After the fact, one tends to offer an audience or a readership the meaning behind one's work. Of course, other people, reading into a film what they will, are free to agree or disagree or find other meanings again.
In fact, once a film is finished, the maker becomes audience too, so this is more a reading of my own work than an explication of its inherent meaning. Wake is described in statements as "an experimental film on colonialism, immigration and the family in Aotearoa New Zealand." Its making was a response to the death of my father, an event which ultimately led to my return to New Zealand after a decade in America. Personally, I think it is an exploration of unspoken issues in our household and of my own relationship, as a Pakeha, to this country, both familiar and distant.
On a more political level, I think it tries to reframe Anglo-Pakeha-ness as a 'raced' position as a way of challenging the invisibility of dominant cultural positions, thus contributing to some of the debates around land and resource ownership in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Finally, Wake is almost obssessively about representation - in painting, in travelogue and indeed, in the documentary form itself.
* * *
The decision by my father to emigrate to New Zealand from England in the 1960s naturally had a profound impact on our family. The consequences of our migration, however, were never examined as such and, as my father grew older, I felt that there were questions about his decisions that had never been asked. Perhaps on reflection it is because such questions can only be answered through clichés - 'wanting a better life,' 'for the children,' and so on.
The film tries to argue that the 'decision to emigrate' exceeds individual choice. The greater forces of history, of imperial design, have regularly catapulted people from their birthplaces, through slavery, indenture, imprisonment, exile or 'choice.' This is not to excuse, in the New Zealand instance, the brutality of the colonial settlers, or their descendents, for whom the process was relatively benign and who inflicted the usual line-up of atrocities on the Maori. But more useful than assessing innocence and guilt of a migrant population perhaps, is a historically informed consideration of present relationships between the peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand. Buried in the past but living in the present is the triangulated relationship between empire, colony and indigene which reverberates in all First World colonies.
Politically, the film's attempt at an exploration of Pakeha-ness emerged from my concerns as a participant in this culture, but also from my experiences as a documentary-maker in the United States. I had worked extensively in social and political documentary while away and had become preoccupied with questions of representation and political change. This preoccupation largely stemmed from my experience of producing the Counterterror series, which was a four-part serial documentary that examined how the 'discourse of terrorism' - emerging from government agencies, the media and right-wing academia - repressed political dissent in various communities and countries. During the protracted period of producing Counterterror, I found myself walking that difficult line between trying to examine the oppressive discursive and political structures of 'counterterrorism' without speaking for the communities who were being labelled 'terrorist.' An increasingly rigid discourse of identity politics had emerged within the independent film/video community during the 1980s, rendering it difficult to work on issues or questions that lay outside one's 'direct experience.' Although this focus was undoubtedly a response by some communities to decades of cultural and political exclusion, I saw identity politics as a dead-end, as it seemed to truncate dialogue, deny 'difference within difference,' and induce a guilt that resulted in political apathy. It seems of late, however, that this log-jam is loosening, resulting in a greater discussion of intra-community relationships (often censored because of fears of white racist responses to airing internal community conflicts). More 'white' people too are recognizing the need to examine their own culture rather than appropriate the position of others.
Questions of identity, nationalism, and injustice resonate differently, of course, in Aotearoa New Zealand than in the United States. However, the investigation and re-framing of Pakeha-ness remains important in a culture within which whiteness is positioned as normal and hence is largely invisible. On my return to New Zealand, then, as a way of drawing together my personal and political concerns, I used Wake to examine Pakeha-ness as a raced, historicized position. Since the Maori Renaissance in the 1970s, and the recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi as a founding document, issues of land and resource-ownership have become regular points of contention between the two major cultural groups within Aotearoa New Zealand - Pakeha and Maori. White backlash has reared its head periodically fuelled, I believe, by the fear of a massive Maori landgrab. This backlash has manifest itself both through conservative ballyhoo-ing, but also, along the more liberal spectrum, a claim that Pakeha-ness is the other 'indigenity.'
Both positions I felt to be suspect - the first for obvious reasons in that it is utterly ahistorical, the latter because it ascribes an essentialized position that is defensive. Pakeha do not, after all, have to be 'indigenous' to claim attachments to New Zealand; rather, to acknowledge those attachments as part of an settler status could clarify the context of past and current inequities as well as map out possible future negotiations.
Hence, in Wake, I wanted to rehistoricize Pakeha-ness, point to its migrant aspects, the fundamental uncertainity of the 'settler subject' in such a way to make Pakeha reflect on their own positions in this culture. A greater knowledge of our historical context could only, I felt, clarify our attachments, our inter-relationships, our blindspots. In Wake, then, Maori are the structuring absence, referred to only through Pakeha misrepresentation. Yet I hope that the film is centrally about race relations in this country.
In that the film fits the 'bicultural' model, it could be argued that it, along with official New Zealand policies, renders all 'other New Zealanders' - Asians, Indians, Pacific Islanders - silent. In focussing on dominance, however, I feel that the examination of Pakeha-ness also raises questions about multiculturalism within Aotearoa New Zealand as it struggles through the 1990s.
The film is divided into three sections. The first is an analysis of three landscape paintings by a 'middle-ranking' artist, John Wharlton Bunney. The paintings were commissioned by the New Zealand Company, who used them as a lure to encourage members of the British working-class to emigrate to the colony. This section of Wake suggests that New Zealand was in fact colonized by Britain, not to accrue wealth or resources, but rather to rid the empire of its unwanted classes.
In one version of the film, I used a BBC-style voice-over hoping, through irony, to comment on questions of authority within documentary narration. In initial viewings, however, I found many New Zealand audiences - who have been subject to strictly conventional documentary form - failed to pick up on the irony. Hence, I altered the audio track, choosing instead, a young female voice with a stronger local accent which delivers the analysis in a more casual, conversational manner.
Within the reading of the paintings, I intercut images of travelogue footage from the 1960s to further destabilize documentary technique and its demand that one 'sees' what one is hearing about. These cutaways re-emerge in the third section of the film, and hence function here as a kind of retroactive montage.
The second section of Wake is comprised of fake interviews with three British migrants who supposedly arrived in New Zealand during the early 1960s. They recall why they decided to emigrate, their experience of coming, the clash between their expectations and their perceptions, and their attitude towards Maori. Intercut between the interviews are scenes of 'typical' New Zealand - montages of a netball game and of a suburban building site comprised of newly completed and half-built houses. Fragments of audio excerpts from 1960s advertisements encouraging immigration to New Zealand are woven under these montages.
The juxtaposition of the 'interviews' and the advertisements is meant to highlight the disjuncture between the idealization of the 'perfect migrant family' and the actual lived reality of the experience of migration, which is inevitably transected by gender, sexuality, cultural difference and class. The audience however is aware that the 'lived reality' - the recollections of the three migrants - is delivered through fake interviews. Again, this technique is intended as a commentary on documentary form. I could have constructed the same stories by gathering and carefully editing real interviews. However, I wanted to point to the fine line that exists between fiction and documentary. All documentary, if not exactly fictional, is highly mediated, in a sense a construction of a discourse of reality rather than reality itself.
The third distinct section of Wake is made up of footage that my father shot of the voyage to, and arrival in, New Zealand in 1960. The audio track is a commentary that I wrote and deliver as voiceover, and of an interview that I did with my father about his memories of that period.
* * *
Pictures that move me . . . moving pictures . . . pictures of moving.
I was always curious about this footage. My father shot it in 1960 - it is of people moving, emigrating, from Britain to New Zealand. He shot it with a purpose, to convince my mother who was back in England to move to NZ too.
It must have worked, for we emigrated the following year.
I wanted to restore this film because it will fade and weaken, become brittle with age. But as well as being a restoration I wanted this to be a resurrection for my father recently died.
Caught in the mixture of memory and history are all the questions - the ones I never asked, the ones I feared to ask, the ones I forgot to ask until it was too late, the ones I will ask him now.
* * *
I know I will not see you here, because you were behind the camera. But I see what you chose to focus on. What you shot casually, as a documentation, I will study, scrutinizing not your footage but through your footage to your vision - of a promised land. I asked you about this a few years ago as we looked at this footage together, but it was difficult for us to talk about it.
AG: OK so we can just say that again when we start the film now
RG: We've just said that -
AG: It doesn't matter
RG: Well, you better ask me questions
AG: I will . . What was the name of the boat?
RG: The Athenic
AG: And what year was it?
RG: 1960, when I left for a look at the Antipodes to see if we might want to settle here.
AG: So we were all left at home
RG: Yes, that's captain Hayward
Your fellow passengers sit, drink, talk, play, sleep, in that state of languid restlessness that marks the days at sea, as if suspended between two longings - a longing to leave, and a longing to return. Here, they had satisfied the one, to leave, but have yet to experience the second, the longing to return.
RG: We'd had a terrible winter in Britain. It was the end of the war, we were broke as a country. And there was a lot of despondency around - and people wanted to see what was going on on the other side of the world.
Once they feel your camera upon them, they become more alert, striking poses, smiling, or looking away, as if unwilling to bear the thought of their own image. Some freeze when they see you as if posing for a photograph and I think I see a glimpse of fear that the camera will catch a sudden doubt about their decision to leave England. By now it is too late to go back.
AG: How did most people, most immigrants come over to NZ?
RG: They mostly come over on the immigrant ships, the Captain Cook and other big ships.
AG: And they were given jobs?
RG: They were given free passage virtually as far as I remember.
AG: To provide a labour force really?
RG: More or less, yes.
Literally and figuratively unanchored, this image always unsettles me.
RG: That's Pitcairn Island. Here they come out in their long boats from Adamstown, which is the only port on the island.
Behind the act of travelling, western travelling anyway, is the search for an illusive knowledge of things foreign, a desire to experience the authentic. Objects, mementoes, gifts, prove, like that camera, that one truly was there, somewhere.
RG: There's the flying fish, one of which I took home. God knows what happened to it.
Our wooden flying fish was for a while my childhood toy, its surfces smooth and silky to my touch. Sometimes it found a resting place; other times it ended up in a cupboard. I also remember these woven baskets which would soon fill up with household detritus - cotton, keys, pencils . . .
These gifts fused in my mind with the film Mutiny on the Bounty . . .
"Lay on, Quntal. One, Two"
Flying fish, baskets, Marlon Brando, inextricably linked.
Now repeated with every screening of this very different film, I see the terms under which these gifts were obtained.
The black and white journey feels of an indefinite age, while the arrival, in colour, announces itself. At destination, and in the present, or at least in lived memory. Finally on shore, you lose the passivity of of a sight-seer and become more of a scout.
RG: This was our first shooting session in New Zealand, we called at many ports, disembarked our passengers and just went round the country . . . I don't think the focus is too good here actually.
AG: Did you find your impressions of NZ different than you'd anticipated? Or didn't you really have any?
RG: I didn't have any, I didn't really have any.
Having saved up your color film for the arrival, you set out to capture New Zealand's beauty. But how does one capture a country? The images become boring and ordinary, like postcards or photographs from National Geographic. And why does one capture a view? To possess it vicariously, to control it, to ameliorate the shock of the new. For shocking I'm sure you found it. Not because you were a nature lover particularly but rather that you thought of New Zealand as part of England in a weird geographical position - and it was so different.
RG: Another clever telephoto shot.
Friends of yours appear in almost every frame, pointing at views, gazing at sights, providing a scale from which to measure this strange land, as if it were theirs.
AG: So you showed these to Mum and us when you got back?
AG: Did we have any responses?
RG: Only it looks nice, let's for Godsake go there and get out of this terrible place in the North of England.
You and John Bunney chose the same locations, angles and perspectives. He presented a view he never saw, and you one you were seeing. Taking pictures - capturing the view - getting the picture. His paintings can only copy, while your film is said to be reality, like a window and its view. But you knew, as I do, both of us having lingered behind a camera, selecting some sites and avoiding others, moving people this way and that in the frame, edging them with an image of the mountains or the sea; you knew that this film never presented a simple truth: it showed a version of the truth that you wanted us to see.
AG: So why were you filming this?
RG: Just as an interesting documentary for the family when I got home.
AG: Do you think it did show New Zealand?
RG: Not terribly accurately as it turns out.
Capturing the image, getting the picture - meant taking the land. The promised land at departure becomes the land that was promised on arrival. But this was land already occupied by a people, misrepresented and made absent in paintings, film and official history.
AG: Did you have any contact with the Maori people?
RG: No, virtually none.
A people, too, who have a relationship to this land.
In my attempt to negotiate a history, I stumble through the difficult terrain of cultural difference. Therefore, I will leave it up to one of your images, my favourite in your film, to have the final word - the stern figure intimidates the camera into losing is focus, staring it down. Unlike the other images, it refuses to be taken.
University of Auckland
New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 22 April, 2015