The Accidental Author: Collaborative and Sequential Authorship in New Zealand Film Production: The Focus in Discussions of a National Cinema Is Usually on Outstanding Projects; Films Bidding to Be Included in the Canon of Significant National Works Due to Their Popularity with Critics And/or Audiences

By Hardy, Ann | Metro Magazine, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Accidental Author: Collaborative and Sequential Authorship in New Zealand Film Production: The Focus in Discussions of a National Cinema Is Usually on Outstanding Projects; Films Bidding to Be Included in the Canon of Significant National Works Due to Their Popularity with Critics And/or Audiences


Hardy, Ann, Metro Magazine


INDEED, their inclusion is part of the process whereby they become entrenched in cultural memory. It can be useful however, sometimes to look at projects which are more typical of national film industries, in that they were considered unremarkable, even unsuccessful, at the time that they were made. For instance, of thirteen projects given funding by the New Zealand Film Commission and released in 1998 and 1999, only two had New Zealand box office takings which exceeded the Commission's investment and seven took less than $100,000 at local cinemas. (1) Anecdotal evidence suggests that other national industries, including Hollywood, produce more also-rans than hits.

While such projects may not be renowned for breakthroughs in style or for creating records in scale of budget and production, they can nevertheless be rich sites for the investigation of articulations between processes of cultural production and changes in societal attitudes. Since the majority of filmmakers hope their work will resonate with a substantial section of a potential mass audience, the occasions on which the resonance is muted can provide us with another angle for looking at the circumstances which condition the construction, reception and evaluation of meaning. In this instance, the film studied is a low-budget feature, fully funded by the New Zealand Film Commission and released in 1997, called Saving Grace. Not to be confused with a similarly titled British comedy, the Kiwi Saving Grace is about a relationship between an unemployed man (Gerald) claiming to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and a young homeless woman (Grace) who comes to believe him and encourages him to prove his divine nature to the world--with inevitably tragic results. Saving Grace was directed by Costa Botes, a filmmaker with some fifteen years experience writing and directing documentaries and short fiction films for both film and television; he was co-director with Peter Jackson of the 1994 mock-documentary Forgotten Silver and, more recently, resident documentarian on the set of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003).

This film project--followed from the time of pre-production through to distribution and reception--was of interest for two reasons. It was part of a larger investigation into media uses of concepts of religion and spirituality in a millennial environment, an investigation that also followed the production of a television drama. Secondly, it provided a chance to revisit ideas about authorship in the complex circumstances of contemporary media production. In trying to find out why the film offered a construction of religion that was at once intimate, explicit and cynical, it seemed valuable to talk to the people who produced it, asking them about the contexts and interactions which had influenced production.

The Resurgence of Aims about Religion in New Zealand

In the years prior to the millennium, the mainstream New Zealand film and television industries began--after a period of some three decades of comparative disinterest, roughly corresponding to the period in which the secularization of Western societies was considered to be inevitable--to make films and programs about religious and spiritual topics again. Philosophies of spiritual attachment to land and ancestry had previously animated features made by Maori filmmakers (for example Barry Barclay's Ngati [1987] and Te Rua [1991], and Merata Mita's Mauri [1988]) and Vincent Ward had directed several films, including Vigil and The Navigator, which showed evidence of an ambivalent engagement with Catholicism. Otherwise, those making New Zealand films before the mid-1990s had either tended to deal with religious belief in a negative, dismissive mode (The God Boy [Murray Reece, 1976]; Trespasses [Peter Sharp, 1984]; The Quiet Earth [Geoff Murphy, 1985]) or had bypassed plots involving religiosity in favour of stories about gender, ethnicity, various forms of community and national identity. …

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