A Heraclitean lesson for Te Radar's team
Yesterday, though, Good Morning's pair of schmaltzy hosts found the time to interview Paul Janman about Tongan Ark, the profile of the Tongan intellectual and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu which will premiere on Saturday week at Auckland's International Film Festival. Like the salesmen for shampoos and face lotions who appear so often on Good Morning, Janman was supposed to smile, tell an inane joke or two, and plug his product with a couple of cliched soundbites.
Instead, though, Paul launched into a discussion of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose ideas were one of the inspirations for Helu and his colleagues at Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute. After a few seconds of Paul's discussion, one of the hosts of Good Morning leaned back on his heavily cushioned couch with an expression of bewilderment and pain. You could almost feel his brain hurting, as it tried to deal with the unaccustomed demands of thought.
Heraclitus is hardly a marginal figure in the history of philosophy. Although his writing survives only as a set of tantalising fragments, it has excited scores of important thinkers besides Futa Helu. Heraclitus' view of the universe as a place of constant, uncontrollable change - a perspective summed up in his claim that 'we do not step into the same river twice' - alarmed Aristotle, who wanted to tidy reality into categories and laws, but appealed to revolutionary thinkers like Hegel and Marx. Lenin turned to Heraclitus to try to understand the chaos of the First World War. Gerard Manley Hopkins thought that the Greek's fragments expressed the wildness and grandeur of God. Bob Dylan put Heraclitus' line 'The way up is the way down' into one of his most famous songs. For the Good Morning show, though, which normally associates philosophy with tacky self-help books and the psychobabble of celebrities like Justin Bieber, Heraclitus was strong and strange stuff.
Even after he'd been steered onto other aspects of his film by his panicked hosts, Paul Janman refused to play the normal game of Good Morning interviewees. He talked about Tonga's dramatic recent political history and its place in his film, but declined to offer any pat explanation for events like the 2006 riot which destroyed half of downtown Nuku'alofa. Perhaps hoping for anecdotes from the set of Shortland Street, which has been a refuge for many Kiwi auteurs in need of a fast buck, one of the presenters of Good Morning asked Janman about his experiences "in front of the camera". In reply, Janman explained that he had studied the tradition of street clowning with a Brazilian master of the art, and that he and his teacher had wandered the streets of Auckland disguised as vagrants, putting on shows for the public. Once again, the hosts of Good Morning appeared bewildered.
It is hard not to compare Paul Janman's performance on national television yesterday with some comments left on this blog last week by Peter Bell, the boss of the New Zealand Directors' Guild, a scriptwriter for Shortland Street, and the producer of the just-concluded television series Radar Across the Pacific.
Yes it would be great to do an in-depth programme looking at the issue of colonialism in the pacific. But could you get someone to fund it? Would you get it on at 7:30 pm? I doubt it.
A few hours after Bell made his comments the Cook Islands instalment of Radar Across the Pacific was broadcast. As he pottered about the islands of Rarotonga and Atiu, Te Radar didn't make a single reference to the sixty-four years the Cooks spent as a colony of New Zealand. He didn't mention the attempts by Kiwi administrators to break up customary land titles on the Cooks, to destroy the traditional role of chiefs, and to turn the country into a plantation for palangi capitalists, and he didn't, of course, mention the campaign of resistance that the Cook Islanders waged - a campaign that Dick Scott decribes in his book Years of the Poo-bah.
Paul Janman was one of several commenters who were unimpressed by the self-defence Peter Bell made on this blog. Replying to Bell, Janman complained that:
The worrying thing though is as President of the Screen Director’s Guild, Bell nonetheless seems to be quite unaware of the tropes that he has been wielding in the Radar series. Not only were there omissions but there were also damaging stereotypes. You only need to see the TV Guide front page of Radar in a lei and pretending to play the ukulele in front of a Pacific beach to realise that there is very little serious reflection on the complexities of the contemporary Pacific...The best thing for Bell to do at this point is to acknowledge the errors and damage done, learn and move on...
Janman's refusal to dumb down his act on Good Morning was clearly consistent with his criticisms of Peter Bell last week. But an artist's talk is only as good as their walk, and we have to turn to Tongan Ark to discover Janman's alternative to Bell's sort of documentary.
It seems to me that Tongan Ark's non-linear narrative, uncompromising focus on difficult ideas, and commitment to biculturalism make it a very different beast from Radar Across the Pacific. Peter Bell and Te Radar spent a few days in each of the Pacific islands their series discussed; Janman spent years in Tonga working on his movie. As 'Okusitino Mahina noted when Tongan Ark was previewed late last year, the film's radical use of space and time shows the influence of both Heraclitus and traditional Tongan culture. Where Te Radar steered away from Pacific Islanders who used their own languages instead of English, Janman's film is saturated in Polynesian speech and song.
We should not be surprised if Tongan Ark does win a large audience in New Zealand. Despite Peter Bell's claims, Kiwis have a history of tuning in to documentaries which treat them like thinking adults. Back in the mid-'70s Barry Barclay and Michael King introduced huge numbers of New Zealanders to Maori culture and history for the first time with the television series Tangata Whenua. Barclay's later masterpiece The Feathers of Peace, a feature-length docudrama that told the tragic story of the Moriori people, also won an enthusiastic audience. James Belich's 1999 television series The New Zealand Wars became a hit despite its host's liking for military detail and his refusal to simplify nineteenth century race relations.
One of Heraclitus' most famous fragments says that 'those who seek gold dig up much earth and find little'. Peter Bell could worse than consider Heraclitus' words. By seeking commercial gold at the expense of historical truth and artistic merit he is wasting his time, and doing a disservice to New Zealand television and film audiences.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]