true and you get to work for what you believe is the ultimate of the Holy Grail… ‘they have arrived’… and then you can’t believe what crap looks like when it’s being made with so much wealth. This is raw and takes the edge off. A dagger to the heart. You learn pretty quickly that it is how you deal with disappointment is what actually runs this business. But the desire for ‘national cinema’ burns deep – the desire for something authentic.

But earlier in the story I’d taken my mother along to 2001: A Space Odyssey, not so much to simply watch but more to bear witness with me… I was after answers and the movie offered up more questions every time I viewed it (this was the third for me). Cinerama in Wellington.

Am I thick or something? My fifth-form college brain was not making sense here. The mainstream critics in the USA hated it… it was different. The layers of the story, the jump cuts from before mankind to man in space, the symmetry … ew, this is what making movies is about… making movies? – whatever it was I wanted it… and it took me another 20 years to finally work out what Space Odyssey was actually about… I had to finally read the Arthur C Clarke novel and a Swedish thesis to discover the inner simplicity I was missing.

But, actually, I felt more like the cork in the tide, I haven’t exactly felt that I was in any way part of making the choices in this amazing film journey. The real beginning of this process began with the white-middle-class boy arriving at a place where great and profound thinking was happening in independent television. Arriving in the world of Maori from a high ground of colonial privilege. Knowledge, of a deeper nature – I had lucked a job at Pacific Films.

From the beginning making the decision to make my life as an artist (for want of a better word) was exciting and felt like it could go somewhere, more than just heading up the hill to teachers college or getting a drafting job at the railways… but I didn’t realise it was going to be a constant struggle… then that was an easy mistake to make in the 70s… jobs were falling from the rafters, choices were abound, music was the best thing that happened to radio and leaving home was about chasing that bliss of the new… what could go wrong?

Is it because you get jaded in this film business, when the rush of the new is quickly replaced by the grind of the ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ method of achieving as little as possible and spending as much as you can while the HOD is telling you that they are giving him grief about his budget. I once heard a production manager telling an assistant that is was her job to spend the budget, not try and save it (see what I wrote there by assuming and assigning gender roles?).

But somehow we keep the faith… why is that?

Our local movies did reasonably well, they were yet to join the flash-and-burn mentality over a single weekend, they stayed around a bit and got found by the people that they were made for… six prints would slowly make their way about the countryside… why would you hit the weekend market with 50 prints? This would become the pattern of all movies when the blockbuster mentality hit these shores.

National cinema supported and built a business… the default clause was supporting the cinema business with TV commercials and corporate work.

Today national cinema still just has a tentative grip on the movie business… that is if we make it without a budget, if we bypass the commission, if we beg… get just enough to stay afloat – after all we’re in for the long haul eh? (we convince ourselves). This is while Hollywood sees the less-is-more fiscal reasoning with the idea that less production but bigger budgets get you the bigger bang – or in some cases the bigger flop… national cinema?… bugger off!

It’s not so much about the art and craft but more about the bums on as many seats in as short a time as possible… market the be-Jesus out of crap concepts – yep, they will come. But even now not so many. There is a generation that perceive (and rightfully so) of cinema being irrelevant.

Maybe keeping the faith has its soul still entrenched somewhere in the 80s idealism? – especially when fiscal demands outweighed the need to tell a slightly more accurate story… you might say we were early adopters of a certain politic – left-wing… possibly ethics-based business? I mean I tried mentioning Greenpeace and global warming in 1991. All you got was the blank look of ‘why bother with those troublemakers…’ Save the planet? Wasn’t that what Joni Mitchell did? (Insert gay whale joke here.) Besides, they’d have you believe there’s good money to be made flogging fruit juice with artificial sweetener… there’s nothing wrong with those chemicals… we have the science right here in the small print. Just relax and join the neoliberal revolution… oh, is that what it’s called?… take your fee first before you pay the crew… do I have to be an arsehole with it?

I couldn’t do it.

Risk? The other day a colleague rang to speak about the recent movie The Great Maiden’s Blush: ‘that is not how movies should be made’; ‘they don’t know what they are doing’; ‘the script was badly written’; ‘why make a movie with babies – they are just blobs with no personality?’; ‘too much story, not enough plot’… he never used the word ‘different’…. Also, a person of the new generation rang to exclaim ‘brilliance’ and ‘bliss’ and an ‘emotionally satisfying journey’; ‘something we haven’t seen before’… she said ‘we have raised the bar as film makers’…. She celebrated the challenge that there was more than what film school had to offer. We spoke about following your heart and taking a risk.

It seems today you’re a radical by simply having stood still… never shifting the moral compass. It still might lead to something better … and then out of the blue, a no-budget feature film… A couple of meetings and a read of a script, a meet and greet… I am next on the crew. National cinema or authentic. Whatever. The best thing in 44 years… I’m glad I never lost the faith.