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Gordon Campbell on the Phil Heatley saga

Gordon Campbell on the Phil Heatley saga, and more on low budget films

Normally when there is a personal cloud over a Minister, they would stand down and/or be removed from their responsibilities by the PM. That is, until (a) the matter was cleared up, or (b) in more serious cases, they had paid sufficient penance on the backbenches to have learned their lesson. There can’t be too many precedents for a Ministerial resignation when the PM doesn’t think it is merited, and especially when (simultaneously) the erring Minister rejects out of hand his leader’s attempt to find an interim solution, such as a stand-down period until the Auditor-General examines the relevant paperwork.

Yet that is the current state of the peculiar Phil Heatley affair. Some have sought a deeper, darker explanation, but it seems to have been a cavalcade of like pure wilfullness on Heatley’s part, over a considerable period of time. When officials told him about his misuse of his ministerial credit card, he continued to misuse it. When John Key – for whom one can feel a good deal of sympathy in this affair – admonished him, Heatley picked up his toys and resigned. When Key tried to find an interim solution Heatley rejected it, and resigned anyway.

At this point, we do not know if Heatley is to be banished to the back-benches for a long, long time – which is what he seems to think – or is gone only temporarily from Cabinet until the Auditor-General reports back. What it looks like is a man immune to criticism, and inclined to over-react when his shortcomings are brought to his attention. When the affair first began to gather heat earlier this week, it is perhaps significant that Heatley sought to deflect criticism by telling the media how competent a Minister he thought himself to have been.

To repeat : this was not an isolated lapse. Heatley has been cavalier with his expenses on more than one occasion – and is repentant this time only because he has been well and truly caught. A kinder verdict might be that it was only after being caught that he realized the rules: but officials had tried in vain to get him to adhere to them. Moreover, as beneficiaries have found to their cost in similar situations, ignorance of the rules is no defence. More probably in this case, Heatley didn’t know or respect the details because he felt himself above the rules, whatever they were. Unfortunately, that sense of personal entitlement (Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Tim Groser etc) goes far wider in this Cabinet than Phil Heatley.

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Down the Up Escalator

While I’ve had my say on the Film Commission’s Escalator low budget film scheme, I ‘m grateful for the feedback on that article from David Searle in the comments thread, and especially for the thoughtful comments on Facebook by Florian Habicht.

I have no quarrel with Florian’s point that at the end of the day, film making is a co-operative enterprise No doubt. He is also bang on when he suggests that my criticism was partly inspired by the Film Commission pulling out of the Independent Film Makers Fund, and choosing to place all of its bets on Escalator instead. “Why couldn't there be only less feature produced per year,” Florian asks, “ and that money allocated to the CNZ Independent Film Makers Fund?” Exactly. Good solution.

I’m also glad that while he says he disagrees with me on several points, we are agreed that the FC needs to be putting money behind distributing the films that emerge from the Escalator process. Hopefully Florian, Greg King and Campbell Walker will be on the panel of experienced film makers making the final call on which projects proceed, because there are precious few ‘industry’ people with recent first hand experience of low budget film making – or at least, a shortage of people the FC would deem acceptable for the task.

David and Florian’s comments do not otherwise directly address my central point, which was not ideological but practical – namely, whether a competitive teams/bootcamp model should be the basket in which the FC be putting all its funding eggs for making low budget films . In particular, I doubt that it creates the right climate for identifying and developing worthwhile scripts – long the Achilles heel of New Zealand film-making.

I’m sure that making 48 Hour films is fun. David Searle evidently has a ball and learns a lot – but have you ever tried to watch the films afterwards? In the vast amount of cases, you really, really had to be there, To repeat : the structure of the 48 Hour film process relies on existing genre conventions. That’s what enables the films to be made so quickly, because everyone knows the conventions. Now, why would anyone think a rushed, hothouse environment reliant on familiarity should be the only place to discover and develop original, experimental ideas, good scripts etc?

As one might expect at this stage, there is still confusion afoot. David Searle, for instance, says :

I really take issue with the concept that we have three months to come up with our three ideas. Frankly, the majority of aspiring film-makers in New Zealand would have at least half a dozen low budget ideas on the go already..

Okay. But that’s not what the FC’s development executive Paul Swadel was saying in Onfilm earlier this month :

“What it’s not going to be about is people pulling out their existing scripts from bottom drawers that are designed to be shot on $2.5-$3 million and people saying, ‘Don’t worry – we’ll squeeze it in and make it happen for quarter of a million dollars.’ “It’s a clean slate and we want to kick off fresh ideas and fresh approaches…

This kind of confusion matters, because the process kicks off shortly, in June. Another example? At the Wellington launch of Escalator, a questioner asked if you became one of the four winners of the $250,000 each on offer, could you then split the money and make all three of the entry ideas you had brought to the Escalator process? He was assured that would be no problem. Yet the conditions on the FC website clearly stipulate

In the first stage teams will be asked to submit 3 ideas, each as a one page synopsis, along with a one page CV for each member…. After the bootcamp teams will have three months to work on ONE [emphasis in the original] of their ideas….

So, which is it? Hats off to the Film Commission though, says David, for going down the low budget route.’ Well, not so much. Part of my skepticism about Escalator exists because the FC has been down the low budget film route before, with the Headstrong scheme five years ago. That scheme was run in conjunction with the Film Commission by Leanne Saunders and Ant Timpson.

Despite hundreds of scripts being submitted, and shortlists of various lengths being drawn up, and plans to make four films in two years announced, only two films ever got made under Headstrong before the FC finally canned it in late 2007. Those films were A Song of Good by Gregory King, who had previously directed Leanne’s production of his film Christmas, and The Devil Dared Me To, by the guys who made the Back of the Y series on late night television.

Some of those scripts (eg The Void) eventually got made elsewhere. Yet the official output of Headstrong – touted as a vehicle for creative, low budget, trailblazing cinema – was one Jackass type comedy which Wikipedia says received $859,314 from the FC (not counting the cost of its 35mm film transfers) and the Gregory King project in which (according to the Variety review of its screening at SXSW) the script was too half-baked – that old problem, again – to reconcile the drama with the black humor. The initial hype about Headstrong is available here.

The obituary for Headstrong is here.

I’m sure that the FC would say that Escalator will not be anything like Headstrong. Right. So that’s why it draws heavily on the 48 Hour Film template godfathered by Ant Timpson, who co-ran Headstrong. To repeat : I don’t dislike the 48 Hour Film event. For what it is, it is fine. Just like T20 cricket is fine. But are quickfire, competitive team contests (plus pressure cooker bootcamps) a good way – the only way – of identifying and fostering good and original cinema ? It looks more like an excellent way of burying singular visions and original ideas, in favour of local variations on familiar genre conventions. In sum, it risks repeating the culture of mediocrity that the FC has consistently portrayed as being the path of hard-headed commercial realism.

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