…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.

Geoff Murphy: a life on film

Geoff Murphy Stuff pic

NZTECHO   Summer 2015

Waka Attewell reviews and reminisces as he reads Geoff Murphy’s autobiography.


There’s this pub conversation that we’ve been having for more than thirty years that goes something like this: ‘How would you get Pork Pie made today?’ followed by ‘How would you get a Maori film through the Film Commission?’ and ‘Would they (they) let you make Utu today?’ These are uniquely NZ national cinema related and could only occur amongst those folk who care and seriously believe that ‘national cinema’ is a worthy and vital pursuit. So if you can’t get Geoff Murphy to come out to the pub and have that conversation then buy his book instead!

Continue reading “Geoff Murphy: a life on film”

Picking it up where we left off

NZTECHO Autumn 2014 Issue 60 Point of View

Think 1980s’ Top Town and the days when TV shows could bring families and communities together. Despite ongoing commercial challenges we face in this industry, content should still be king writes cinematographer Waka Attewell, or even just sometimes at least.
Cinematographer Waka Attewell has been around long enough to know the turns and roundabouts of the TV & Film industry
Gazing out on the windswept tundra of free-to-air TV and as people stay away from it in droves, it is a hard push to find an argument for devoted viewership. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet some of the best quality TV ever is being created by the likes of HBO and AMC.
Could this not be us we have to ask? The answer is yes it could be us, yet entrenched orthodoxy seems to be still dictating the requirements … more cooking shows anyone?
These death throes of sane TV programming got me thinking. I am fairly certain that my cultural and political awareness was formed in the Pacific Film Unit’s tearooms. I would like to think with taste and good judgement too. The 1970s invited an excuse to fight, we tilted at windmills and believed our opinions and self aggrandizing would make a difference.
Someone came up with the quaint notion of doing all the thinking before the camera came out of the box – this dictum kept things pretty much on track for a few decades. Ridiculous hours and unrealistic schedules didn’t matter, the money was not all that regular but there always seemed to be enough.
With our TV programme making there wasn’t a sense of ‘what does the broadcaster want’ but a sense of ‘what can we offer’ – preferably something that would invoke thought and debate? The film and TV business fitted nicely into the grand plan, with the desire of building something solid and everlasting. A voice of the people-type ideal with community shows like Top Town and Country Calendar ruling the ratings. Little did we realise that the neoliberals were out the back filling the ‘Kool-Aid’ vats with their toxin – we were fiercely ambitious and hopeful and everything seemed possible until the late 1980s crashed and burned.
The notion of ‘just getting by’ was challenged by the commercial imperative that came knocking. It went something like this, you conclude that the way forward is this fancy new corporate model and you studiously obey (stopping just short of commissioning your own ‘mission statement’). Suddenly you are quoting jobs on fast food, fruit juice, fashion and car commercials. You quickly became horrified at the guy you once knew when you catch yourself waxing lyrical in the advertising agency about ‘brand recognition’ and before you know it ‘you’re whisking up a treat’ and nodding sagely along with the discussion about the ‘society we live in’ as you adroitly add to the problem gambling while name dropping ‘demographic’ and pretending to know what ‘appetite appeal’ actually meant. You particularly like the American accent in the room as it makes you feel worldly and while you are having an out-of-body experience you agree to do the three 30-second cut downs gratis. The yank has the economic speak down pat, he talks of ‘risk adverse’ and ‘cheap money’ (actually what he means is cheap people).
The ‘delusions of grandeur’ isn’t so obvious yet as half truth is the new currency. This quickly becomes the new normal as a $10,000 limit on a credit card (you didn’t ask for) arrives in the fast post. The TV channels think it is only about making money, which is quickly followed by formula programme-thinking (a stencil imported from the US) – then the new radical concept of ‘cashflow’ is introduced to the mix (this tends to happen when the banks get involved). Suddenly you are pitching like mad and churning out stuff for the broadcasters they thought they wanted. Old problem here is if you give a broadcaster what they ‘want’ it is usually not what is ‘needed’ – there is an all but brief moment when a tax break makes NZ feature films possible.
We all look back fondly on this time as the ‘national cinema era’. Well that was the last 30 years.
So as the economy heads again for that moment when the proverbial ‘they’ talk up the recovery whilst avoiding the words ‘train wreck’, ‘run away debt’ or ‘fiscally challenged’ – let us spare a thought for when the boom hits and what we want to rebuild and let us be careful with whom we crawl into bed with and gift our craft skills and our finances to. As you already know the final outcome will probably leave you hanging off the debt cliff
while just a few still prosper.
So rather than enslave ourselves again into a service-type role, how about we think of these interesting times as just-interesting-times by firstly resurrecting the wreckage of ‘national cinema’. Then let us make some TV programmes that have a bit of content (if TV don’t want it then stream it on the internet) and get back to the old wisdom of doing the thinking before the camera comes out of the box.

Illustrious Energy


NZTECHO  Issue 51  Summer 2011 Issue 51 The Treatment

Leon Narbey’s master work is rescued and rises – a phoenix from the ashes. Waka Attewell considers meaning,  art and what happens when our cinema history is bought and sold.


It’s the mark of a good movie when you’re still thinking about it a week later – it’s the mark of a great movie when you are still thinking about it after more than 20 years. When you can still recall the details… the cricket in the small box, the two Chinamen’s interior story of digging for an elusive fortune, their isolation, the sense of the advancing world, their previous life, surveyors scribing order into the wilderness, the camera that hung like poetry in the landscape.

Leon Narbey’s Illustrious Energy (1987) is that movie. I first saw Illustrious Energy on the big screen in the 80s when it was briefly released. It got me thinking ‘art’ and ‘history’ are an interesting combination. The outstanding beauty of it threw me for a moment and then I relaxed into the experience and let it wash through me. The unease I felt could have been because it was about us… about something dark in our past, but whatever it was there was simply something raw and compelling about its perfection. There are still moments etched on the back of my retina.

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NZ Film An Illustrated History – a review

th02PJ58TK                   patu

NZ TECHO  Spring 2011 Issue 50 The Treatment


A book shop. I fold my body in from the winter blast; in pride of place is New Zealand FILM – it’s bold and brassy, I go straight to the index. Oh – um err, oh well… I must be amongst the ‘W’s. With an eclectic mix of contributors, the vibrant cover – images are from films by directors of note – says ‘come on in’. The first three images are easy to pick, the last took a bit of research.

Good thing I had the book of New Zealand Film – An Illustrated History to refer to! It’s a New Zealand history book and I’m looking for the ‘national cinema’ bits. You know the sort of thing? Our films. About us. Bruno Lawrence and the black-and-white still on the back cover suggests a time before time – already I feel there is a sense of ‘from here to there’ and I haven’t left  the shop.

It’s a brave soul who speaks the history of anything, as history is an interpretation and a shifting concept. I continue to marvel at the way that the unorthodox becomes orthodox… just give it time. That’s what history has – a lot of time on its hands.

Roger Horrocks’ intro is great stuff – the struggle to make films started more than a 100 years ago, did you know that? Every film student should read this on day one of their course, and then again when they graduate.

The 29th November 1895 is a good place to start this film journey: The very first moving pictures exhibited on Auckland’s Queen Street. Then the wars, travelling cameras shooting local stuff, the beginning of government involvement with the first film censor (1916), the call for a British film quota as the Americans started their domination (1929), regular New Zealand news reels from an Australia Company in 1930’s and the beginnings of the NFU (National Film Unit) in Miramar (1936).

It’s a great read about beginnings, failings and evolving trends. By the middle of the book I’m starting to recognise people and by chapter five we get into Pacific Films and very familiar territory – Morrow Productions and independent films as TV begins. Peach Wymss Astor Productions and TV commercials bring a bit of discipline to the business as a way to establish a cash flow. This is a rich tapestry.

Chapter six anchors the film business in the land, becoming a viable industry with a future. It’s a familiar room – the next two chapters should also be compulsory reading for any film student… It’s got great cross-reference and speaks openly about the tax break years when feature films made money for their investors even when they weren’t released… I’m enjoying the detail. In a country where the right wing are now using the term ‘Maorification’ – what of Maori film history? Suffice to say Maori get a mention, they stare out from the bush in Hollywood expectation of a ‘native’ in an exotic land. In the 50s Maori are assimilated into Pakeha culture as the films of the day suggest the old ways have past and Maori are becoming more Pakeha… After all it’s a history book and the conquering side make it Their History eh, e hoa?

By the time you hit chapter ten Jackson is making box office successes in that matinee style… Kind of like we remember from when we were kids. But New Zealand history? The bookend is the story of Boy and its success in local cinema. Boy’s inability to travel far from the shore is worn like a badge of courage rather than seen as a failure… And between the lines of a marvellous well-researched and written book sits a question: Should we be seeking the blockbuster or looking at our own backyard, making ‘national cinema’? A nerdy kid farted and burped his way into our cinema consciousness… then he took over Hollywood. Who could have known? The Jackson Effect is a perfect chapter for a perfect time, sitting alone. It had to be mentioned, and the large-budget picture is leading the way in computer-generated movies. It’s not about us, really… But it did happen in a country where recently the Actors ask to be included in the wealth, and instead a starstruck Government ignored its own workers to strike a deal that will cost the taxpayer $35m. We wont be writing about that just yet, though…

It takes a bit of time to take the sting off the truth, and besides some of us still have careers to look after? It’s least revealing of the last  30 years, but then again that’s still raw and immediate. You get that with history. The movie business will shift once again (as it seems to do every five years).

Editor Diane Pivac does a great job of setting out the way we do things in this country: a pattern of independence, then government involvement, then crash, and restructure… the pattern repeats up to this day (yet no mention of the recent NZFC ‘review’…) .There’s the assumption that the arrival of Hollywood is a necessity in a country’s movie making development. The wealth of it all secured against a low wage society… Is this what we actually wanted? Ours is an industry where bureaucrats secure careers in arts management with salaries and overseas travel perks, and yet talent still comes from the trenches, where filmmakers camp in their sleeping bags on the floor while ‘arts managers’ lounge in US$400-a-night hotel rooms at Cannes and AFM…
This is the sort of book you might read in one sitting. It’s a great history and nicely handled – even a retired NZFC bureaucrat gets a wee turn – it’s about us folk, how the film business works in a small country and where we fit in the greater world of cinema.

We reclaim recent talent, Jane Campion, Geoff Murphy, Taika Waititi and Len Lye gracing the cover, and this book does it with enormous pride. In a sense it places them back home on the paepae… A profound history and a sense of the journey, beginnings and endings, the pioneers, the delusional and the successes. This book will sit well in the tertiary sector.

For those soldiers lost in action you are actually here, if not by name you’re there between the pages and lines. You’re in the white bits that haven’t been written yet. You’re behind the pictures, holding the reflector or panning the lamp… That’s you – you made it all happen. Personally I think Don’t Let It Get You was the moment that kicked it all off again but then again Sleeping Dogs is what we all remember. I guess my version of film history has little more unease? The index? Not in the ‘A’s either… oh well, life’s like that, eh?

He came from somewhere up in the Valley aka Talent Spotting

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  Winter 2011


A short film. A labour of love. Getting it up and shot has been an immense task for the young director – I reckon 40k has haemorrhaged from his bank account and it isn’t finished. His mates from film school came along for the ride… dead weight in the scheme of things – beaks at the end of the nest – there were 30 of them and only 5 working professionals. Enough said. The film got shot – we’ll leave it at that.

Self funded and the director is cutting it himself – but reason up and left the edit suite some time back and he’s struggling to get an edge on the knife… then in walks the guy from up the way, an Iconic player in the Film and TV business, a Master Editor of no nonsense reputation who calls it what it is.

He’s been known to walk to town. A recent injury makes him swagger but don’t read too much into it. A brave man would think he’s anything other than quietly confident – possibly arrogant? You’d be wise to keep your thoughts to yourself – ‘enlightened selfishness’ was a description a colleague once used. Whatever, you’re left in no doubt about the immediate.

We get down to work. Quietly at first, nothing to scare the horses. Suddenly the room is abuzz! Heaving and bucking – he barks orders from the back then leans forward stabbing his workers fingers at the screen, ‘take 20 frames off the incoming and swap shot three for five and take seven frames off the tail’. It’s coming alive before our eyes – the characters are not actors anymore, suddenly we have a movie morphing before us. The energy pours from the big man and he breaks out in a sweat, then falls back spent. We take a breather.

We talk through the reasons and where this thing is going and what they will think? “and don’t you forget it?” he might have used his finger to point though I couldn’t be sure.

We did two sessions. We let the cut sit over night so we come back with a modicum of fresh eyes. This is story telling at the greater end of the scale – the character’s now have purpose and a reason to be – nothing predictable, nothing by the book – this is dangerous stuff! The director is back at the controls – he tries to slip in a bit of ‘editing by the rules’ – BARP! – wrong! – ‘Leave that crap at the door sonny’. We make it shorter, we make it sing, it gets better and even shorter.

During the location mentoring I thought it had festival potential, though I worried especially about one of the story beats. I was insistent but not insistent enough; we didn’t shoot it – ‘OK, it’s his movie’ – no time anyway, and like most New Zealand movies we shoot the schedule and get out of there. I’m normally pretty good at being able to tell between good and the ordinary film making, but now sitting in the room is the ‘Top Man’ of New Zealand film editing. Respect! – what if he says its crap? So far so good. Yet I see some missing coverage coming up and now we’ve reached the hole – it hurts to put this one through the wringer – its not working and suddenly it is and in a flash we solve the unsolvable. Genius at work. The big man smiles and says ‘yep’ – I’d forgotten how good this gets. Correct process? – to hell with that! Hack the shit out of it, show it who’s boss! We kick it about the walls. Job done!

Meanwhile the SS Escalator shudders away from the jetty in that ‘youth know everything and wisdom is not required’ fashion – secretly a grown up checks the bung. Up on the helm Capt Talent strikes a pose, while in the engine room a few old hands keep the fires stoked knowing full well the life rafts will be launched when the money is all gone – none for them though – above the ever hopeful grunts, who dutifully supplied their trucks and shoe leather, will still be broke at the end of it and looking for TV commercials to pay the mortgage – the Administrators in Wellington take their regular weekly wage.

Then a late night phone call… something’s happened. The director and his mates have shot a few pickup. He’s re-cut that scene… that pivotal scene near the end, the hard won solution to the void. The Icon has watched and walked out citing ‘they don’t need him anymore’. The director is distraught – not being able to tell the good from the bad was mentioned as the Icon left – the ultimate disrespect for the edit was muttered – the kids intervened on protocol and the old fella’s having nothing of it.

Film making at its best and worst and being able to tell is the key. 40 weeks at film school then – HELL! the best lesson yet. Two days in the edit suite watching the master at work and then the swift kick in the gonads – nothing pretty. I had warned him; I feel sick for the kid… but then its all about picking yourself up isn’t it?

They’ve now put it back to nearly how it was… and you know what? that pickup actually works… they ask my opinion of the cut and just for good measure I take 8 frames off the incoming and ‘get that bastard out of there’ – shorter – fade to black – fade up and we’re into the dust settling slow curtain. It’s very good work – I can tell it is.

Pushing peas about the plate

Pushing Peas Illustrator Ian Michael David.jpgONFILM  April 2009

Like the rest of us, Waka Attewell has been doing some pondering about the recently announced review of the New Zealand Film Commission. Unlike most, he’s also prepared to share his thoughts…


I can finally feel the ground shifting – at last, a review of the New Zealand Film Commission. It’s a breath of fresh air – if a review is what Culture & Heritage minister Chris Finlayson actually wants? (Don’t you have to have a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘stoning’ and then an ‘enquiry’ before you have a ‘review’?)

Though you could be forgiven for being a wee bit suspicious of the decision to appoint Peter Jackson – the highest paid director on the planet – as the head of our review. It feels a bit like turning up to the PTA meeting to find Helen Clark is now on the board and she says “just treat me as normal”.

To some it’s a perfect choice, but there’s mutterings in the ranks that it might be a smoke screen?

My heart sinks at the thought of a ‘white wash’ as I dribble down my straight jacket – a single strand of spit hangs like a doubt.

A series of images form, mostly the faces of past ineptitude: I relive the years of international markets and those patronizing, grinning faces during those humiliating script meetings; memories of work diligently submitted to the bureaucratic void only to be told there’s a spelling mistake on page nine of my screenplay (an observation presented as a moment of revelation and insight); those courses they invented to tell us what we already knew that we dutifully attended and then pretended the keynote was insightful, all the while knowing full well the roll call of attendance was what would really make us eligible for the funding that would be eked out – if we supplied the correctly ordered paperwork; then later being told there was now more paperwork but that the escalating compliance requirements “weren’t personal”.


Who can make New Zealand movies? New Zealanders can, just like the Brits can make British films, the Spaniards Spanish films, and so on – you get the idea – it’s called ‘National Cinema’. The inhabitants of Hollywood sometimes try to get in on the act and mostly fail. And while everyone can make Hollywood movies (have you rented lately?), not everyone can be uniquely Inuit or Mäori or Bogan or Italian, with the unique perspective this entails. Hollywood is BIG BUSINESS: its wants and needs are attuned to the success of the ‘Blockbuster’, and its mere presence is capable of swamping a local film industry.

Who knows, this review might just come down to two simple concepts and choices: ‘Blockbuster’ versus ‘National Cinema’. One is the road to wealth and success and celebrity, loitering on red carpets and with leggy blondes. The other is… well… um… an expensive hobby and a rocky road to the poor house. And now you want me to choose? Hold that thought, and I’ll get right back to it.

Hell, I’ve done my fair share of work for the Yank invasion, and loved it – I’ve worked with the likes of Jon Voight, Tyne Daley and Shelley Duvall (to name a few), I’ve hung out in seedy bars with Eddie Albert Jnr and Harry Dean Stanton – and even without the celebrity bonding, the work was both creatively and fiscally rewarding. But let’s be clear about what this sort of work is: it’s ‘service work’ – it serves a larger purpose and that larger purpose is Hollywood and its endless appetite for ‘Blockbuster’ movies that fit into the multiplex system and sell lots of merchandise and popcorn. It’s HUGE business and its got a local franchise that we’ve even given a pet name: Wellywood.

‘National Cinema’, meanwhile, is about here and about us, it’s grounded in the earth – we stand with it and upon it – it’s our stories, who we are and where we’re going.

Beyond that, though, defining ‘National Cinema’ is a tricky business, and I’m certainly not going to – but that’s the beauty of it; hell, it might be about the mist, but then again it might be about a love affair between a colonial solider and a Mäori slave, or a deeply compassionate story about a guy in a crib who shoots up the remote community he lives in.

Thirty years down the track with the NZFC, we still don’t have a real clue about what we were trying to achieve – have we all been pretenders in this? We have tried to fulfill their brief with meaning and yet the voice of ‘National Cinema’ is still as muffled as ever. And maybe it’s just as well – somewhere down in the depths of those murky waters there just may be a magical fish swimming about, avoiding all our efforts to capture it. Chances are that if it were finally hooked and reeled in, the NZFC would convene a seminar to study it, during which it would writhe for the briefest of moments, gasping and staring bug eyed at the curious onlookers before being gutted, filleted, skinned, stuffed and mounted, in order that it could be admired by visitors to the boardroom,

So, a review? How might that work? Maybe Peter Jackson is capable of two miracles? The second would be steering this review to a worthwhile ‘outcome’ – the world-first of a bureaucracy that sticks to and serves the needs of its constituents (i.e. the NZ film community) instead of focusing on its own survival – while the first, of course, was that while we’ve been bitching and pushing each other out of the way and cursing the management of the NZFC, just over there (through the tunnel and through the cutting) – Peter has been busy achieving the apparently impossible. Now, from the distant shores of New Zealand, he controls a large chunk of Hollywood; he is creating and making buckets of money with maybe more output than our entire meat and wool industry; he is a one-man global phenomena.

Which kinda begs the question: why would Peter Jackson bother with sorting out a government department that spends less than his weekly lunch money if there wasn’t something in it for him?

I have to be cautious now, as I suggest that Peter will be totally hopeless for this review job for the simple fact that he’s not attached to our ‘National Cinema’ any more (plus, there might be a slight fiscal conflict of interest here), or I’ll be spending the rest of my life behind the pillar in the pub.

This is a serious time of debate – us ‘grunts’ here on the ground should be sorting this out, us folk on the paepae – but I’ll leave the detail of this part to the pub later, where some will be avoiding me (in case I get hit by lighting) and others will only acknowledge me when I’m standing behind the pillar. “There he is,” they’ll point, “the guy who used hopeless and Peter Jackson in the same sentence.”

The film business is all about being connected and who you know and not rocking the boat – unless you’re totally famous, then rocking the boat becomes an art form. Which brings me to another point: the Government is possibly star struck and just wants to rub shoulders with Peter… “Fix the Film Commission and years of shenanigans” – did they put it like that? Hell no! But hopefully this is about more than a photo op and a chance to feel the star dust. (“Take those brothel creepers off and feel the red carpet,” he says, “there’s nothing in it for me.”)

So why the PR coup, and why this chap from that other place [David Court, the head of Screen Business at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School] to help sort out what most of us local practitioners already know?

Already know…? Well, I’m not going to blurt out the solution right here, am I – that would be too easy – I mean, what about the expense account, the flights between here and there and the endless meetings and drafts of the report and the media conferences where questions are not so much answered as alluded to? Hell no, I’m not going to miss out on any of that… and besides, I have a job to justify… and I’ve seen the odd flick in my time, so that makes me an expert. Hey, where’s my NZFC job? I can start yesterday. The broom sweeps clean.


So what went before us that we can hold up as a trophy? Goodbye Pork Pie – a classic ‘National Cinema’ piece, and I believe it made its money back. Peter’s own Heavenly Creatures. Then there’s Barry Barclay with Ngati and Te Rua and The Feathers of Peace, and Leon Narbey’s Illustrious Energy – important New Zealand films in my reckoning. Box office successes? No… but important? Yes!

These movies will earn their place in history; eventually they’ll be recognised as loud and vibrant voices in our ‘National Cinema’ canon.

And it’s hard not to push a bit of history around the plate while contemplating the notion that ‘National Cinema’ is vital to the wellbeing of a community. I believe it’s a vital and necessary vent – I come from a strong history of navel-gazers and outspoken activists – the big kahuna for me was the late John O’Shea, who was more intent on looking over the fence to the neighbours than heading to lands exotic… The interior of the Ureweras and the rugged coastline of Ngati Porou country was our true backlot, and the stories to be told were important to the holistic health of the nation. In the early days the Film Commission was our baby – but within a few years even John was gradually pushed away from the warmth and light of the fire we’d gathered around to tell stories in order to make room for the staff and managers so they could keep an eye on things and, well, you know how it goes, manage us.

Sorry but I’m making this ‘National Cinema’ sound like a bit of a chore, a worthy task that must be upheld in the most earnest way – that is not my intention.

Look, I might be completely wrong and Peter may want to re-engage with the local biz – and, since we’re obviously incapable of conducting our own review, maybe this Aussie bloke might already have the answer with the two tier financial system they have over there. Their system isn’t perfect but then what is? One tier is sort of a bank and the other isn’t; one heads down the ‘Blockbuster’ road and the other heads down the Rabbit Proof Fence track and the two may met somewhere in the twain. And that’s not to say that a RPF may not become a blockbuster but at least it had a gestation beyond “What will they think in the Midwest?” I mean, “What will they think in Taihape?” is still a valid reason to make a movie.

Though you have to wonder: if the Aussies do have the answer, why did they import the ex-NZFC CEO to fix their industry? – You might find Geoff Murphy behind that darkened pillar with me, but for different reasons. I’m just a beginner when it come to cheap shots – hell, he goes for the major neck wound when suggesting that, if the NZFC mandate was to make money, then we should be producing porn… “Porn makes money!” he barked out at a ‘review’ meeting some time back.

Peter Jackson has a colourful history with the NZFC – he broke the rules and Jim Booth, the Commission’s CEO, went out the door with the little guy and his little movie, which is now a part of our larger film history – RIP Jim. They’re shifting the furniture around the lifeboats again, could be a storm brewing.

Is this review merely a bit of a tidy up with obvious PR in place? Are we going to then have another 30 years of wandering in the wilderness in search of the lost platoon? How about we all put our submissions on the Onfilm website so we can see what everyone else is thinking? What use is secrecy and hidden agenda at time like this?

So when the review has spent their breath and done the final spellcheck, what is Peter going to recommend? That the NZFC gets a massive budget hike while it lowers staff numbers?

A PR coup can sometimes backfire.


(Illustration by Ian Michael David)