IN FOCUS Winter 2018 Issue 77
Waka Attewell on the ways the camera can come between
the film maker and the subject.
It’s not reality TV nor a cooking show, not news or current affairs nor is it blockbuster. It’s made for the small screen and the big screen. It’s inside the weave of who we are as a nation – a certain cohort will simply deem it non-commercial. The work is low budget and it’s made with love and hope and sometimes other people’s spare change; we make it so it finds a life within the world’s festival circuit. This is national cinema.
A few days ago we wrapped on a documentary. Four years since we started ‘Rangi – The Carver’. He’s just had his 81st birthday. The family gathers. We had managed to get a camera and sound kit for this final day (it’ll cost us a bottle of wine from the supermarket when we drop it back). Two fabulous interviews wedged into the backyard to start the day have us crying; it’s Sunday so best we get these in the can before the lawn mowers start.
Then Rangi arrives.
I actually just want to put the camera away and sit quietly with him… listen and just be. The movie making process keeps me from becoming part of the actual event, I’m here but I have that invisible wall the camera creates. I observe and wrestle with the imperfect world of location shooting… technical challenges – I stand back, move forward, look at the back of people’s heads for tell-tale clues that will give me insight to the immediate then, for a moment, the low autumn sun makes it impossible to get an image; living in the now, reacting to the instant; the cake, the singing of happy birthday and now there’s no wide shot available, or the option of doing it again. Then everything is corralled away from me around a just-too-highguard rail, I try not let this annoy me. The tradition of the song, the cutting of the cake… the kids gather for the sugar. Koro cuts out the first slice and smiles and the love flow outwards.
Today I’m also dealing with the audio issues – this is now common practice. The dilemma of a one-man-band, if I put the headphones on I walk into people whilst missing the flow of conversations. So much has shifted and swirled in this whanau since we started filming – 25 years ago was the first time within this family. Departures. Arrivals. Great grandchildren, those on the inner, those on the outer. Rangi is the centre of it all… he says little, he smiles. He is soon off to China – Rangi might send back a photo of an obscure temple with an echo of the ancestors or the edge of a jewel that will prove a connection to his work, he might again mention Taniwha and commerce in the same breath… I was witness to this once, it was a privilege.
This is not the story of a Carver, this is not the story of a lost craft or a man getting old; this is not the story of a young Māori man who 60 years ago wanted to be a doctor but was told he was to be the Carver, no questions – he became that Carver – The Carver – (an audience might ask whom ‘they’ are – it’ll be their problem not the film makers). Nor is this the story of a family relocated to the central North Island after a young nephew is left orphaned by a car wreck. Nor the artist who becomes a prison warden, nor is it about the teacher of many carvers who established the course out of Rotorua that is now many courses. These days the Polytechs and tertiary institutions feel they have the right to buy and sell these courses.
Rangi’s’ course is now owned by an outside institution, bought and sold at the whim of the tertiary cashflow. NZQA quantify it by marking the outcomes and the students pay the fees. This is the modern world of craft? A colonial world.
Is this film perhaps the story of a world we are losing… a story of an indigenous world – this is the same dwindling world of ‘Camera On the Shore’, ‘Kobi’, ‘Patu’, ‘Autumn Fires’, The Neglected Miracle’ …and this is my lost world; this lost worldliness has just not arrived, it has always been this way. 45 years ago the film and TV world felt like it was about a brave new truth, a deep seated purpose was ingrained in the work among a grey New Zealand landscape, every bit of work was hard fought for and the thinking was imbued within the needs and rites of a struggling humanity, a New Zealand trying to find itself? Find its culture? Production for the sake of cash-flow was a mere passing thought – not the commercial imperative it is now – the establishment of profound thinking was paramount …I came to the conclusion early that I was a racist, my family were racists, my extended family racist. The country was racist. I had to somehow break that cycle.
This will be my life’s work.
I now lament the path of the next generation of film makers and their rocky paths to redemption. Already crippled by the demands of a neoliberal world of student debt followed by the ever expanding layers of bureaucracy that must be waded through and all this before an idea has been formed, just add to that commercial demands and you have a perfect storm. Projects become over baked and rules imposed upon them before the funds are released (and you call these the lucky ones?). It never will be easy, it wasn’t for my cohort either. This still appears to be the only path to ‘national cinema’ – possibly this is how it should be – it brings out the best in us – yeah right?
Meanwhile the NZFC announce the new Māori initiative – some of the 41 staff hoping that it’s more than ‘this should-keep-the-natives-quiet’ – let’s pretend we function in a country that doesn’t have skewed expectations and racist institutions; let’s look the other way and be grateful for handouts – all good intentions feel like thinly veiled assimilation – this is how re-colonisation works.
Gratefully we will apply and our completed work might explain the world of Māori living within this country – a sort of report as to how well ‘they’ are doing under the circumstances. We might be eligible for the funding, but there are rules to be imposed, we’ll gather up the crew and other numbers and deduce and account for the percentages – perhaps this will become a NatGeo type observation of the natives from that urban marae out west?
Yet despite all this our film will eventually somehow get completed.
Across town and in the city further north imperialism of the American kind is the job opportunities for youth wanting a career in the movie industry. The crown entity dangles a tax break for this international community – The NZFC proudly display these posters of past
Hollywood success on the walls of their boardroom. This is the reality today of the New Zealand film industry – a bit of international blockbuster, a bit Hollywood studio, local TV and some cultural imperative… this is who we now are.
The grandkids and the family look on. Rangi picks up the chisel for the first time in four years, his hand holding the weathered tool shakes just a little, and then, without pause or hesitation it steadies, he lets the mallet fall and the chisel forms a cut of the most delicate spiral into the wood. His wrist rolls over in perfect balance. This generous act might’ve been for the camera, it might’ve been for the family – it might’ve been for me? …it wasn’t about the carving.