Muse by Craig Ranapia

22

How (Not) To Be Incredibly Racist and Sexist Without Really Trying

A month ago, American indie distributor KinoLorber released Taika Waititi's Boy on DVD and BluRay in a market where Waititi funded the film's extremely limited American release through a Kickstarter.

You'd think it's something of a no-brainer to sell a film with a mostly indigenous cast with an image from the film - of a non-celebrity brown person, no less. Right? 

Someone should have told Anchor Bay, whose home media release of Australian historical drama Chris O'Dowd and The Smurfettes The Sapphires hasn't even been released yet, but has managed to piss off pretty much everyone from the women whose lives it's based on to O'Dowd himself.

Believe it or, The Sapphires isn't the incredible true story of an Irish lounge singer who gets his knob chewed off by an enraged wombat, though I'm sure Chris O'Dowd would do a splendid job of it.  I seem to be the only person on earth who finds Bridesmaids utterly resistible, but Moone Boy (which O'Dowd created, co-wrote and starred in) is a genuine Irish charmer it's worth climbing over the Sky paywall - or laying hands on the DVDs to catch.  It's not O'Dowd's talent that's in question here.

The sticking point is that, as blogger MaryAnn Johanson put it on flickfilosopher.com:

The Sapphires is the story of four young Australian women who form a singing group and travel to Vietnam in the 1960s to entertain the American troops there. Their new manager, who is along for the ride, is indeed a white man. The women are Aborigines. They are black black black black blackety-black black. Not blue. Oh, and they’re women. And this is their story. It’s even a true story.

[T]he most you can say about his character here is that he is part of an ensemble. He is not the lead character. And he is outweighed in that ensemble by four nonwhite women. So why are they shoved into the background, the color of their skin disguised by that blue monotone?

Never fear MaryAnn!  Here comes a white man to explain why all these silly women and people of colour need to "stop being hysterical" (tm) and get a grip on how "the world works" (c).  Come 0n down, "National Film Editor for Fairfax Media" Karl Quinn who penned a point-dodging column headlined: Sapphires' cover is not racist, just smart.

The whole thing is worth reading with a sickbag in hand, but here's the bit where I jammed said bag over my head and started emitting a high-pitched scream. 

As ''issue'' films go, The Sapphires is at the softer end of the spectrum: a feel-good story about four Aboriginal women who triumph against sexism and racism to forge a sparkling career as soul singers in the most unlikely of theatres, the Vietnam War.

However, the film now finds itself on the frontline, its American DVD cover accused of perpetuating the very sexism and racism it so gently rails against.

[...]Let us assume for a moment that The Sapphires has some power to change people's minds about racism and sexism. If so, it has its best chance to do so by getting in front of as many people as possible.

Presumably it is white people's minds that most need to be opened on matters of racism towards ''people of colour''. But in the US, putting four black women who are not Diana Ross, Beyonce or Rihanna on the cover of a DVD is tantamount to saying ''this ain't for you, whitey''.

OK, Karl, I'll rise to the bait.  First, I'd expect a senior film journalist (or anyone with decent Google-fu) to know Diana Ross hasn't made a feature since The Wiz in 1978. Rihanna not only didn't grace the poster of her latest film, This Is The End, but Emma Watson's cameo got higher billing that RiRi's.  And of course Beyonce is all over the publicity of her recent HBO infomercial-disguised-as-a-documentary because... well, you know.  Still, good to know some of your favourite CDs are by black chicks. It's your DVD collection I don't want to know about.

Meanwhile, somewhere in America, "whitey" is so repulsed by by the sight of four black woman on the cover of a DVD they have to be transformed into a white guy's backing Smurfettes.  After they've been so bamboozled, they're going to get past the first fifteen minutes of scary Aboriginals before the guy who shags the chick who doesn't shit her pants in Bridesmaids shows up? Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell give wonderful performances here. But nobody's that good, if you're working off the presumption that the audience for your film has to be tricked into picking it up in the first place.  All Anchor Bay - and Quinn - are doing is insulting everyone's intelligence.

That's the problem with the circle jerk reasoning behind using the existence of racism (and sexism) to justify perpetuating it still further.  Taken to the reductio ad absurdum, why bother making - let alone releasing - films by, or about, about anyone other than straight white middle-class men at all? 

But, hey!  Mailman and Co. should take one for the profile of the Australian film industry! Right?

Selling an Australian film, here or abroad, is never easy and while it was a bona fide hit at home, taking $14.5 million at the box office, The Sapphires took only $2.5 million in US cinemas, despite having the considerable muscle and nous of Harvey Weinstein behind it.

The US cover carries the words ''based on the incredible true story'', a line with a fair chance of getting someone to read the blurb on the back - but first they have to pick it up. This is where O'Dowd comes in.

Again, I have to ask what exactly Fairfax's "national film editor" does all day.  Does Quinn remember a little loosely-based-on-fact and blindingly white Aussie crime drama called Animal Kingdom? Three years earlier, it grossed less than US$1.1 million at the American box office, despite having the considerable muscle of Sony Pictures Classics AND the free media from female lead Jackie Weaver's Oscar nomination AND then current Aussie It Boy Joel Edgerton in just one of a string of flashy, effusively well-reviewed supporting roles.

Selling any "foreign" movie into the American market is hard. It's not hard to find decades of American cineastes complaining about the decline of the arthouse/indie cinemas; and lively debate on whether the rise of new technologies - from VCRs to online 'streaming' services and downright piracy - are a blessing or a curse.

If Quinn was doing his job he might be asking this question.  How well was anyone really expecting The Sapphires or Animal Planet when at their widest release (according to Box Office Mojo) they were screening at 126 and 61 theatres respectively?  By way of comparison, Man of Steel opened at four thousand theatres.

Like the old joke about Jews, you put three film critics in a room you get four opinions, five loud arguments and eventually a fist fight.  But  whitewashing indigenous women out of their own stories - and in a culture not exactly overstocked with stories about or by women - is being "smart" in all the wrong ways.

ETA: Because credit is cool as the outgoing Doctor Who's bowties, many thanks and hat-tips to Che Tibby (@Che_Tibby), Dan Slevin (@danslevin), Chris Philpott (@chrisphilpottnz ) and Moata Tamaira (@MoataTamaira) for much stimulating Twitter dialogue and pointers. The opinions expressed above are my own, of course, but they're damn fine folks to refine my views on.

14

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. 

12

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.

ELSEWHERE:

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.

5

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.

Contributors:

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.

56

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?