July 5, 2014

Hope and Wire


No way. Not skinheads. Surely not. I would estimate that Gaylene Preston lost approximately 50 per cent of her Christchurch audience’s goodwill early in the first episode of her quake series Hope and Wire. The exact moment came when a gang of skinheads terrorised passers-by on Colombo St on the evening of September 3, 2010. Now and forever, Christchurch gets to be the city of skinheads, boy racers and uptight Merivale matrons wearing pearls. The quakes destroyed a lot of things but it looks like some bad reputations and regional stereotypes remained intact.

Eight years ago, I interviewed the American poet Robert Hass when he was in Wellington for writers’ week at the NZ Festival. I told him that I had seen him in the Embassy during one of Robert Fisk’s sold-out sessions. Fisk had read what I thought was a powerful excerpt from The Great War for Civilisation. From memory, it involved Fisk getting emotional as he mused over a dead Iraqi soldier during the Iraq-Iran war, wondering about the young man’s home life and family, imagining a bereft wife and kids. Hass was a little more sceptical about Fisk’s fiction: “Dostoevsky might at least have entertained the possibility that the soldier was not a good person.”

In other words, it was an argument against stereotypes, or easy and obvious villains and heroes. Preston’s characters in Hope and Wire seem designed to represent points of view, with geography as destiny. It’s equivalent to a drama about Auckland taking one family from Outrageous Fortune, one family from Bro’Town and one family from Gloss. In Merivale, Maxine Redfern – er, Ginny (played by Luanne Gordon) – is learning that her perfect life is not as perfect as she thought. Her husband, Jonty (Stephen Lovatt) is a dodgy lawyer – in this moral universe, there may not be any other kind. Her teenagers are rebelling. You can expect a journey towards social awareness and self-reliance, through feminist storytelling familiar from Preston’s Bread and Roses, Perfect Strangers and Ruby and Rata. Maybe she will even get a grown-up name. 

Out east in a new subdivision, Ryan (Jarrod Rawiri) and Donna (Miriama McDowell) are illustrating the seriousness of liquefaction and land slump (filmed, naturally, on location). Honest battlers with a hefty mortgage, they also represent another post-quake trend, but Hope and Wire gets the timing slightly wrong. In the weeks after the big February 2011 quake, it was widely observed that men wanted to stay with the house, even if it was only partially liveable, while women were more likely to want to take the kids and go somewhere safe (for people we knew: Timaru, Dunedin, Nelson). In Hope and Wire, Donna takes off with the kids before the quake – in fact, she is on the road to Picton when it hits. She doesn’t feel it while driving but does catch news of the quake on the radio about 20 minutes later. It’s a surprisingly gentle and tangential way for Preston and writer Dave Armstrong to bring the big quake into the story, before they rewind and show us where Ginny, Ginny’s kids and another key female character, Joycie (the best actor in the show, Rachel House), were at 12.51pm.

The situation of Joycie and her husband Len (Bernard Hill) is based on the real-life story (link here) of Raewyn Iketau and Charlie Duthie, who set up a post-quake community around a central city house and could be seen as an example of the points that Rebecca Solnit made about post-disaster communities in A Paradise Built in Hell. Solnit’s argument is that the immediate aftermath of a disaster can promote altruism, even utopianism, which disappears once official or elected authority starts to manage the post-disaster recovery. We saw that in Christchurch in the weeks and months after February 2011 when all the certainties were upset and people got to know each other. It was like a holiday from regular life and despite the horror of the event, it was also a weirdly exciting time. At the end of the second of six hours of Hope and Wire, we are still at February 22. Len, whose pieces to camera bring a political perspective that may not be too far from Preston’s own, is missing in Lyttelton, or perhaps the red bus we saw him catching is under some rubble. But it looks like the community that he set up after the first quake – again, slightly inaccurate – will evolve into a version of Iketau and Duthie’s red zone camp.

That inaccuracy, and the earlier one about Donna leaving with the kids before the February 22 earthquake, point to a problem that faces anyone dramatising the Christchurch quakes, which is that there was a phony war between the first quake in September 2010 and the bad one in February 2011. If you are being strictly chronological, as Preston is, then you have to accept that the early parts of the story risk being a little, well, boring. Which means you could do it differently. Why not start in February? Or take some greater storytelling risks. When I was thinking about Hope and Wire before it screened, I was thinking that David Simon’s New Orleans series Treme might not be the big influence everyone expected. Maybe Broadchurch or Les Revenants (The Returned) were better models for how to do a Christchurch series. In one, a murder exposes the relationships and tensions in a small community. In the other, there is a kind of supernatural disaster that reveals aspects of a small French community’s history. One of the great innovations of Les Revenants, besides the rare beauty of a series filmed entirely at dusk, is that it based episodes on the “journey” (terrible word) of individual characters. After watching two out of six Hope and Wire episodes, I wonder if Preston should have done the same. Len’s story, Joycie’s story, Greggo’s story, Hayley’s story, Ginny’s story, Donna’s story. That might have eliminated a flaw in the series so far: that none of the characters have depth or are doing much more than illustrating a trend, tendency or news story. 

Far from sensationalising the Christchurch story, or making a fiction that is fundamentally inaccurate, Preston has actually done the opposite. Apart from a few timeline glitches, she has made the story almost too accurate. Much of the drama plays like pallid re-enactments of moments that would have more power and truth as documentary. This is obvious in the February 22 scenes towards the end of the second episode, when news footage from central Christchurch is edited into the staged disaster scenes. The real footage is still horrifying, even now, while the staged scenes have less impact and it is almost grotesque to see actors caked in fake dust and dirt staggering through recreated disaster zones alongside actual footage of actual places where actual people died. Episodes one and two are mostly tasteful but these scenes are borderline, to say the least.

At this point you might ask what drama can do that documentary cannot do, and the answer is nothing, if your answer is based only on Hope and Wire. Drama can provide you with subjectivity and an imaginative experience, but imagination has been largely sacrificed in favour of cautious adherence to reality. You can understand the impulse but it means that so far Hope and Wire has told us nothing we did not already learn from Gerard Smyth’s When a City Falls, a documentary made in Christchurch that evolved as the story changed. There is probably a whole other discussion to be had about the value – and ethics – of recreating real-life trauma as fiction, and it would probably extend from Claude Lanzmann’s famous refusal to include even historical footage in his monumental Holocaust documentary, Shoah. A Lanzmann-style earthquake and recovery documentary composed entirely of long interviews and shots of the ruins and empty spaces three and a half years on? The viewer would have to imagine what was being described.

There has been a lot of talk about documentary styles in Hope and Wire and Preston’s expertise in the area. Her Te Papa doco Getting to Our Place was a good one, no question. And she talked up her doco credentials in this Press interview, which included her incredible claim that she is “one of the very few film-makers in the world with experience in both dramatic feature film and documentary”. (Really? Tell that to Ken Loach, Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Winterbottom, Alain Resnais, Terry Zwigoff, Spike Lee, James Marsh, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Clio Barnard, Ken Russell, Agnes Varda, Vincent Ward, Kevin Macdonald, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jonathan Demme, Alison Maclean, Florian Habicht …) But it turns out that there is nothing documentary-like about Hope and Wire so far. The breaking of the fourth wall via monologues to camera delivered by actors in character is a convention more reminiscent of sitcoms and reality television – a tool used by Modern Family and MasterChef.

Overall, despite being made for TV3, Hope and Wire seems to fit with TVNZ’s recent series of news-based topical dramas, like the one about Jan Molenaar, which some involved in the real story thought was being made and seen too soon. Is it too soon for a quake drama? There is probably no right answer to that question. The harder question is whether it was really worth doing. I’ve heard the word “opportunistic” a few times. I’m not sure about that but nothing in the first two hours of Hope and Wire convinced me that Preston had something she really needed to say that hasn’t otherwise been said. I suspect – in fact, I know – that Preston isn’t the only director from outside Christchurch who looked at the ruined city and thought there’s drama to be made from this, especially if they had gorged on Treme and other box sets from TV’s new golden age. They had a fantastic location. Now all they needed were stories.