Hard News by Russell Brown

184

Hope and Wire

I remember that in September 2012 I was sensing in my Christchurch friends an unfamiliar psychology. The earthquakes were abating, but in a handful of visits to the city where I was born and in the discussions on this site, I apprehended a new normal that was dank and weird, a place no one had been before, where no one knew how to be.

That was the month it was announced that NZ On Air was funding a six-part (now three-part) drama centred on the Christchurch earthquakes, to be directed and co-written by Gaylene Preston and screened by Tv3. I flew down to Christchurch to interview Gaylene for Media3, only for our commissioner to declare, for reasons never made clear, that we would not be allowed to do that story.

We had a cameraman booked, so I figured I'd do the interview anyway, but a miscommunication left me sitting for an hour at Beat Street cafe while Gaylene was a kilometre away at Pomeroy's, thinking the whole thing was off. When I finally reached her, she generously invited me along to her friends' place for dinner. After we'd eaten, she talked to the rest of us about the project she'd taken on, Hope and Wire.

Although the work was yet to be done, I could see that Gaylene was already under pressure to justify herself, not least thanks to a rambling column by Vicki Anderson of The Press, in which Anderson prosecuted her standing grudge with NZ On Air and quoted "one prominent New Zealand filmmaker" (When A City Falls director Gerard Smyth, I'm fairly sure) declaring the funding decision to be "crazy". [Edit: I am now satisfied that if anyone said "crazy", it was not Gerard Smyth. My apologies to Gerard.]

Gaylene reeled off many of the characters, places and relationships we saw on screen in last night's first, two hour-episode of Hope and Wire. She knew them well; she'd brought them to Christchurch with a broader story she wanted to tell and perhaps had wanted to tell for a while. I wondered whether she'd be able to capture the city's strange experience without growing her stories from the rubble.

Hope and Wire got a bit of a clobbering on social media last night, and much of that was from people in Christchurch who felt that she had not captured their experiences. In truth, it wasn't going to be possible to do that, nor, probably, to speak to people who'd lived the trauma as well as to the rest of the country. It was, as Gaylene said from the beginning, "a postcard to Auckland". I found myself thinking it would be a good way to show people outside New Zealand what had happened.

Hope and Wire certainly has real strengths. Rachel House is simply tremendous as Joycie: she carries the drama and embodies the terrible mix of anxiety and fatigue that people in Christchurch know. The rendering of the earthquakes themselves and the blending of real-life footage with acted drama are a technical triumph.

But I always felt that Joel Tobeck was struggling to to find a third dimension in his wicked landlord Greggo and even Steven Lovatt couldn't bring his crooked lawyer to life . And while some people were outraged by the assault by King, the skinhead leader, on his girlfriend Monee, I thought it was the most believable thing King did in the whole two hours. I'm not sure cartoon skinheads had much to bring to the story.

We are also seeing the pressures of publicly-funded drama in New Zealand, with beancounters asking "does it need all the earthquakes?" and, I suspect, a demand for storylines and characters that would engage a mainstream audience and tick demographic boxes. A project that was avowedly not in the South Pacific Pictures house style still seems to have washed up with a bit of soap about it. The dark, subtle post-traumatic drama that beckoned may not have been possible in the first place. It wasn't going to be our Treme.

Hope and Wire's blend of documentary and drama, with characters breaking out and speaking first-person to the camera, is a bold stylistic move, but it often seemed awkward last night. Perhaps Bernard Hill's Len should have been the only one granted such a meta-narrative.

What we've wound up with is patchy and sometimes outright clunky. But it's what there is and I hope we can find some measure in our responses to it.

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