May 31, 2010

Twenty-nine years ago

At the risk of this blog turning into an obits column, a quick and timely reminder: Patu! by Merata Mita (1942-2010) can be seen for free, in full but in YouTube-sized chunks, at the NZ on Screen site. I’d argue that Patu! is still the most important documentary ever made in New Zealand, and the definitive visual record of the protests against the 1981 Springbok Tour (the definitive print account is surely Geoff Chapple’s 1981: The Tour, a book written with new-journalistic you-are-there verve and energy; it’s sadly out of print and hard to find). Patu! was unashamedly partisan but then this was an event that no one over the age of 13 – with the possible exception, of course, of John Key – failed to have a strong opinion about it. I should know: I was 13.
While working for TVNZ, Merata conceived of a 25-minute documentary on the anti-apartheid movement's campaign. She was motivated by a moral duty to "raise awareness of the racial aspect of the tour". The project was seen to be too much of a political hot potato, and Mita left TVNZ to finish what would develop into a feature film.
Once the tour started, sports grounds and suburban streets became battlefields, as clashes escalated between police and the highly-mobilised protesters. Filmed over the winter of 1981, several camera operators (including industry heavyweights) contributed their time free of charge and became foreign correspondents in their own country, capturing on-the-run footage of the tour clashes.
Ironically, one of the filmmakers who volunteered their time was Roger Donaldson. As protesters in bike helmets squared off against police armed with riot shields and batons, it seemed that Roger's vision of a rampant fascist state in his film Sleeping Dogs was being enacted in real life.
The poster above is from Christchurch City Libraries’ small digital collection of 1981 anti-tour posters. Small but valuable, I guess. I’m sometimes struck by the idea that such an epochal and divisive event has left so few cultural traces behind: the Patu! documentary; Chapple’s book and Tom Newnham’s equally hard-to-track-down Of Batons and Barb Wire and local accounts, such as Juliet Morris’ With All Our Strength, a document of the anti-tour movement in Christchurch, plus a couple of memoirs from a couple of cops; more recently, a really good autobiographical essay, “Test Day”, in Elizabeth Knox’s The Love School. But there isn't much else around. Where are the feature films, the novels? If this was our 1968 – as this very good backgrounder says – then compare this relative dearth of cultural material with the abundance that came out of France after/about 1968 or the US from the same era. Maybe New Zealanders just wanted to forget.