Go Ape! the Identity of New Zealand Filmmaking Post-Rings

By Jones, Stan | Metro Magazine, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Go Ape! the Identity of New Zealand Filmmaking Post-Rings


Jones, Stan, Metro Magazine


'this lucky land on a shrinking globe ...' (1) 'In this climate, any discussion of New Zealand film must be characterized by all kinds of qualifications, reservations and ambiguity.' (2)

IN 2000, the newly minted Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, published a short article in the country's biggest daily, The New Zealand Herald. Ms Clark had already made it widely known that she was also the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage (http://www.mch.govt. nz), thus throwing the authority of the top job behind a second-tier ministry. Why? Her specific references to filmmaking made it quite clear:

The Film Industry, as the Lord of the Rings project is proving, can be a major creator of new jobs and opportunities. The Government investment in the film industry has huge potential to boost jobs and opportunities, and to make a significant contribution to the economy and export earnings.

But if we really want this industry to grow--and we really do--we need to be hardnosed about the kind of productions that will attract overseas support. The Film Production Fund, in which the Government is investing $22 million, will not be constrained, as the film commission is, by the need to balance commercial and cultural imperatives. It can focus on the commercial objectives--and we can all reap the benefits in terms of greater economic activity and jobs. (3)

In the geopolitics and geo-economics of filmmaking as manifested in this country, the dualism of industry and 'ecology' behind state involvement, as in all of the arts and culture, is familiar, although here it is very much slanted towards the industrial/economic perspective. Still, the sight of eleven Oscars in one hit for LOTR and the undeniable spin-off benefits for tourism and general image may well have justified the New Zealand state underwriting the project through its tax break. Yet has the Big One produced in filmmaking, as elsewhere in New Zealand, nothing more than a 'Frodo economy', a brief brushfire, which makes sinking back into the familiar vicissitudes of screen production all the more tenebrous? (4) This survey looks at what might be called the 'film culture' of this place as a major element in its creative or cultural industries. Petersen and Anand define these as: 'six facets of production (technology, law and regulation, industry structure, organization structure, occupational careers, and market)'. (5)

The politics of New Zealand's cultural identity and reputation surfaced again a few years later, when a Herald reader took on the PM and her lauding of Brad McGann's In My Father's Den (2004):

While artistically I have no issue with the film I do object to the taxpayer-funded image of our country that this portrays to the world. Is small-town rural New Zealand all filled with drug-taking youths, drunken rapists, dispirited and dysfunctional people with destructive relationships?

... Is this the real New Zealand our Prime Minister seems so happy to live with, or is it merely artistic license that she so happily endorses at the expense of the majority of decent Kiwis and the tourism industry? (6)

The writer confuses the PM's taste with the subject matter of the film and then takes up one of the basic stances of politicians (which also informs the PM's authority in her views and practical measures): namely, he deems himself the representative voice of a majority; one that is, by implication, national in the sense of a sort of imagined critical community of Kiwis, who have not merely a cultural and aesthetic claim on their country's filmmaking, but also an economic one. However we might view this 'majority', such a public declaration implies strongly that New Zealanders take notice of filmmaking in and about this country, and care how it identifies them. If you look at the letter dialectically, it perhaps carries a further implication, which can actually be seen as supporting the PM's view: it is a good thing to have local, national filmmaking, to propagate the image of New Zealand, even though some manifestations of it might turn out to be candidates for Sam Neill's 'Cinema of Unease'.

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