Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Director's cut

Hmmm. Just as Niki Caro’s first big-budget movie opens to very respectable reviews in the United States, the Weekend Herald runs a short piece based on selections from an interview Caro did with Slate.com.

Now, is it just me, or does the Herald’s re-write -- under the headline "Too Many Talented Kiwis Get Little Respect at Home" -- have a rancid whiff of negativity to it?

Reading the original interview over at Slate last week, I quite literally sat up straight with pride. Damn, I thought, we’re so professional when we need to be! Caro's answers are uniformly gracious, direct, and honest, whether she’s fending off the suggestion that talking about sexual harassment is so last century, or whether she’s telling the truth about how it's not necessarily always a hundred percent easy to be a film-maker, in New Zealand or elsewhere.

And the whole article is accompanied by a very hot pic. Caro is totally gorgeous. What’s not to like?

Which is why I choked on my toast when I read the Herald’s version of the same exchange. At first I couldn’t reconcile the entirely opposite vibes of the two different articles, but on reflection it seems the Herald’s trick is two-fold: first, select at most 200 words from a 1350 word piece, and then launch your negative spin in the very first sentence with a particularly charged verb:

Whale Rider director Niki Caro claims a colonial mentality is forcing many talented New Zealanders to fight for recognition.

Oho, she claims, does she? Amazing what you can do with a single word, isn’t it? One might have written that Caro “opines” or “says” or “believes” or “feels,” but no, she “claims” -- and we’re immediately in the realm of tendentiousness, ostentation, falsifiability, bluster.

In newspaperland, only really naughty people “claim” things, and of course they’re usually wrong. It’s no accident that the word invokes disputes, tribunals, and uppity demanding types who set themselves apart from the so-called rest of us with their noisy clamour and their sense of entitlement. Land, paternity, compensation for self-inflicted woes; defendant claims he was only doing 50, your honour. All mere baseless "claims." Y’know?

And spot the other journalese verbs at play here: “fight” and “force.” Are ya ready for a spot of cultural fisticuffs yet? Yeah? Think you can take on a disgruntled talented New Zealander? Huh? Huh? C'mon!

But read on. The snark is also there in the tsk-tsk way the Herald has framed its highly selective quotations. All else is carved away in order to get to grips with third-hand allegations of a “colonial mentality.” So we might reasonably expect a spot of critical analysis. Et voilà, Gray Bartlett is randomly wheeled on to agree -- in somewhat non-sequiturish fashion -- that the arts may well be under-loved compared to, say, rugby.

Ooh, scoop! Hold the front page!

And that’s it. But not before we wrap up with the money quote: Caro’s wistful declaration that she “never had a mentor, but would have liked one.” In the Herald piece, this comes out of nowhere, which gives it the feel of an adolescent argument-ending accusation, along the lines of “And one more thing! You never loved me!”

But in the original article it’s just a "Yeah, I wish!" answer to a direct and very sensible question from Slate’s Pamela Paul: "Have you had a mentor?" Given the vastly disproportionate number of ace New Zealand film-makers with world-class names -- a shortlist would number in the dozens -- it’s a reasonable ask. And a reasonable answer. Who hasn't wished for a fairy godmother or godfather, especially in such a demanding industry? I find it all the more impressive that Caro has achieved what she has without a benevolent hovering spirit. She's a latter-day Colin McKenzie.

What’s truly annoying is that there are real debates buried under this cheap “Our Niki hits big time, slams us, boo hoo” palaver. Like, do we do the mentor thing in New Zealand anyway? If not, should we? And why are we always encouraged to play sports and arts off against each other, as if they’re natural opposites (Black Grace, anyone? Haka? Foreskin’s Lament?) and as if it’s a zero-sum game in the first place? Also, how come we like our heroes world-beating, rather than just locally superb, and then suddenly we don’t like them any more?

Could we maybe talk about some of this? Or shall we just reflexively cut and paste from interviews by inquisitive foreigners? Which, if you think about it, is the real colonial mentality at work in this story.


Nor is this the first time the Herald has pulled this particular move: remember the way they sandbagged Bic Runga last year? Russell blogged it at the time, with a direct link to the original story which has since been safely sealed off behind the Herald's pay-per-view "premium content" wall...


... as, oddly, was the In the women’s mags gossip round-up when I idly clicked on it last Saturday. This is a definition of “premium” of which I was not previously aware. It must have just been a temporary glitch, as you can now read all about Ginger Spice’s sperm donor without cutting an annual cheque for ninety-nine bucks. Oh hooray.

But that freaky link got me thinking: damn, I miss Tapu Misa. Could some clever hacker unlock her from behind the subscription wall and just swap her for the pointless gossip column? A swifty guerilla Checkpoint Charlie manoeuvre that would make it a pleasure to read the Herald again?


Back to the underloved arts: if you’re hanging round the Wellington train station next month and see a bunch of World War II soldiers, US Marines, spunky dames in seamed stockings, and oddly familiar faces behind the camera, be sure to say a warm, arts-lovin’ hello to the crew from Quarter Acre Pictures: Paolo Rotondo, Fraser Brown, and the lovely Gemma Gracewood. With the generous support of the New Zealand Film Commission (love ya!), a couple of dozen marvellous sponsors (you’re so beautiful!), an army of gifted professionals (mwah!), and a vast pool of willing extras (cheers!), they’ll be making a short film called Dead Letters.

It’s based on a short story by a little-known New Zealand writer who is currently working in New Haven, Connecticut. She doesn’t have a mentor, either; just lots of very sweet and helpful artsy friends with boundless energy and a messianic devotion to their respective fields, which is the next best thing. Maybe better.

And she claims it will be the best short film you'll see next year.