Screened as part of NZIFF 2005
It would come as no surprise to anyone who’s met Barry Barclay that he was astonished when, last December, he was named one of the Arts Foundation Laureates.
‘I was gobsmacked, of course,’ he said at the time. ‘I walked about in a daze for a couple of days and then I felt like heading for the toetoe.’
Such modesty, though typical, is misplaced. In a filmmaking career now in its fourth decade, Barclay (Pakeha and Ngati Apa) has stretched the boundaries of the medium, creating a diverse body of work that is original, thought-provoking and strikingly – though never self consciously – indigenous.
In collaboration with a novice historian by the name of Michael King, Barclay made the Tangata Whenua series in 1974, television’s first serious examination of the Maori world; his debut feature Ngati, the first by a Maori director, is still the one I tell people overseas that they should watch first if they haven’t seen a New Zealand film, and it was a fitting tribute that it was the main event on Maori Television’s first night; and The Feathers of Peace in 2000, again standing on the shoulders of King’s work laid to rest the persistent myths about the origins and the fate of the Moriori.
Among the many qualities that make him the prince of our documentary filmmakers is his willingness to invest time in his projects. And The Kaipara Affair, his provocative yet often lyrical examination of the threat posed to the Kaipara Harbour by rapacious commercial fishing and development, is the work of a man who took his time. He lived for almost three years in the small settlement of Tinopai on the harbour’s north side, getting to know the story he wanted to tell and winning the confidence of the people he needed to talk to. And he eases the viewer in slowly, too: we’re 26 minutes into the film before the issue that everyone’s been skirting around is precisely spelt out.
The payoff is remarkable. The Kaipara Affair is a document of urgent importance to a nation still too easily inflamed by the rhetoric of politicians who rail against race-based privilege. It’s a sobering reminder of the damage still be caused to the natural environment by heedless development which seeks to use the hinterland simply as a playground for city-dwellers. It’s a chilling indictment of the ponderousness of a centralised bureaucracy whose protocols demand endless consultation and expert reports when locals are calling for action and leadership. And it’s a timely and lucid reminder of the principles of tino rangitiratanga and the obligations contained in the Treaty of Waitangi.
Like all the best documentaries, The Kaipara Affair has a main character who is irresistibly watchable. Plenty of people, Maori and Pakeha, make it plain that they’ve had their differences with Mikaera Miru over the years – although, interestingly, even his ancient enemies speak in his defence here because of what he is trying to do. We see instantly that he can be pig-headed, rude and unlikeable when he wants to be, but his passion and clarity and his dedication to his mission to save the harbour drag us headlong through the story.
Miru is part of a large ensemble that Barclay has assembled to tell the story. Fisherman, Peter Yardley, whose pudding-bowl-and-mullet hairstyle is one of the film’s more memorable curiosities, takes us on a tour of the harbour – the southern hemisphere’s largest – to give us a sense of the contested resource. He recalls angry waterborne confrontations with commercial fishers while his wife, Christine, remembers sitting at home and wondering whether he’ll return.
Raewyn and Ewen McDonald are late-life newcomers to the area who are keen to become involved but who also are held – and hold themselves – at a slight distance from the argument. Meanwhile, a former fisheries official, Bob Drey, acts as a prime witness for the prosecution of the bureaucracy, and a Canadian who has settled in the area offers northern-hemisphere perspective that is far from comforting. And a cameo appearance near the end by real-estate agent Brian Stutt, gleefully announcing plans for a ‘gated community with a private beach’ is one of the film’s bleakest moments.
The combative style of the mass media, which purports to achieve ‘balance’ simply by recording the opinions of opposing factions, makes Barclay’s approach to his contentious subject matter doubly interesting. He has made no attempt to get the official version out of Wellington, and the way the film narrates its climactic scene, a long-foreshadowed visit by the minister, is very pointed. Thus the film creates a clear picture of the world beyond the Kaipara’s shores by never depicting it. (Significantly, perhaps, the original title was The Governed.) Those who believe in the entirely illusory notion of objectivity may be offended, but Barclay has never been shrill or doctrinaire and he certainly isn’t here. He’s not even making a point, really, so much as allowing the point to make itself.
Much of his story is told by talking heads, but his camera, wielded watchfully by Fred Renata, sets his interlocutors firmly in their context, whether panning past figurines or embroidery or moodily contemplating the endlessly changing sea- and skyscapes. Meanwhile insert examining some of the ideas in Plato’s Republic or listening to the words of an Iraqi poet are telling meditations on, respectively, the nature of leadership and the anguish caused by cultural displacement – which is, in a sense, the film’s primary theme.
With generous funding from TVNZ and New Zealand On Air, The Kaipara Affair will certainly be coming to your small screen sometime, but inevitably cut to 90 minutes to fit into a commercial two hours, not to mention interrupted by advertisements. This 136-minute version is the film as it was made and no one should miss the chance to see it.
I’m not sure whether much toetoe survives on the wild Wairarapa coast where Barclay makes his home these days. But he’ll be busy. When he won the Laureate Award, he said he had ‘ five years worth of project dreams in the pipeline’. We should all be glad of that because nobody else in this country dreams quite the way he does. — Peter Calder