Exploring the politics of climate change and why New Zealand government has yet to act accordingly.
Alister Barry and Abi King-Jones’s troubling documentary Hot Air refers not necessarily to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, but instead the rhetoric and inaction by successive governments to do anything meaningful to improve New Zealand’s climate change track record. The documentary is told via interviews of key participants—including the relevant government ministers Simon Upton, Pete Hodgson, and David Parker—along with chilling archive footage of business leaders and minor parties’ obfuscation tactics. It’s a vital work in showing the impotence of various governments and why they continue to choose extremely limited short-term “gain” for what is going to be a lot of long-term pain.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
ABI KING-JONES: Film, because it’s powerful and it involves lots of different creative disciplines. That was why I decided when I was 16 at school that I would get into film and hopefully be a filmmaker. Also it’s an effective way communicating to people and investigating an issue if it needs, and hopefully effecting some kind of change.
BG: Is the effecting change the reason why you’ve gone down the documentary route?
AKJ: Yeah, I guess. At the end of things, that is. I also really enjoy it because it means you’re involved in film production and you’re involved working everyday on something that you feel’s important, which is hugely motivating. When you don’t have many funds and it can be a long and stressful process.
BG: You’ve connected up with Vanguard Films (http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/russell-campbell-vanguard-films/), which has this great tradition of political documentary. Was there a sense of having to live up to this tradition?
AKJ: Alister was one of the original people to set up Vanguard Film and he has made films all through his career collaborating with those people. Any film we make carries on that Vanguard kaupapa.
BG: How did you end up working with Alister on this one?
AKJ: We’d already made The Hollow Men (2008) together and I’d edited his previous documentary to that, A Civilised Society (2007). So there’s no decision that had to be made when Alister called me to say, “I’ve got another one.” If I’m available—I also collaborate with my friend Errol Wright when making films—and we’ve been lucky that any film I’ve been making with Errol is in the can and I can jump over and make a film with Alister. The working relationship is great and I feel we make good work together, so there’s no real decision to make there.
BG: How did you divide up the roles between you?
AKJ: The process was pretty much the same with our other films. Alister is the producer and undertakes those roles. He has been full director in the other two and I’ve been editor. With this one, we thought I could share the co-director role as films are really made in the edit. When you’re both sitting there making decisions about content or a cut, you’re both directing the film. That’s why this time around we went for the co-directing credit.
BG: You’ve obviously created a bit of a stir with some of your past work such as Hollow Men and Operation 8 (2011). Does that give a sense of what documentary in New Zealand can do?
AKJ: Hopefully! The films, seeing the impact they’ve had, hopefully the wider total effects they’ve had have been positive. It’s great to see that. It’s always heartening because it makes you want to do the next one.
BG: Climate change is an issue that has been covered in a lot of documentaries. How did you choose the angle for this one?
AKJ: You’re right. There have been a slew of environmental and climate change-focused documentaries in recent years. A lot of them have focused on—rightly so—the scientific aspects, and the impacts on communities and the environment. An Inconvenient Truth (2006), for example. Alister has always looked at political processes and the notion of democracy and how that’s meant to work in our society. I think it’s natural for him to go, “there’s a crisis and nothing effective has been done about it,” and see why it’s the case.
BG: I think what’s effective about Hot Air is rather than dealing with the science and playing into the hands of those who believe otherwise…
AKJ: The deniers!
BG: Yeah, you focus on the impotence of governments to deal with the issue.
AKJ: We feel that story hadn’t been told either in the New Zealand context or possibly in the international context as well. We don’t know of many films that have done that. We feel it’s a new take on things and when people ask the question, “why hasn’t anything effective been done,” this will hopefully be a useful record.
BG: And it’s a global issue, it’s not just a New Zealand problem. You’ve treated New Zealand as a little microcosm of what’s happening around the world.
AKJ: I think especially relevant to other Western democracies like the U.S. or Australia where similar situations have happened. Hopefully that translates. If we get into some overseas festivals, that’d be the case we hope.
BG: Was this lack of action apparent to you when you started the project, or was it when you were digging into the project that you saw just how much collusion had happened between big business and the government.
AKJ: I think it was a surprise, even though I had been in projects before where that often is the case. That there’s big business and big money behind politicians who are meant to be working in the interests of the people. I definitely was surprised to the degree that the opposition was so well organised and strategic and well-funded and constant. Whenever there was a small step to progress climate change policy, the lobbyists were there to circumvent whatever the politician of the day was trying to get something done.
BG: It was impressive seeing how they marshalled their resources, played the media, released “reports”—why did they get so much traction?
AKJ: One of the reasons is that it is part of their role to get traction. If they’re not doing that, often these people that’s their job, they’re funded by big business and big money to achieve results. They’ll go about their job in any way they can to meet with the media and put their side out there and stymie whatever action the government is trying to undertake.
BG: It’s interesting, you had quite honest accounts from the ministers involved. Were you surprised at how forthcoming they were?
AKJ: It’s a historical film in the sense that it covers a 20 year period. Simon Upton, he’s been off in Paris working for the OECD for years and hasn’t been in New Zealand. Pete Hodgson and David Parker hadn’t been in government for a term. I think when they’re looking back retrospectively, they feel like they can speak about things that they’d be more closed about if they were still in government.
BG: Maybe a sense of trying to cover themselves.
AKJ: Possibly [laughs]. The film is an opportunity for people who were there, and were involved in these conflicts, to put their side of the story and that’s the two way situation you have when you’re interviewing people, especially politicians.
BG: Is New Zealand particularly vulnerable to nothing happening? We’ve got a three-year election cycle, plenty of small parties who can appeal such as ACT to the non-science approach, and a media which doesn’t have the ability to cover things in depth.
AKJ: I don’t know if it’s particular to New Zealand. There is that tendency to have things reduced to a sound-bite and it’s difficult to argue a complex thing like climate change if you’re not able to spend an hour having an interview or give a speech to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. We do have a MMP system which means that there are smaller parties, for better or worse, that come in and have their own agendas. For example, the ACT Party as we see in Hot Air. I also think there is that whole other thing, in New Zealand, half of our emissions come from farming and dairying, and that group of our society does hold a lot of weight. So much of our economy depends on it and that lobby has a powerful voice to the government instituting something that would be an obstacle to their profits.
BG: So you focus a good chunk of the documentary on when Labour was in power, and there was a sense that this is a chance for something to happen and it slips through. Was that the effect you were going for? The main account of the film ends in 2008.
AKJ: The story spans 20 years, and it does begin in 1988, and when Geoffrey Palmer is Prime Minister, that’s when climate policy starts to be looked at. Then a National government came in and Simon Upton took up that challenge and did his best to get that to happen and doesn’t succeed. Labour comes in and they’re in for three terms, and so it’s just down to the luck of the draw of whoever’s in power. It’s a cross-party issue. We wanted to show the effect of that. Whether you’re Simon Upton, a National Party MP, or Pete Hodgson, a Labour Party MP, when it comes to the climate, it doesn’t really matter if you’re on the left or the right. It’s something we’ll have to grapple with.
BG: Have you noticed any change in the last six years? Obviously the current government has pushed out the ETS and the agricultural component, but have you noticed a general shift in society towards acceptance of climate change and the need for something to be done?
AKJ: I think on the ground level, definitely. Lots of people, especially young people, are getting out and making their dissatisfaction being heard. I think they’ve had to since National’s been in power, the very business-friendly approach they’ve had towards prioritising things like oil exploration over environmental concerns.
BG: What’s the plan for the documentary?
AKJ: We’re doing the New Zealand International Film Festival circuit and going to the main centres. And then we’ll hopefully have a look at overseas festivals and make submissions, and hope to have a theatrical run in some independent cinemas because that’s what’s happened in the past with Alister’s films, and the usual, a broadcast premiere, possibly on Maori TV and DVDs. I guess in the broader scheme of things—it is election year—and we hope it’s a resource that people can look at and get an understanding of where the current political parties stand and how they operate, and how they might vote in accordance with that if they’re concerned about climate change.
BG: I was about to say the timing is very good. I was thinking about the infamous climate change denial column by Mike Hosking, and how he’s moderating the main debate. It doesn’t seem like the mainstream media has any interest in holding the politicians to account about it.
AKJ: No, not until it’s put on an agenda by whoever, whether it’s people protesting or a political party trying to do that, such as the Greens. I guess not until it becomes the issue of the day that the media will pick it up and have a dialogue about it, it seems to be the case.
Screening: Auckland | Wellington | Dunedin | Christchurch | Other