Do we want to see New Zealand stories in the cinema? Richard Swainson’s recent experiences make him think not

Dr. Richard Swainson runs Hamilton’s last DVD rental store and contributes weekly to the Waikato Times history page.

Years ago, I saw Ian Mune address a class of potential filmmakers at Wintec. Mune was everything you would expect from an icon of New Zealand film, television and theatre. Hard-hitting lessons on the downsides of the creative life were interspersed with anecdotes and pragmatic reflections on a decades-long career as an actor, writer and director.

The students were mostly stunned, either unaware of exactly who Mune was or, knowing full well, overwhelmed by her presence. Seeking to shake them out of this lethargy, towards the end of his presentation he posed a series of semi-rhetorical questions. Chief among them was: “Do you want to see New Zealand stories in the cinema”?

There were affirmative mumbles. Mune himself seemed to me if not in two minds then a bit bruised by the modest box office returns of two or three of his efforts. He was instrumental in establishing the modern New Zealand film industry, co-writing and starring in Sleeping Dogs (1977), was most proud of directing and co-writing Came a Hot Friday (1985 ), one of the country’s most beloved films. films and achieved commercial success with the sequel to Once Were Warriors, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999). Against these was the relatively cold reception given to two projects in which he had personally invested himself, The End of the Golden Weather (1991) and The Whole of the Moon (1997).

READ MORE:
* First look at Rena Owen as Dame Whina Cooper
* TV industry honors Ian Mune with Legend Award
* Actress Miriama McDowell talks about the industry, representing and mentoring Maori talent

TRANSMISSION FILMS

Rena Owen stars in a biopic of pioneering Maori leader Dame Whina Cooper.

Mune’s question remains relevant today. Do we want to see New Zealand stories in the cinema? Two local feature films are currently showing in cinemas, a rarity in itself. Is there an audience for Nude Tuesday (2022) and Whina (2022)?

If you want a literal answer, based on empirical evidence collected by yours truly, I would say no. At the Event Cinema screening of Nude Tuesday at Chartwell – a theater of some magnitude – I was joined by two other punters, both of whom took offense at my inclination to laugh at a comedy. A week later, at a session at the Lido Theater in Whina, the crowd was four in total, strategically spread throughout the space, a great advertisement for Covid-19 caution but far from a box office approval of this Things critic Graeme Tuckett calls it “a moving, heartbreaking and beautifully put together film”.

When I was an RNZ National film critic, I felt compelled to watch and pass judgment on local product. Personally and professionally, it was the right thing to do and I was almost always pleasantly surprised. In the years that followed, if I’m being honest, my attendance went down. Why?

Fear of “cultural cringe” is part of the answer. Yes, I know the insecurity of measuring New Zealand cinema against Hollywood is supposed to be a thing of the past, banished by the undoubted world-class talent of Oscar winners Jane Campion, Sir Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi. Still, I suspect there’s a remnant of that left, especially when it comes to new and untested directors.

Secondly and more significantly, there is a distrust of what I would call “dignified cinema”. The ideological themes that are influential in academic and media circles and are undoubtedly a prerequisite for obtaining highly questionable public funding are not necessarily considered part of popular entertainment. The percentage of us who enjoy being preached to is rather small. Guilt is not ideal for watching on Saturday nights.

When I was a fresh young student at the University of Waikato, a lecturer who was also the Waikato weather film criticism for four decades has offered a simple yet powerful distinction between art and entertainment. The latter, according to Sam Edwards, tends to confirm what we know. Art, on the other hand, challenges beliefs and assumptions.

This concept is useful when dealing with the shortcomings of “worthy cinema”. If all a movie does is confirm what most of us already understand – that, say, racism is wrong or land theft is wrong, with long-term consequences for those who are stolen – it rarely reaches the dizzying heights of excellence. It’s dignified but also obvious and probably a little dull.

In the film Whina, Dame Whina Cooper

Provided

In the film Whina, Dame Whina Cooper “appears as both sinner and saint, at odds with her own communities”, writes Richard Swainson.

Screen biographies – or biopics – are usually the stuff of “worthy cinema”. Hollywood annoyed the world with them in the 1930s, telling stereotypical stories about “great men in history” and showering them with awards. In 1982, he tried to convince us that Gandhi (1982) was a better movie than ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Blade Runner (1982). It was only fleetingly that he realized that sinners tell better stories than saints. Raging Bull (1980), arguably the greatest biopic of all time, is the antithesis of “worthy cinema”.

How might these sightings relate to Whina, the local biopic of Whina Cooper, the famous Maori land rights activist and leader? In terms of audience attendance, I would point to a trailer that spells out a message so inflexible that Western Union could have conveyed it. Stilted, expository dialogue, of the kind deemed necessary in the genre, builds the kind of soulful eloquence that borders on cliché. He shouts dignity and promises nothing else.

The film itself delivers a much more nuanced portrayal of its subject matter. Fortunately, Cooper comes across as both a sinner and a saint, at odds with her diverse communities over the sexism of the time, the rigid restrictions of the Catholic Church, and the cultural protocols she sees as outdated and inhibiting. Ironically, the 1975 hīkoi for which Cooper gained lasting fame in old age and which dramatically structures the narrative is the least interesting element, if only because it is exactly what we expect. Far more compelling is Cooper’s love life, beginning an affair with her second husband as she first died of cancer, then publicly confessing her indiscretion, or her confrontation with a pious and hypocritical old priest who calls the idolatry of native sculpture, or her fall from grace with the Māori Women’s Welfare League for being too dictatorial.

There should be an audience for a movie as good as Whina. It’s not as dignified as you might assume.

New Zealand box office figures released Thursday show Whina raked in $419,235 in one week of release plus previews, while Nude Tuesday managed $115,099 in two.