Muse by Craig Ranapia


NZIFF 2013: Lights, Camera, Irony....

If you'd like to pop over to Public Address and read Russell's too bloody right-eous indignation  over the latest polish on the turd that is the government’s convention centre deal with SkyCity, I'm happy to wait.  But there's nothing preventing your daily irony requirement being filled by the story breaking on the opening day of the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland, ahead of around eighty screenings at the SkyCity Theatre over the next two and a half weeks.

One of those screenings is the world premiere of the feature version of Annie Goldson and Kay Ellmers' He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan. on Sunday, August 4 at 1.30pm (The shorter version that screened on Maori Television the night before Anzac Day is legit and online here.)

In May 2011, the New Zealand Prime Minister launched an extraordinary attack on journalist Jon Stephenson. The experienced reporter was a kook, not to be taken seriously, said John Key, in response to revelations in Stephenson’s extensive, first-hand account for Metro of New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan. It included evidence that a unit of New Zealand Special Forces may have arrested and transferred prisoners to Afghan authorities in the knowledge they might be tortured, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

As the numerous testimonies in He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan make clear, Stephenson’s work is in truth characterised by its integrity. Stephenson, now a correspondent in Kabul for US newspaper group McClatchy, has in numerous trips to the country eschewed the ‘embed’ approach, preferring to report outside the stage-managed programmes of the military communications machine.

Co-directed and produced by Annie Goldson (Brother Number One) and significantly expanded from the earlier version screened on Māori Television, He Toki Huna tells the wider story of New Zealand’s role in a war that began as an attempt to ‘smoke out’ those who harboured Al-Qaeda terrorists, but quickly became mired in a drawn-out counterinsurgency. It also looks at the strategies used to control the media message.

It would be fair to speculate the New Zealand Defense Force -- at least the sections not currently occupied by journalist Jon Stephenson's defamation action -- aren't block booking this one for a works outing.   It's also exceedingly unlikely John Key, Helen Clark, Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman or his three predecessors will be signing autographs in the lobby afterwards.

Nor should they.  Films like He Toki Huna are exactly what the Film Festival are supposed to be about.  But it's open to question whether SkyCity would be so keen if the theatre ended up part of the convention centre.

7 Cancellation of Events

7.1 Where the Crown Liaison learns of an Event enquiry:

a) by being notified by the SKYCITY Liaison of an Event enquiry in respect of which SKYCITY has doubts as to its suitability (in accordance with the Event Appropriateness Guidelines section of the Booking Management section of Appendix B (Operational Obligations)); or

b) from a source other than from the SKYCITY Liaison, and notifies the SKYCITY Liaison that the Crown Liaison has a concern,

SKYCITY will not accept any booking for that Event without the Crown’s approval, such approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed.

Event Appropriateness Guidelines

In considering the acceptance of bookings for Events to be held at the NZICC, SKYCITY must use good judgement in considering first the type and style of Events that are best suited to the NZICC and secondly Events that would not reasonably be expected to be materially prejudicial to international relations or to national security interests of New Zealand and would not reasonably be expected to materially affect the reputation or brand of the NZICC.

 Where SKYCITY has any doubt as to the suitability of an Event (including where the NZICC brand, or New Zealand’s international relations, could reasonably be expected to materially and adversely be affected by the subject matter or any sponsor of the Event) the SKYCITY Liaison may consult with the Crown Liaison as soon as practicable, in advance of confirming the business, to seek the Crown’s approval to such Event.


The one part of that I do agree with is that SkyCity does need to use good judgement.  I don't believe for a moment the NZIFF, or it's longtime director Bill Gosden, would let SkyCity or any number of shadowy "liaisons" make programming decisions.  But Gosden and his programmers certainly have better things to do with their time (and severely limited resources) than try and steer films that might offend nebulously defined political sensibilities away from a venue the NZIFF - and its patrons - contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to on a regular basis.  SkyCity is a business, right?

There's also a broader argument the New Zealand International Film Festival has its own brand and reputation to protect.  A good start would be NZFF director Bill Gosden publicly seeking a written assurance from SkyCity that future venue hire will not be contingent on the schedule being subject to the veto of a "Crown Liaison".

And to stiffen everyone's resolve, here's the trailer to NZIFF-bound documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (also playing at SkyCity. Twice.)  Just to materially damage our international relations with those bigoted arsebags our valued trading partners in Putin's sociopathic kleptocracy Russia. 


Worthwhile Literature, Worthless Newspaper

EDITED TO ADD: Links to relevant commentary from elsewhere at foot of post.

At some point I'll have something more meaningful than "oh fuck off" to say about the Herald On Sunday's epically fatuous concern-trolling of YA fictionbut there was one passage that dared me to take it seriously. 

Some booksellers, we report today, are refusing to display Into the River by Ted Dawe, which took top prize in the recent New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. One explained that it was "unnecessarily graphic" and contained themes the bookseller considered inappropriate for young teenagers.

It contains obscenities and shock references that worthwhile literature does not need. We can only wonder what the judges were thinking, or how much worse the other entries could have been.

I'll continue my default position of respecting the right of booksellers to carry stock as they see fit even if gives me a migraine,  but I'm glad my third form English teacher -- Father Carl Telford, SM, by name -- had a slightly more intelligent idea of "worthwhile literature."

It's could be torn from the headlines. Historical abuse scandal! Catholic priest exposes impressionable twelve year old boys to a squalid pit of gang brawls, stalking, underage sex, glamourized drug use and general juvenile delinquency climaxing in a teen suicide pact gone horribly wrong!  (There was even some swears and fanny jokes, if you had the patience to parse the footnotes. You'd be surprised how many did.) 

If you're slightly more literate than the editorial board of the HoS, you've figured out I'm talking about Romeo and Juliet.  Father Telford has my gratitude, and teachers like him deserve all our thanks not the condescension of a second-rate tabloid.

Still, how could you argue with this?

It is often remarked that New Zealand fiction written for film and television is oddly and uncharacteristically dark. There is not much that is bright, stylish or subtle in its treatment of most subjects, especially sex.

That is probably a reflection of the immaturity and limitations of screen writers in a small nation's talent pool, but our literature has been better than that. And our writing for children has been exceptionally good. Novelists should not let the crude depictions of New Zealand on air wash back into its literature, particularly when writing for the young.

It is not prudish or patronising to maintain a certain standard, it is re-assuring [teenagers] that quality exists and people they respect can recognise it. For many, their early teenage years might be the last in their lives when they read literature worthy of the name.

Quite easily, as it turns out.  It is prudish, patronising - as well as more than a little hypocritical from the bully pulpit of a tabloid newspaper - to assume that teenage boys can't intelligently process crude language or depictions of sex and violence without transforming into ultraviolent droogs.  (It also shows a eye-watering degree of cultural illiteracy well beyond the printed page, but let that pass for the time being.)

Editor/author Emma Neale makes this point, in an excellent post you really should read. (Emma also has an advantage in having read the book in question. More than once, even.)

I strongly believe that literature is one of the places that young people can safely think through situations, and rehearse their moral choices, without the grave personal compromise that living through the real events might involve. Forewarned is forearmed.The novel is aimed at ages 15+: the sex scenes are unromanticised, and speak the truth of unsatisfactory experiences. Yes, they’re awkward, raw, discomfiting. That’s part of the point.

But it's also an equally valid point for "worthwhile literature" without any rude words or explicit sex.  One of the least remarked ironies of the editorial was it saw print a few days before the first anniversary of Margaret Mahy's death. Mahy did "bright, stylish and subtle" like nobody's business, but she also wrote a string of remarkable YA novels.  I hope nobody tells The Herald that her (much under-rated) 1985 YA novel The Catalogue of the Universe contains a startling chapter where a teenage girl recounts almost being raped.   They might also just want to avoid The Tricksters (1986) entirely, because Mahy certainly opened my eyes to the notion that teenage girls also think about sex, or at least the possibility of it, and find it terribly messy and confusing.  And cringe-inducingly funny.  And sometimes even as bright and stylish as the hem of a summer skirt fluttering in a warm breeze.

To say both novels were shocking, in the best sense of the word, to a teenage gay boy at a single-sex boarding school was a considerable understatement.   So were Maurice Gee's "children's novels" -- particularly the Halfmen of O trilogy, which also appeared in the mid-80's to this SF/fantasy geek's whole hearted approval -- which worried away at the ambiguities and tensions of Godzone with all the spirited moral ferocity as his adult novels.  And not without controversy either: "sordid" is an adjective that has hung around Gee his entire career, no matter who his intended audience is.

The Herald on Sunday may have as little faith in the discernment of teenagers as I have in that organ's literary judgement, but that's no reason why anyone else has to follow suit. Just makes sure to brush up on your Shakespeare, and the keep the latest front page atrocity on the Sunday newspapers away from the kids.


New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards judge Bernard Beckett blogs a temperate and thoughtful defense of the award. Money quote: "[T]rust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more." Oath.

Ted Dawe Playing Favourites with Kim Hill on Saturday Morning.  As usual, the music has been stripped out, but Dawe is a fascinating man in his own right.


MUSEing on the BBC: Asking The Right Question?

We're all hip, cynical, sceptical-to-a-fault media types around here, right?  Oh, sod off.  For all it's flaws, the British Broadcasting Corporation is still the kind of brand that has an authority you can't buy, spin or fake with a social media strategy.  So, when I got an e-mail from Polly Proctor, who produces Word of Mouth for BBC Bistol asking if I'd like to contribute to a show on referenda, the art of the leading question and how you make sense of it all I did two things.  Say yes.  Then have a wee panic attack.

The context-slash-inciting incident was this Public Address Radio piece on the so-called "smacking referendum." Horrendously unamused would be a fair paraphrase.

Did my views shift any over three years?  You're going to have to go here and see (hear?) for yourself.

Here's the blurb for the show - and, yes, I do have the decency to blush at being counted in the company of "experts". 

As Scotland grapples with the wording of a possible referendum on independence, Chris Ledgard takes a look at the art of asking the right question. Whether in a referendum, survey or in a court room, how do you avoid writing an incomprehensible question or - perhaps worse - a leading question?

Experts in linguistics, law, politics and psychology as well as politicians themselves explain the importance of getting the wording of a question right.


Pupils from St Katherine's School in North Somerset
Joan McAlpine, Scottish National Party MSP
Willie Rennie, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats
Professor John Curtice, University of Strathclyde
Professor John Joseph, University of Edinburgh
Amanda Pinto QC, Criminal Barrister
Professor Robert Cialdini, Arizona State University
Craig Ranapia, New Zealand based blogger and broadcaster

Producer: Polly Procter.


OPEN HOUSE: Margaret Mahy, The Storyteller in The Meadow

The only story on the local cultural front today is the death of Margaret Mahy yesterday, at 76 .  I don't think I'm the only reader who was shocked, but shouldn't have been, that this intensely private woman (despite her vivid public persona) was diagnosed with cancer in April.

Others can write with more authority about a career that ranged from children's picture books and poetry, through "Young Adult" novels every bit as fine as "real literature" (gag!) through to a singular (and under-rated at the time) foray into science fiction-ish television writing that makes me wish she'd done more.  Marketing catergories, genre and arbitrary age distinctions were treated by Mahy with all due disrespect.

It's certainly not my place to talk about the private woman I never knew.  But even the most cursory reading of Tessa Duder's Margaret Mahy: A Writer's Life (HarperCollins, pbk. $40.99) is a sobering experience.  It's almost as if the life Mahy wanted, even was compelled to live -- as a writer and a woman -- never had a easy option.  In the often petty, bitchy and feud-raddled literary scene, Mahy's grace and genuine niceness stood out as much as her work.  If anyone ever had a mean word to say about her, they sure seemed to keep it to themselves.

Margaret Mahy knew that writing -- and her advocacy for libraries, literacy and the word -- had a vivid element of performance art.  I doubt I was the only child beguiled into delightedly sitting still by this storytelling witch in the candy-coloured afro clown wig.  But her magic was something deeper and more profound.  It was about respect.  Respect for language and story, expressed though an extraordinary level of craft regardless of whether the target audience was five, fifteen or fifty.  Respect for the rich tradition of literature we brought from far away and eons past, and making something new from it right here in Aotearoa that could go back out into the world without apology or special pleading. Respect for the knotty, exquisitely human truth that joy and sorrow, delight and loss, are inextricably linked and the young can handle it.  They need to.

Most of all, it was respect for the reality that parents, critics and academics all too often forget.  Children know when they're being talked (or written) down to.  Growing up is full of wonderful things -- sex, booze, money, car keys, staying up late -- but that doesn't include the idea that "literature" requires us to put up with the pretentious, the shoddy and the dull because it's really good for us.  Mahy knew that the young not only deserve better, but they demand it.

Her real legacy is that she never stopped delivering. 

It's time for me to stop talking, and you to start.  The comments are open for you to share your thoughts and memories about this woman, her career and legacy but most of all her work.  Weeping is OK, making merry is compulsory, but please don't get drunk and trip over the coffee table.  M'kay?


Postcard from Cylon-Occupied Caprica: Signs and Portents

It was Bernard Shaw who said the English and Americans were divided by a common language, but there's no place in the world where something won't make you giggle like a dirty-minded infant...


...Though it's more unusual for a ferry ride to trigger an existential crisis.


Public art is kind of depressing...

('The Words Don't Fit The Picture' by Ron Terada. Vancouver Central Library, South Plaza, 350 West Gerogia Street)

....or creepy...

(Detail, Vancouver Police Department Memorial, 240 W. Cordoba Street)

... or simply worng in ways that defy human comprehension. 

If that does anything for your appetite, please get off my virtual lawn. Now.

Still, Vancouver may be kind of grey and wet, but how could not not love a city that embraces Ryan Adams and Michael Buble by putting plaques in the middle of streets instead of brands on their foreheads?

And you what know what happiness is?  After a morning absorbing Matisse and indigenous hip-hop contemporary art practice at the excellent Vancouver Art Gallery  step outside and let beautiful and charming Canadian women in a truck will sell you three types of grilled cheese in one glorious toastie pie of death.