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BSS 2014: making a drama to tell the truth

The session on Gaylene Preston’s Hope and Wire explored the complexities and considerations in dramatising a traumatic recent event and the walking the lines between documentary and narrative.

Preston was firm on the big picture. Hope and Wire was drama, not documentary, even though she was equally firm that everything in the story was real and, in some instances, effort had been put into determining whether anecdotes the team had been told about events on the day of the quakes were accurate or apocryphal.

Hope and Wire

Gaylene Preston’s Hope and Wire

Like a pebble in a pond, the session started with a tight focus on how archival material shots were selected. The discussion widened and widened, spreading to encompass other parties, other approaches, other events.

Researcher Angela Boyd, who first worked with Preston on Lovely Rita, kicked off. Her job, she said, was sitting in a darkened room with a script breakdown, going through footage to find the archive shots that would fit. In that nuts and bolts sense, it was little different from the plenty of other films and TV shows for which she’s sought archive material, including Preston’s previous Home By Christmas and Strongman: A Tragedy and, most recently, Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows.

What was different about Hope & Wire compared with most of the other projects was two things. The material Boyd was seeking was much more recent, and much of it hadn’t been catalogued in the way that it older archival material is was. It was also material that would be much more familiar to viewers, much of it having been used in news reports.

Boyd explained that the archive footage was the first footage assembled. “We assembled about 90 minutes of source footage (including slugs for scenes) and then Gaylene shot the rest.

“It’s very emotive and I make some of the editorial decisions by what I present [to Preston]. You can’t always use the best shot, sometimes it’s about the emotion it engenders.”

The issue of editorial decision-making was raised a number of times throughout the session. Preston’s position was that, from the moment someone chooses to switch a camera on, editorial decisions are being made. In the case of archive footage, a lot of decisions have been made about a piece of footage before she comes across it.

However, what’s usually most interesting with archive material is “what’s going on at the edges of the frame – the stuff that wasn’t meant to be captured.”

There were other massive differences between using archive material for Hope and Wire against the material available for, say, Home By Christmas. Mostly, those differences stemmed two things, the technological advances and democratisation of filmmaking and the (arguably consequent) change in editorial approaches.

In Home By Christmas the archive material is in black and white, making it instantly obvious what material is archival and what’s not. With Hope and Wire it’s almost impossible to tell the difference, whatever it was shot on.

Producer Chris Hampson (Kaitangata Twitch, Stolen, White Lies) explained. “There is iPhone footage in Hope & Wire, although it’s had a fair amount of post-production affection lavished on it.”

It’s also very difficult to maintain control of the reporting of a lot of events now. All three panel members referred to the sheer volume of footage (“probably the best recorded earthquakes in history”) and the different viewpoints behind all those shots. “There are no official versions that dominate any more.”

On the subject of not having control of the narrative, Malcolm noted that there had been a number of negative media stories around Hope and Wire, from funding through to screening, mostly from Christchurch.

Preston and Hampson acknowledged those, but weren’t bothered by them. Preston reported the point she’d made in a number of interviews at the time: that she wasn’t making the show for Christchurch.

“I just wanted to talk to people who werent there and tell them what it was like.”

The timing of the production was one issue. For some people it was simply too soon. For some the twelfth of never would also be too soon, but Hampson said, “We were almost too late.

“We were shooting two streets away from the demolition crews. When we finished shooting, the red zone had reopened. The city was gone.”

Another issue was the issue of ownership of the story – in particular whether people not from Christchurch could tell the story.

That’s not a complaint in any way unique to Hope & Wire. Films and TV shows about any real event cop that sort of flak worldwide.

Panel members Gaylene Preston, Angela Boyd, Chris Hampson; moderator Robyn Malcolm

Panel members Gaylene Preston, Angela Boyd, Chris Hampson; moderator Robyn Malcolm

Preston argued that, while the points of view expressed were true in the minds of those expressing them, they were often factually incorrect. One complaint was that Hope & Wire “wasn’t my earthquake” – it wasn’t the direct experience of the complainant. But, since everything in the story was factual, it was someone in Christchurch’s earthquake.

An extension of that response was that Hope and Wire offered an overview which no one person or even family in Christchurch could have experienced. It was “a story of common experience”. And, even if one gazes through rose-tints at people’s propensity to paint themselves in the best possible light, nobody involved in an event of the scale of what happened in Christchurch can view it objectively.

“I can translate and distill. They sure as hell can’t,” Preston put it, bluntly but truthfully.

There were other factor contributing to dissatisfaction from Christchurch with the production. Hope and Wire was the first Christchurch-set and -shot TV drama in some time. There’s annoyance at the best of times with the networks from people outside Auckland. Having to watch ads for shops that are a ferry and a day’s drive away may seem petty, but it gets irritating. That the first interest in making TV in Christchurch was “only because it was fucked” didn’t help.

Preston pointed out that Hope & Wire had never been intended to be the official, the one and only view of Christchurch, nor of Cantabrians’ earthquake experience. Gerard Smythe made sure of that on 22 February 2011, when he ran out into the street with a camera. His When A City Falls documented the experience; his Christchurch: From the Streets TV series documents the aftermath and rebuild.

The panel was happy to acknowledge that Hope and Wire was an interpretation of events, a based-on-true-stories drama. How, then, did the team make ethical decisions about the source footage it was selecting?

“We didn’t use close-ups,” Boyd noted, so that there weren’t “real” people being identified, “and we didn’t use archival footage where people died.”

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Hope and Wire screened on TV3 in July. Next month it screens as a special programme of the Vancouver International Film Festival. Last week Roadshow released it on DVD via The Warehouse, Paper Plus, and video stores.

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