Speaker by Various Artists

Standing Tall on the Low Road

by Matt Nippert

Witi Ihimaera sagely stirs more sugar into a cappuccino. It's clear he's got a knack for augury.

His most recent novel Sky Dancer, written in 2001 and published late last year, has a cocaine-snorting newsreader - preceding the trials of Darren McDonald.

The male lead is named and styled after Schwarzenegger - long before the muscled one added a press gallery to his permanent corps of entertainment reporters.

But his most prescient vision last November came during a discussion about cinema.

"I've got this wicked sort of expectation or hope," he confides in a prophetic ehisper, "that when your article comes out they'll both be up there."

He was, of course, willing that both Whale Rider and Lord of the Rings received nominations for Today's Academy Awards.

Score three from three for the man from Waituhi.

Ihimarea is associate producer for Whale Rider, but more importantly the author of the story on which it is based.

"Niki Caro made a damn fine movie out of my not-so-classic book, and in the process turned it into a classic."

A not-so-classic book? My fifth form teacher would disagree - it was force-fed to our class, for our own good, as part of the English curriculum.

"I wrote Whale Rider in three weeks." Cue jaw dropping: I had to study it for nine.

"A great movie has made a best-seller out of my book."

An international edition of the Whale Rider, translated into Finnish, Swedish, Japanese and German, has since sold more than 60,000 copies - more than quadrupling the number of sales back home.

He raves about director Niki Caro (and not just for the publicity tie-in). Peter Wells, another author whose was work adapted by Caro, (Memory and Desire) gave him some advice before the project began.

"Witi, she's so good, I had to fire myself from the project." Consequentially, Ihimaeara kept well out of the technical minutiae of filming, and emphasises the contrasts between the two 'kiwi' contenders: budgets ($625m versus $10m), shoot length (two years versus eight weeks), and origins.

"They're both New Zealand's, at the extremes. One was shot by a fantastic director - Peter - based on Celtic mythology and a well-known book. The other was shot by Niki Caro, based on Maori mythology, and a not-so-well-known book.

"When you realise that the film was made with that amount of money, with only one camera, sometimes two, with a cast that included only four actors who had ever acted before - and that it looks like that, and
that it tells the story so beautifully - it's just a
huge artistic achievement."

Oscar-nominated Keisha Castle-Hughes was not one of the four, and Ihimaera temains stunned at her achievements. "For that young actress o do what she did, with what? Two months preparation, no background, no nothing. To be able to be directed in such an honest way."

Despite Ihimaera's appreciation of pulp-film ("I'm a closet B-move addict"), the success of Whale Rider is something he attributes to a dearth of human cinema.

"It's something like the death of film: film story has collapsed on itself, it's cannibalising itself, they're all looking the same, telling the same story, have the same characters."

While essentially a fantasy film, Ihimaera sees Whale Rider, and other non-Anglo cinema "taking people to real places rather than film places", taking New Zealand along with them.

"Each one of our films, like each one of our books, creates a greater sense of confidence, a greater sense of international identity.

"I owe [Once Were Warriors] a great deal of thanks for showing that it was possible to make a film in New Zealand and have it transcend its nationality, its ethnicity, the boundary of its location to become an international success.

"The successes that we have in film have transformed the way in which we look at ourselves. Just to show you can be a success in Ekatahuna, and you can also be a success in Los Angeles."

The success of Whale Rider, a wholly indigenous effort, shows "that in New Zealand we can see our own fictions or fantasies, we don't need to do more Lord of the Rings. We can make our own fantasies cleverly enough, and wise enough, if we have the courage."

And courage is indeed needed in New Zealand arts - dreams of commercial success, even for established artists, are more unreal than any far-flung fantasy.

Ihimaera, despite being at the forefront of New Zealand literature and having won three Montana-Watties Book of the Year awards, does not earn enough from writing alone to support himself.

He teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland, full-time, and tries to show his students "the difficulties of life as a professional writer, as well as writing professionally."

Take for instance Sky Dancer. Launched on the back of massive publicity for Whale Rider, it has sold 6,000 copies - a figure publishing director for Penguin Geoff Walker says is "very, very good."

Royalties that flow back to Ihimaera amount to $21,000 - well below the national median income of $28,000.

Walker says there are very few professional novelists in New Zealand. "Goodness, I can only think of a handful. Most augment their writing with other work. They teach, work in universities or work at the corner dairy."

Michael King, eminent historian and editor or author of more than 30 books, said on receiving the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement that "For most of us, if we manage to stay in the business of authorship we just manage to break even. There would be no possibility during my life of putting anything away such as a duperannuation fund."

Creative New Zealand's report 'Portrait of the Artist', released two weeks ago, painted an even more doleful picture. Without the trappings of fame, most New Zealand artists are poor and famished.

The survey of 1010 artists, including authors, reported a median income from $28,000 - almost always from a combination of artistic activity and part or full -time work.

78% wanted to spend more time working on their principal artistic occupation.

Ihimaera laments the tyranny of size that means writing a best-seller in New Zealand will only give a subsistence income - discouragement for the next generation of literary talent.

"Everytime I look at Maurice Gee or Patricia Grace's work, I'm always stunned as to what they've achieved. If they were working overseas, they would not be working. I would not be working. They would be

Still, Ihimaera's not giving up the pen. "It's not a lot of money, so we do it for love, we do it because we have this commitment."

And perhaps poverty breeds purity.

Ihimaera says there is a flipside to a lack of commercial success. "We are people who lead a truthful existence as artists. That should make us feel even more proud of the kinds of texts and the kinds of witness that we make of our society, because we want to do it."

In early May, when the tickertape has been swept away, and hype subsided to long-forgotten hangover, Lord of the Rings and Whale Rider will again be brought together.

FX leviathan Richard Taylor and wizard of the word Ihimaera, will be awarded honorary doctorates courtesy of Victoria University.

Ihimaera (who says he "took nine years of C+'s to get a BA") and Taylor (who only got a place on his design course after someone else dropped out): a patent example of universities and the market being poor talent scouts when it comes to the arts.