Barry Barclay: a thinker for our time.
In the same year as his passing, Huia Press has published the first monograph dedicated to Aotearoa/New Zealand's most prolific Maori filmmaker, Barry Barclay. Stuart Murray takes on the daunting task of providing an overview of Barclay's creative, philosophical and political labours as an activist, writer, public intellectual and, primarily, as a filmmaker. This is no easy ambition given that Barclay's legacy, in particular his notion of a Fourth Cinema, is dedicated to elaborating a non-totalising mode of cultural production that privileges the critical and ethical dimensions of Indigenous knowledges. How then, does one approach the work of an artist and thinker such as Barclay without reducing his legacy to a unified whole?
Early on in his introduction, Murray frames his approach to Maori culture and Barclay's cultural productions by drawing on Anne Salmond and Chadwick Allen's notion of 'occasions' (p. 6). Rather than conceive of Maori culture, or Barclay's work, as a cohesive totality, the use of 'occasions' or 'episodes' provides a flexible framework for examining the multiple motivations and multiple subject positions that inform Barclay's work. As Murray notes, Barclay's oeuvre and public interventions drew from, and performed, a range of subject positions including that of an indigenous filmmaker, a political activist, and a New Zealand filmmaker at the national level as well as a resident of Tinopai (the community in which his last film The Kaipara Affair (2005) was set). As such, Murray's book demonstrates how Barclay's work can be seen as intensely invested in Indigenous politics, alongside a larger investment in the project of critical analysis and political activism on a scale that surpasses a purely Maori or national purview. Concentrating on Barclay's film and television productions, Images of Dignity uses these texts to illuminate the larger aspirations underpinning Barclay's works and his links to international Indigenous filmmaking and political activism.
While Murray's reference to 'occasions' might suggest a more challenging organisation of material, the book is structured according to three key periods in Barclay's life: his work in the 1970s, 1980s and post 1990s. Works discussed include the seminal television series Tangata Whenua (1974), and the feature films Ngati (1987), The Neglected Miracle (1985), Te Rua (1991), The Feathers of Peace (2000) and The Kaipara Affair. Before he begins a discussion of each period, Murray provides a useful overview of the key themes and issues that underscore Barclay's productions. Concepts such as guardianship, sovereignty, community and reciprocity are introduced in the first chapter ('Indigenous Self-Expression: Outlining Fourth Cinema') and become the threads that tie each subsequent chapter together. While the organization of the film and television discussions are chronological, Murray links The Kaipara Affair (as well as Barclay's last book Mana Tuturu: Maori Treasures and Intellectual Properly Rights (2005)) back to key themes in Tangata Whenua and vice-versa, so that the reader is made aware of the relay of ideas operating between earlier and later works.
Murray spends time in this initial chapter explaining the notion of Fourth Cinema, which is a mode of practice, thought, and politics that emerges from Barclay's many years as an Indigenous filmmaker working in the New Zealand film and television industry. The institutional norms of these industries (both nationally and internationally) include forms of institutional racism that privilege one mode of storytelling over another, and these norms are the sites of combat for Barclay. The industrial appetite for new kinds of images and novel forms of storytelling has a long and fraught history for those peoples framed as marginal to majority culture. This fraught context includes persistent repetitions of 'spectacles of Indigenous presence' that empty out the lived context and complex realities of Indigenous peoples. In his conclusion, Murray cites the Mel Gibson directed Apocalypto (2006) as one such recent example. This is an environment where entrenched funding regimes, economic imperatives, distribution deals and audience expectations work to deaden and commodify the living knowledges, practices and labour of Indigenous producers. These are the various coalfaces that Barclay set himself the task of working against, and as Murray so cogently outlines, Fourth Cinema is the method (one could say, the provocation) that offers up a potential antidote for Indigenous cultural producers worldwide.
An umbrella term referring to the multiple forms of Indigenous cinemas that operate at local, national and international levels, Fourth Cinema is primarily guided by the desire to provide the conditions for the expression of Indigenous voices and ways of seeing. As Murray explains it, Barclay's mode of practice insists upon the importance of linking cultural production to the community from which it emerges. For example, where State-funded industry workshops teach prospective filmmakers how to 'pitch' a film or write a film script with a conventional three act narrative structure determined by international industry norms, Barclay's media practices assert the importance of telling stories that respect and maintain an organic link with the people and their histories. In Chapter Two ('Tangata Whenua and Documentary') Murray demonstrates this mode of practice in his discussion of the conditions surrounding the production of Tangata Whenua, the first-ever television series to provide a viewpoint from te ao Maori. The production of this series involved extensive consultation with the communities depicted as well as a reworking of conventional documentary techniques. Innovations included reducing the voice-over convention, replacing close-up shots with fixed camera shots from a distance, as well as the privileging of talk. This emphasis on providing the conditions for speech and expression highlights one of the key principles of Barclay's film-making practice: the idea that film-making is a form of hui that gathers people together to discuss matters of import. Murray suggests that while Barclay dedicated himself to enabling people and communities to speak for themselves, this practice was always 'filtered through an animating intelligence' that links the material to a wider argument that involves an ongoing commitment to 'an idea of social justice and equality' (p. 48).
Murray continues to unfold this wider argument in Chapter Three ('Communities and Reciprocity: Ngati and The Neglected Miracle) where he conducts an illuminating discussion of Barclay's first fiction feature film Ngati (1987). Noting that the critical reception at the time of Ngati's release emphasised its 'quiet dignity', Murray argues that this highly subtle film can be easily misread. While it is a period film set in the 1940s which ostensibly offers a nostalgic re-enactment of rural Maori life, the film can also be read as a critique of the neo-liberal economic reforms of the 1980s. As such, Murray identifies a form of 'ventriloquism' in Ngali where 'arguments rooted in Maoritanga are placed within more conventional storytelling techniques but are readily available to those who know how to read them' (p. 59). In this discussion Murray holds true to Barclay's demand that one must understand the processes surrounding Indigenous cultural representations--not only their conditions of production, but also the critical readings made possible by these productions--on their own terms. As Barclay himself argues:
[I]f we as Maori look closely enough and through the right pair of spectacles, we will find examples at every turn of how old principles have been reworked to give vitality and richness to the way we conceive, develop, manufacture and present our films (p. 18).
While Ngati is open to a range of readings, Murray's discussion provides 'the right pair of spectacles' to understand the radical political potential of the film. As Murray notes, this is the film that also marked Barclay as a potential national spokesman for Maori, a potentially 'comfortable' position that Barclay refused to take up. In Chapter Four, Murray goes on to outline the continuingly confrontational nature of Barclay's filmmaking practices in the later period of his career.
Murray's careful historicisation and contextualisation of each selected film continues in Chapter Four ('The Politics of Engagement: Te Rua, The Feathers of Peace and The Kaipara Affair'). Barclay's refusal to simply critique majority culture but also to investigate the 'increasingly corporate ethic of much iwi organization' (p. 75) as well as 'warrior' (p. 79) stereotypes within Maori culture speaks to his uncompromising vision of social justice. Murray's discussion of Barclay's last three feature films focuses on issues of law and governance (issues also comprehensively discussed in Mana Tuturu). In his examination of The Kaipara Affair Murray demonstrates how Barclay's activist cinema posits a form of contemporary bicultural community conditioned by Indigenous principles. The film documents the struggle of a small community to care for its local fishing grounds and Barclay uses this particular dispute to illuminate wider issues of governance and self-determination. Murray notes how The Kaipara Affair, perhaps the most radical and affirmative film in Barclay's oeuvre, also generated a dispute of its own when it was re-edited for screening by Television New Zealand. Film festival versions of the work ran at 133 minutes where the television version ran at 70 minutes, an edit that undermined Barclay's aesthetic and political vision. According to Barclay, the new edit resulted in a conventional issues-driven documentary, where people were reduced to 'spokesmen' rather than active members of a community. In his first book Our Own Image Barclay argued that '[a]s a Maori technician, the film-maker is faced with the challenge of how to respect [the] age-old process of discussion and decision-making while using the technology within a climate which so often demands precision and answers'. (1) Barclay argued that the re-edited version of The Kaipara Affair transformed irreducibly complex issues into palatable media moments for the consumption of a majority audience. Discussing the debates surrounding Barclay's final film, Images of Dignity demonstrates how Barclay faced an ongoing struggle to attain and ensure ethical guardianship over the representations of the communities he was involved in.
Framing Barclay's labours in terms of attempts to produce 'images of dignity' that nonetheless have a deeply activist dimension, Murray's book provides a valuable toolbox for understanding Barclay's legacy. National and international scholarship will benefit from such an insightful and carefully nuanced publication. As such, this book will travel well, and it is this fact that raises interesting questions about the legacy of critique that Barclay offers us. There is no question that Murray has produced this book while remaining in close contact with Barclay. Foomotes signal the fact that both author and filmmaker were in dialogue as Murray developed the text. This kind of intellectual collaboration is in keeping with Barclay's investment in a politics of engagement that investigates shared predicaments across cultural lines. The pre-eminent Indigenous press, Huia, recently responsible for Terror in our Midst?: Searching for Terror in Aotearoa New Zealand (2008), have published this book. Yet in some ways Images of Dignity remains quite a conventional approach to a complex and challenging artist and intellectual. Using Barclay's terminology, one could say that Murray has 'talked out' to an audience interested in what an Indigenous person might have to say. While this process helps to disseminate Barclay's work, it is also the complex dynamic that Barclay dedicated his life to examining. This is why I stated from the outset that Smart Murray takes on a daunting task. A coherent overview of Barclay's body of work is perhaps the first step in acknowledging his contribution nationally and internationally, yet Barclay's legacy of provocation, debate and discussion is also a powerful source of ideas for unpacking the complex cultural politics facing New Zealand today. Barclay was not simply a filmmaker and writer: he remains one of New Zealand's few philosophers. Barclay was a thinker for our times, and against our times. His focus on concepts of guardianship, sovereignty, community and reciprocity provide us with an ethical framework for considering other forms of Indigenous media such as television, new media practices and journalism. While Images of Dignity explains Barclay's work to a national and international audience, we also need more challenging books that take on, and work with, the ideas and concepts that Barclay has gifted to us.
(1) Barry Barclay, Our Own Image (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1990), p. 9.
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|Title Annotation:||Images of Dignity: Barry Barclay and Fourth Cinema|
|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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