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A Rorschach reaction to film funding

Recent reports that the taxpayer-funded New Zealand Film Commission [NZFC] is stumping up $800,000 towards a feature documentary about former Prime Minister Dame Jacinda Ardern has predictably functioned as a political inkblot test in these intensely polarised times.

On the assumption the non-fiction film will amount to an Ardern hagiography [ie, an adulatory and idealised biography of a saint], those who are far from fans of the ex-PM have denounced the decision as a waste of taxpayer funding, with some going so far as to suggest it’s evidence of political bias on the funding body’s part [the fact it kicked in $20k for a short doco about Green Party MP Chloe Swarbrick two years ago is offered as another example.

Those who remain staunch Ardern adherents, of course, appear to feel that it’s only right and proper that their heroine – who has already had a not so short stack of biographies of varying insight written about her – receive some more of the star treatment she so obviously richly deserves.

The rather more mundane reality appears to be, however, that – the documentary makers having cleared the NZFC’s ‘market test’ hurdle of raising the bulk of its estimated $3.2 million budget from offshore sales agents who judge there’s sufficient international interest in Ardern that the film will recoup their investment – the commission’s rules actually oblige it to pony up, regardless of the topic.

In other words, it’s a purely commercial call on the NZFC’s part – and if one peruses international press outlets that display a more ‘progressive’ preference, it’s pretty clear there is indeed an overseas audience with an appetite for a film that focuses on someone they see as an exemplar of a better kind of politics, even if the coverage they base that assessment on tends to be as sophistic as the conservative counter-narratives that paint Ardern as an avatar of increasing government authoritarianism around the globe.

What does give this writer some pause about the project – working title: ‘Jacindamania’ – is its synopsis.

According to the NZFC, “It is important to note this is not a biopic. Rather, the documentary explores the rise of violent extremism and online hate in New Zealand, following Jacinda Ardern’s leadership trajectory as an example of how these forces played out through one of the most tumultuous periods in modern times.”

One can only hope that the documentary makers approach this already rather well-worn topic with a great deal more nuance than other local docos have in the past few years.

There does seem to be an unfortunate tendency for media to uncritically present the reckons of ‘online extremism experts’ – a field of study that’s in its infancy – as the unvarnished truth, as opposed to the frequently subjective interpretations of often highly political people who appear to believe that “violent extremism and online hate” only ever appears from the direction of ‘the right’.

Would it also be too much to expect the filmmakers to acknowledge that, on occasion, Ardern herself contributed to polarisation while PM – for example, the introduction of the ‘traffic light’ vaccine pass system that officials had pointed out served little public health purpose and warned would likely damage social cohesion?

Given writer-directors Pietra Brettkelly and Justin Pemberton are two of NZ’s most sophisticated and experienced documentary makers, the jury should remain out until they deliver their film.

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