Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Heraclitean lesson for Te Radar's team

TV One's Good Morning show had never seen anything quite like it. Good Morning screens on weekdays between nine o'clock and noon, and tends to be dominated by infomercials for skin and hair products, earnest panel discussions about the latest career moves of cultural icons like Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton, and carefully rehearsed 'jam sessions' by light jazz bands that look like they earn their living noodling in the bars and restaurants of cruise ships.

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.
Bell had been drawn to this blog by the posts I'd made describing the factual errors, oversights, and racist cliches which were a part of every episode of Radar Across the Pacific. But Bell wasn't interested in rebutting any of my charges against the show and its presenter, the comedian Te Radar. Instead of denying the faults of the series he produced, he argued that they were all that could be expected, given the severe demands which television imposes upon documentary makers. It was simply not possible, Bell insisted, for Radar Across the Pacific to tell the true story of New Zealand's interference in societies like Samoa and Kiribati in any detail, or to avoid cliches about happy-go-lucky Islanders:

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.
Te Radar did, however, find time to complain about the 'appalling' corruption of the Cooks' post-independence governments, and to suggest that the country is not capable of looking after all of its own affairs. Te Radar and Pter Bell might as well have made a documentary about the problems of contemporary South Africa which avoided all references to the apartheid era.

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.
According to Peter Bell's logic, Tongan Ark should be unpalatable to New Zealand audiences. But Paul Janman's constant appearances in the media suggest that a mood of excitement is building ahead of the film's premiere. By contrast, Radar Across the Pacific has had a tepid reception, despite the prime time slot Peter Bell won for it on TV One. The few reviews that the series has won have tended to focus on Te Radar's crop of ginger hair, rather than the places he visited.

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

if your so opposd to television why not BOYCOTT it???

7:19 pm  
Anonymous Nathaniel said...

I think a key part of this discourse is how the really pernicious messages (about things like self-governance) in supposedly apolitical comedy shows are just there because the show isn't as deep as a multi-episode documentary. Yet it would be possible to make sharp jokes about British-New Zealand colonialism and its effects in the Pacific, along with settler culture in general. For example, much of the popular knowledge of a subversive history of the United States comes from African-American comedians and comedians from other oppressed backgrounds and even white male comedians like Louis CK who use this material. The choice isn't necessarily between dry academic documentary and funny travelogue.

Connected to that and exploring these topics in different genres and media, I wanted to share Dog Eat Dog, a game about colonialism in the Pacific, with you, since years ago I noticed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying in a list of poll choices on this blog and discussed it with you a bit. I remember you mentioning how one thing that turned you off of it was a player who seemed to prefer living in that world and not New Zealand. Well, this game is much more closely connected to modern New Zealand, although to be clear it's a more "indie-ish" game than WFRP, of course.

11:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

" Anonymous said...

if your so opposd to television why not BOYCOTT it??? "

Or why not, if the television and the economic-political system is what "we" are opposed and not television as such (just bad television); so then why not radically change it all, even to the extent of seizing the means of production (all the big industries, big department stores, supermarkets, banks, the power systems, water everything owned by very rich capitalist parasites), decapitating the hugely overpaid "bosses" as they did in the French Revolution (and there were a few revolutions and wars in Ancient Greece also!), and others who are parasitic, and running a people's world and thus we can get rid of adverts and poor quality television and radio, and get a good life, and learn to get new cultural-technical ideas from others such as those in Tonga, and get a culture that doesn't insult us all?

Say we reverse, in an un-satiric way, the bitter gist of Swift's "a Modest Proposal"?

That is, all that technology and money (now wasted) belongs to the people, and we would use it well.

2:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter Bell is a powerful man.
Paul Janman may have troble making another film soon!

8:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Far more people follow Good Morning than wil ever follow your arty farty lies. 30,000 people follow the show on facebook!

And oh no people actually like TV which is fun! Stop the world! It should be really intellectual and impossible to enjoy!


11:06 am  
Anonymous Te Radar said...

I think your criticism of my show is hugely unfair. Remember this is prime time television, not TVNZ7. And one cannot step into many rivers at the same time...

I appreciate your interest, though, and I humbly accept that the history of the entire Pacific has not been covered. That would be absurd.

6:19 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

"I think your criticism of my show is hugely unfair."

Criticism can't be unfair it is either valid (to various degrees) or invalid.

The cry of "unfair" is just another cliche trundled out. It is an evasion.

Have a careful look at that criticism and do better next next time, if it seems to be valid enough. Where is it not pertinent? and so on, are some of the kind of questions you need to ask.

Adolescents and children, or all those hopeless wingers and losers on that pathetic show "Fair Go", continually squabble about whether things are fair or not.

6:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Te Radar should invest in a library card before he makes his next series.

8:54 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

HI - Peter Bell here again. I've just been talking with Radar and he is rather disgusted that someone has commented on this blog pretending to be him!

So the comment below was NOT made by the real Te Radar.
"Te Radar said...
I think your criticism of my show is hugely unfair. Remember this is prime time television, not TVNZ7. And one cannot step into many rivers at the same time...

I appreciate your interest, though, and I humbly accept that the history of the entire Pacific has not been covered. That would be absurd."

Radar (the real one) asks that this please be removed by the person who posted. Thanks

4:30 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just a last comment about your blog. I understand that it is your personal comments and that you have an agenda desperate to spin your own view but I will comment on some of the b/s that you've written:

"According to Peter Bell's logic, Tongan Ark should be unpalatable to New Zealand audiences."
My "logic" was that it would be hard to find a primetime slot for very serious political documentaries. I wrote nothing about whether these were palatable or unpalatable to NZ audiences. I just appear to understand the realities of commercial television a little better than the writer.

"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"
Not my claims - these are your views. I have worked hard to get NZ on Air to keep trying to persuade the commercial networks in NZ to support such projects. I'm surprised you didn't know this as you claim to know all sorts of things about me - but I guess that just didn't suit your spin doctoring. Your talents are wasted here - you should get a job for the tobacco lobby. Good luck with your next spin cycle!

4:48 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Hi Peter,

I do much appreciate your efforts on behalf of Directors' cultural and economic rights. I mentioned this in a previous post. I also apologised for my hotheaded response to your attitude in the previous forum.

Having experienced a bit of the television scene this week while promoting Tongan Ark (the soundbiting of serious ideas, the marginal slots), I am actually starting to share your skepticism about whether serious programming can make it to 'primetime'.

But the fact remains that 'primetime ends do not justify erroneous means'. If a show does contain damaging elements (even if they are so subtle that only the highly enlightened Scott can spot them), then doesn't a primetime slot actually worsen the situation rather than justify it?

I think you must admit that Scott has rigorously identified certain problems with the Radar series and move on. To refuse to do this, while issuing Orwellian requests for 'uncritical criticism' is going to look very much like the spin you accuse him of and it is not going to help your case.

I'm actually trying to help you here and to make things better... for all of us.

Of course Scott has a very particular kind of radical politics and taste but he can usually back it up with careful research and logic. In my experience, his work is not so much spin as much as a highly articulated, principled and well-researched social conscience.

He's not always right and he responds best to reasoned argument. Have a look at some of the hundreds of previous posts. There's a lot to learn here.

5:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott gets carried away for sure!

I think TV is problematic but we can't blame it all on Mr Bell and Radar!

I saw the last program and parts of it were very interesting. (About those strange birds in the cave and the place where Maori supposedly came from). I hadn't heard of the Pooh Bar thing, but I had book about it by Dick Scott and sold it.

I think we can accept that morning TV is not aimed at getting people to discuss Heraclitus! (Who watches TV in the morning? I'm not awake in the morning...) And I'm not surprised people are bemused by Fetu Hela, he has some rather strange ideas...he is, to say thee least, a bit of a worry.

Shake hands Scott and move on...Bell seems a good enough fellow. There is too much politics on here.

(As long as no once starts in about these bloody stupid Olympic games...and all the medal counting).

8:02 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

That's a very conciliatory comment Richard and I appreciate it as a venerable local attitude. But there are still serious questions to be answered here. I don't think we can quite play the good ol' kiwi 'fair go mate' till we've had an 'alright mate, fair cop' from you know which party.

9:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think that, as usual Scott has made a mountain out of a molehill.

Some good and informative criticism was made, but he achieves nothing by endless personal attacks, and I think this pain and the booze he consumes hugely and the pain medication he takes exacerbates his emotive outbursts and his tendency to exaggerate and to dramatize and make up stories, send bogus letters and emails, invent fictions mixed with fact: all of which I find bloody infuriating as does Ted.*

Put yourself in Radar and Peter Bells' shoes. The poor bastards have to earn a living in what is relatively tedious and "low" occupation...that is making up things to to go on TV for the general Untermensch (the great unwashed) rather than being say a teacher, or a scientist or an artist or whatever...

They are "More sinned against than sinning". They have (he and the rather clownish Te Radar), if anything, "sinned by omission". (The series was a kind of light comedy was it not? More of a Gilbert and Sullivan than say an Aeida or a King Lear). A more reasoned approach might be to get people interested in these (fairly well) hidden things about the Pacific nations, and to read more about the Pacific etc but you cant expect people to change instantly.

The Radar series was good as far as such things go as I saw it. (I only watched it as Maps drew attention to it.) Of course it can be criticized but attacks on individuals need to be considered carefully.

We are not dealing with the Nazi nut cases who invent alternative histories.

Paul, you need to concentrate on YOUR film and look to future in film and TV etc

The Radar show is finished. Look to what comes next. Apologies and reasoned explanations from Maps would be good. (I have no "interest" in any of this as I have no ambition to be in film or to be on TV, and in fact I watch very little TV and very few movies...)

[Googly. Google "googly".]

* I am well aware of my Protean aspects, as Maps once referred to them, that I change a lot although when I wrestled Odysseus I cant recall, that I am moved by my moods, that I also throw out wobblies and contradictions etc etc and I also know the very deep and talented and often good sides of Maps.

11:44 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Well said Richard. But I don't think Scott has mixed fact with fiction or issued personal attacks in this case. I've apologised profusely for my outburst - a perhaps unfortunate result of the 'anonymity' of the blogosphere where you say things that you wouldn't necessarily say in normal social situations.

I think Maps has mostly employed his 'academic' rather than his 'creative' side in this argument. He is of course a provocateur, but what are the options when Bell still won't stand up to his critics with any argument other than "I'm on primetime"?

In terms of my own work, I've found this whole argument very interesting. It has challenged me to think about the kinds of questions that will come out about Tongan Ark. The challenges we will face in discussions and distribution.

What I am also now determined to do is to allow people to pull the film apart - particularly the Tongan community and the intellectuals. How else am I going to learn what I don't know?

I'll carry on making relatively underground films, by hook or by crook. I may venture into commercial projects if possible but I'll soon quit if they force me into Orwellian doublethink. That's just how my life has played out this far - for better or worse.

Having said that, we al live in contradiction of one sort or another, we can quickly become corrupted. We have to be vigilant - that's why we need the Scott's of the world because they don't seem to give a stuff about TV industry chutzpah.

Stand up to the critics!

8:05 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I don't really think this is a case of Scott vs Peter Bell or Scott vs Te Radar. There have been criticisms of Radar Across the Pacific on this blog by Keri Hulme, Andrew Dean, Chris Trotter and others, and I've received emails from a number of experts on Pacific affairs like Vaughan Rapatahana expressing disgust at Te Radar.

What's notable about Peter Bell's repeated comments here is his total failure to respond to any of the criticisms of the show he produced.
There are literally dozens of very specific criticisms Bell could answer if he had the gumption.
I made another one in this very post, when I pointed out that Te Radar used his show on the Cooks to denigrate the post-independence governments of that country, but failed to mention the six and a half decades that New Zealand controlled the Cooks, and the role that colonial rule had in creating the difficulties post-independence governments have had to deal with.

Rather than defend his series against the charges that it contains numerous factual errors and panders to racist cliches, Bell has defended it by saying that any television show which told the real history of colonialism in the Pacific wouldn't be a commercial proposition. This rather pathetic justification shows very clearly that he hasn't learnt from the success of documentaries like Tangata Whenua, Feathers of Peace, and The New Zealand Wars.

8:15 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Nathaniel,

good to hear from you! I shall look at that game with interest. I didn't mention some of the unintentionally sick jokes Te Radar slipped into his series on the Pacific. In one episode he was confronted with the stench of a lagoonside slum in South Tarawa, and said something like "I'd get used to this - I remember student flatting". Ho hum.

Hi Richard,

I can't drink when I'm on DHC, and that drug certainly doesn't make its users bitter with the world - quite the opposite! But even if I were the Devil Incarnate my criticisms of Radar Across the Pacific would stand or fall on their substance, not on the character of the person who made them.

8:40 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:32 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, there are some interesting issues here. In the future, we need to maybe address these issues to TVNZ or whoever funds or gives the blessing to Television (that barbarous invention) these shows (or funds them)...

Bell could have responded to specific criticism indeed...

Yes, Paul, this way of communicating leads to unfortunate misinterpretations, which in itself is a whole topic of sociology and philosophy. I was a bit grumpy about Dr Scotus.

There is no doubt I've learned a lot from you Paul and others on here and Scott about NZ's "real' (what is real!?) history and his more recent forays into the vast a latter day Stevenson or a Melville.

My point is that ad hominem ad nauseum addressed to Comrades Radar and Bell are non productive...but the criticisms are fascinating and clearly as I am not even a Kiwi (I am really English all though I've never been to England, but I am very proud of my England (I couldn't bear to a mere Kiwi) also my Mongolia - aim also part Mongolian, a place Jack Ross cogently said en passant: "The trouble is Richard, you went there, but you never came back."!

You went to and fro (the "real") Tonga Paul and the result (Tongan Ark) has been fascinating indeed...who would have thought, a Plato or a Pericles (or Noah?) of the South Seas! A Diogenes indeed (get out of my way, you are blocking the light! [C.K. Stead invokes that in his novel "I was Judas"] A man who has dabbled even in Quantum Mechanics and Philosophy, Music etc and as he expounds on his theories and mysterious thoughts as the people laugh around him and dogs and pigs dash about quite indifferent to it all, and a mad mathematician (struggling with Pythagorean "silences" as interested Susan Howe and others), and numbers that keep disappearing or are irrational and indeed become "dangerous": has a ring in his nose (like the Pig in the Wood) like something from Edward Lear and the pretty girls keep laughing about everything and nothing and yet it is all real or appears so!

12:39 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott - I was bit heavy there - I was remembering the old Scott or Remuera road and so on in the good old Salt days!!

This blogging is strange business.

Ideally you, radar and Bell need to talk about these issues - on TV in fact! Or radio...but even then they limit the time.

Bell and Radar (I keep seeing him with flippers on) aside so much TV is so much bloody much that one tends to miss the really good things that come on (like Ice Truckers!!)

12:45 pm  
Anonymous Tonnotio said...

Hmmm...Peter wants the fake Te Radar post removed...but doesn't have a problem with the post which uses his name to threaten Paul Janman...

3:11 pm  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Mr Bell is undoubtedly correct, Scott, when he says that getting a serious documentary on the colonial history of the Pacific broadcast on TVNZ would be next to impossible in the current climate.

The examples you produce were all made at a time when the public broadcaster still retained sufficient intellectual grunt and expertise to ensure that resources were available for projects like "Tangata Whenua" and "Feathers of Peace". The tragedy of public broadcasting in NZ in 2012 is that no such people remain in TVNZ (or even, it would seem, at NZ on Air).

The even greater tragedy, however, may be that talented people like Andrew Lumsden ("Te Radar") and Peter Bell, in order to earn a living and practice their craft, are forced to abase themselves before the aggressively anti-intellectual and anti-"PC", gatekeepers of network scheduling and project funding.

You may say that they should take a stand on principle and refuse to participate in such a system. Yet I am convinced that if they were to do so things would only get worse as individuals without even the whiff of creative credibility stepped into the vacuum.

Finally, I would add a word or two about the so-called "corruption" endemic to Pacific politics.

This is, I believe, one of the Cold War's most pernicious legacies. You will well recall, I sure, Scott, how NZ and Australian governments in the post-independence era constantly made reference to "The Pacific Way"? This expression was used to excuse the repeated failures of governance that marked the newly independent Pacific states. It was tolerated (some might say encouraged) by NZ and Australia as a way of smothering any and all more radical political expression which might have opened the way for the sort of governments that cause the USA so much angst in Central and South America and the Caribbean ( the NEW JEWEL Movement in Grenada, for example). The Anglosphere's great fear was that such left-wing movements would draw in the Soviet Union and its surrogates - especially Cuba.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed these fears and suddenly the Pacific states' failures of governance began to be treated as a problem. The push ever since has been to break down the traditional ways of hold and distributing resources to make way for the global shock-troops of neoliberalism.

I'm pretty sure a documentary on that subject also wouldn't make it on to prime time or attract NZOA funding, Scott.

O tempora! O mores!

9:45 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I suspect you're being a little too generous to Te Radar and Bell, Chris. Te Radar has admitted, without any apparent shame, that he didn't do any research at all before he took off to the tropical Pacific to make his documentary series.

For his part, Bell seems, as Paul has noted, to be confused by the whole idea of critical discourse.

I suspect that both men are symptoms of the sort of 'she'll be right' Kiwi anti-intellectual tradition which you lampoon in your latest blog post.

6:17 pm  
Blogger Marty Mars said...

Kia ora maps

Thanks for these series of posts.

I noticed this on TV last night - the exploitation of pacific islanders continues...

9:51 am  
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