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Gardening for tomorrow

Alister Barry and Abi King-Jones’ Hot Air takes in a quarter century’s worth of NZ political debate, action and inaction around climate change.

Barry is of the generation of what might be called “BBC documentarians”: filmmakers who make films as a service for audiences, and believe there are still audiences with attention spans longer than a soundbite and the intelligence to listen to, understand and evaluate the differing points of view.

“The taxpayers of New Zealand paid for me to be educated,” Barry said, “to become capable of making the documentaries I do.

“We’re caretakers of our culture, gardeners,” he said about his reason for making films, largely without expectation of a reasonable return.

<em>Hot Air</em>

Hot Air

King-Jones previously directed three documentaries with Errol Wright, the last of which was 2011’s Operation 8: Deep in the Forest. It screened in the NZIFF’s World Cinema Showcase, won Best Feature Documentary at Wairoa, and played international festivals including Melbourne and Hawaii.

It’s clear where on the political spectrum the Hot Air filmmakers’ sympathies lie and yet politicians from right to left have co-operated in the telling of this story. That’s no small credit to Barry, especially since his previous film was an adaptation of Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men, an exposé of the inner workings of a National Party election campaign, which also played the NZIFF.

As it happens, Hot Air arrives as politicians line up their ducks for another election campaign, reinforcing the double entendre of the film’s title. It wasn’t planned that it should arrive at this time, but a self-financed film always takes longer than initially anticipated.

Funding wasn’t forthcoming initially.

“The subject just wasn’t seen as sexy enough,” Barry reckons. “This topic, on the face of it, lacks laughs.”

Short on sex and comedy as marketing hooks, a festival run is certainly helpful to the Hot Airs of the world – and not only because a festival selection might help to trigger NZFC finishing funding.

“The festival is so important to films like this and filmmakers like me,” says Barry. “It all comes as a package, the marketing, promotion …”

In short, it creates noise: the tolling of a bell that calls the faithful. The call that will being the audiences of like minds and interests together and enable them to connect with Hot Air. Barry acknowledges the benefit of all that work being done by the festival and will, therefore, be attending as many of the screenings as possible as the film makes its way around the country.

Barry understands the power of grass-roots connections. He travelled to Mururoa in the 1970s, filming the protests against the French for what became Mururoa 1973. 15 years later, he returned to the same subject matter for Nuklia Fri Pasifik.

Hot Air

Hot Air

“It’s difficult because it’s complicated,” says former Labour Minister Pete Hodgson, describing the process of educating the public about climate change in Hot Air.

The statement is equally true of telling a story that spans 25 years. A lot of the credit for telling the story as well as Hot Air does is down to Barry’s co-director, he says.

Barry and King-Jones had worked together previously. King-Jones edited Barry’s 2007 A Civilised Society and 2008 The Hollow Men. The plan for Hot Air was the same.

“I was the director up to the point where we had a first assembly,” explained Barry. However, the further into post they went, the less that reflected the reality.

“Abi put in so much time and effort and had so much creative input during the edit I wanted to recognise that. If I’d applied my normal standards, the film wouldn’t have looked nearly as good. She polished and honed, trying out many different options of scenes and sequences.”

The absence of funders’ money meant there were no deadlines, and that absence of deadlines made for a more polished result, Barry reckoned.

The lack of money did became important towards the end of the process. Barry decided he couldn’t complete the film to sufficient standard without NZFC finishing funding, so a festival selection became a priority.

He showed the film to the NZIFF before Christmas (2013) and got a commitment to screen Hot in the NZIFF from Bill Gosden. That enabled Barry and King-Jones to apply for finishing funding ahead of the rush of projects securing NZIFF acceptances – an important strategical push since the finishing fund is now capped and competitive.

The commitment from the festival came from a cut that was 10-15 minutes longer than the 91 minute version that will screen in the NZIFF. Initially the commitment was for screenings in the six “universities cities”. As the festival has got closer Hot Air’s reach has been extended a number of times with more centres being added each times.

“We finished the sound mix three weeks ago,” Barry said. Matt Stutter, who’s worked on most things that have gone through Park Road in the last decade or so, worked through Hot Air on weekends. He’s given Hot Air a full 5.1 mix, and a lot of time has been spent on improving the sound on some of the archival footage.

One of the advantages of the move to digital, which has really come to fruition while Barry and King-Jones have been making Hot Air, is the vast amount of help available online. Barry was surprised, if pleased, to discover for download a filter to get rid of chirruping cicadas.

Barry credited Ian Johnstone not only for “helping out” with the film’s narration but also for bringing his half century of experience to bear, helping Barry and King-Jones interrogate some of their decisions about the film and how it was assembled.

Hot Air trailer

Hot Air has its world premiere screening in the NZIFF in Wellington on 31 July at the Paramount.

The film plays Auckland’s Sky City on Friday 1 and Saturday 2 August before returning to Wellington on 6 August. It then moves on to other centres.

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